How much emotional sustenance do you get from friends you don’t talk to very often?
Suppose the following. You go to college with someone and become very close to the person. After graduation, you each head on your own path — different careers, different cities. You stay in touch, seeing each other 2-3 times a year in the years after graduation at weddings and reunions. As time goes on, wedding and bachelor party phase over, 2-3 times year becomes more like once every year or two. By your 40’s, you each have families, obligations, new work friends, and general life busyness. You’re seeing each other when you can but it’s rarely more than once a year and sometimes a few years slip in between meaningful calls or visits.
When you do see each other, it’s fantastic. You pick up where you last left off. You build upon all the memories you’ve formed over many years and even decades. And you both know that, if there were ever an emergency, you could call the other person and they’d be there for you.
My question is this: With this hypothetical friend, how much emotional energy is this person adding to your life in the present moment?
Some people I know respond: Plenty. They may not see such-and-such a friend very often, or talk to him often, they say, but “he’s a very close friend.”
They note that they have a deep reservoir of memories and emotional energy that’s built up over time. Yes, I respond, but does that emotional reservoir produce emotional energy here and now? What activates it? Just thinking about your friend? I have friends I’ve known for 10+ years and when I think about the good ole days, there are warm feelings. But it’s nothing compared to the warm feelings of spending meaningful time with a friend in the here and now.
They note that when they do see their age-old friend, it’s like just like old times: the trust that’s been built up enables immediate intimacy. Yes, I say, but if you’re rarely seeing or talking to the person, that intimacy rarely is actually activated.
They note that in an emergency, the friend would be there for them. Yes, that’s amazing. But the worst-case scenario — while useful — is not often our day to day experience. Knowing there’s someone who will come help you if you’re suicidal doesn’t help combat loneliness during most of your days.
And I suppose this is my main point: Life is the day-to-day experience, moment to moment. For example, when I ask people about their profession, I try to ask them what they do “on a day to day basis.” Job descriptions can sound fancy and people have their personal brand talking points. But it’s how they spend their time that reveals what the job really is. Your calendar doesn’t lie.
I believe that if you’re not talking to someone on a somewhat regular basis — seeing them in person, talking on the phone, or emailing/digitally communicating in some other way that involves substantive give-and-take — that person is not a close friend who’s providing emotional sustenance. Sure, they’re on your friend list, maybe even they’re still classified as a “close friend” given the historical relationship, you care about the person, and you’ll be there for that person in a time of need.
But you can’t trick yourself into thinking that the person you haven’t talked to in a year is giving you what we tend to want out of close friends in our day to day life: support, companionship, truth-telling, laughter, collaboration, a sympathetic ear. Tricking yourself in this way can assuage feelings of guilt that you aren’t spending enough time with the people you say you care about. But it doesn’t address the underlying issue of forming friendships that are very much alive during the trials and tribulations of day to day life.
A final point. Your list of “close friends providing emotional sustenance” can change over time. Mine has. People can drop off it at times and come back on. People go through phases. Relationships evolve. People move away and come back. I don’t see the list as permanent. And there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that someone used to be a great friend, the relationship hasn’t been as active in recent years, and there’s intent to try to re-kindle it — or not. But seeing reality clearly — in the present moment — is an important prerequisite for something as emotionally and spiritually important as friendship.
I’ve written a lot about friendship over the years. Here’s a link to some of those posts from the archives.
Update: Good comments from Andy McKenzie and Chris Yeh on this post. For folks who are especially down and out, the belief — even if it’s not entirely true — that they are part of some broader social network, or that they have friends who they think they could hang out with if they decided to, can be a valuable emotional balm. The especially lonely might require a different analysis, in other words.