2 AM Friends

“I haven’t talked to Joe in years, but I know that if I were stranded and called him, he’d drop everything and come pick me up.”

I hear that a lot. It’s great to have friends who will bail you out of a tough situation, who’ll always answer your call at 2 AM, who will fly around the world to help you in an emergency. Even if you haven’t spoken to them in a long, long time.

These “2 AM friends,” as I refer to them, tend to be old childhood buddies, old roommates, or family friends who, for whatever reason, you no longer talk to or see often. There’s nevertheless real closeness and unbreakable trust. They play a similar role as family. I have a couple 2 AM friends.

But 2 AM friends, for all the joy and help they provide in times of need, do not nourish or invigorate my day to day life, almost by definition, as I’m not talking to them on a week to week or month to month basis. Sure, there’s some abstract sense of meaning I get from reflecting on my relationship with them, but it’s just that — abstract. And, sadly, that feeling weakens with every passing day.

I’m a big believer in staying in touch with people (via email, phone, in-person visits) to keep up relationships. I’ve always been mildly skeptical of the phrase “we pick up right where we left off.” If months and months of time have passed without any real communication, and if you or the friend are living reasonably dynamic lives, it’s going to take awhile to re-sync emotionally and intellectually. Even if there’s a lot of shared history in the past.

It takes a heck of a lot of time and energy to keep up with friends, of course. Time and money beyond just ‘liking’ social media updates. Joys and frustrations. All to be done in a culture where there are no broadly accepted social norms about how to “do” friendship. In the world of romance, there are a million and a half articles and guideposts for how to date, how long to wait before you call, what you should expect two years into a relationship, and so on. In the friendship maintenance department, there’s basically nothing. As Andrew Sullivan put it, it takes no work to fall in love. It takes real work to rise to a real and lasting friendship.

Some people’s lot in life is so unlucky that they haven’t been able to keep up with anyone — they have no one to list as an emergency contact number on a medical form.

Other people are fortunate enough to have that 2 AM friend to list, but then few other people with whom they share their day to day, week to week, month to month journey. If the emergency contact person isn’t the same as the day to day friend, and frequently they’re not, then this is the scenario I’m interested in: how can we appreciate the unique joys of a friend who’s part of our lives as our lives unfold? How can we work to strengthen those bonds and not fall back on solely the 2 AM friends?

In Empire Falls, there’s this line by Richard Russo which has stuck with me: “One of the odd things about middle age was the strange decisions a man discovers he’s made by not really making them, like allowing friends to drift away through simple neglect.”

10 comments on “2 AM Friends
  • Maybe it’s simply in expecting less from others and instead, giving a bit more of ourselves to them. I think this can bring a lot of joy. I found your skepticism about “picking up right where we left off” interesting. I’m lucky to have a lot of very close friends all over the world. Despite this, I don’t feel that it takes a while to ‘re-sync’ with them. I think this is because I’m less interested in finding connection as much as I am genuinely curious about them and their state of mind. Perhaps curiosity in the other over a desire to remain ‘connected’ builds a stronger connection anyway.

  • I think that both people need to be willing and eager to form “2 am” friendships. Not everyone is. Many people are just busy with their day-to-day tasks and their family and they are not looking for closer bonds.

  • Relationships require the investment of time, every kind of relationship.

    I interviewed last year with a friend who was a partner in a VC firm. Though I didn’t get the job, I appreciated his gut check on whether or not he would hire someone or join a team with someone. He asked himself, “in an emergency, would I leave my toddler son with this person for 1 week? Would I feel confident that he’d be okay?”

    There is little that is more rewarding in this world than time spent with kind people we trust and respect. Most of the quality of our lives hinges on who we do things with (and why), not what or where.

  • As a side note Ben, Charlie Rose was thinking about writing a book about Friendship. I hope he does because I think that he understands this topic very well. Even his less acquainted interviewees talk to him as if he were their friend.

    I would love to ask him “Who is the most interesting person you have spoken to?”

  • There is certainly a half-life to friendship, but the greater the peak strength of the bond, the longer it takes to decay.

    A casual acquaintance might as well be a stranger after a year’s absence.

    A special friendship can survive a year of neglect.

    That being said, we vote with our calendars. The people we spend our time with are the people we consider important, regardless of our words.

    If your calendar doesn’t reflect your stated priorities, it’s time to re-examine how you’re spending your life.

  • I kind of agree – but with the unexpected geographic distance between my friends which has sprung up over the course of our twenties, lots more people than planned have become those 2am friends. We regularly comment on it – and with some of the people I consider close friends, we have epic Skype catch ups once a year or so, and try and meet up once a year or so.

    I think it’s perfectly possible to have people who impact on your life who you don’t see or speak to very often, provided you’re both aware of and happy with the arrangement.

  • I think that the last statement is very true, in that your day to day life allows for the cultivation and maintenance of friendships that are so easily and readily available that they are almost self-sufficient, leading us to perhaps knock back our core, or potentially more important friendships, in the face of day to day life. In my experience of having quite a few friends around the world(the result of moving around during my childhood) your everyday friends become your reality, and although you may feel as though you can rely on other friends that you have built up over the years, sometimes more, they aren’t necessarily right there with you, so it becomes difficult to keep them in the loop to the same degree.

    In many ways, friendship is mainly in the mind, and if it is present in the minds of two people at the same time it may exist; hence why so many people have been friends for years without truly seeing or connecting with each other, whereas other friendships have crumbled in a matter of days due to one person getting insecure or needing more attention than a person who is no longer there can provide.

    There are some people that I haven’t spoken to in years, and although we lead completely different lives and don’t necessarily re-connect on word go, I know that they share the same values and will never truly be lost to me. Part of the reason why it’s sometimes easier to call these people up instead of calling our day to day friends is because friendship groups and circles, especially ones where everyone knows each other, bring a very public element to your friendship. This makes you and the other person involved more likely to evaluate or criticise someone’s behaviour, rather than focusing on the extent and breadth of the friendship, as is primarily the case with friends that we see less often, but have known for longer.

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