“Close Friends” Who You Don’t Talk To Often


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.

Agree? Disagree?


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.

16 comments on ““Close Friends” Who You Don’t Talk To Often
  • Nice post. I think that one key upside that you are missing is the sense of belonging to a community. This is huge for humans — e.g., one of the strongest predictors of suicide is a lack of belongingness. For people who already do belong to local communities who have people with shared values and experiences, old friends can serve as an additional belongingness buffer, but don’t matter as much. But for people in worse emotional states and people who interact with fewer people who they trust on the day-to-day (perhaps their romantic relationship is rocky and they are in a particular cutthroat and competitive career?), just the knowledge of the old friendship/friendship groups existing can be critical.

  • There may be some value to knowing that you can reactivate a relationship at any time; while the actual time you have available to spend with friends is fixed, potential is not nearly so limited.

    I also think that it’s harder when your friends have families; I feel bad about calling people up randomly because they are so busy most of the time. This is foolish, since I always love hearing from old friends myself.

  • Interesting thoughts. I am a little surprised that you did not mention Facebook in this context – it creates a sense of connectedness with “close friends” who would otherwise be difficult to interact with regularly because of distance, schedule, etc.

    One thing I would mention is that those old, close friends serve as models in the present for what friendship can be. Often I have found myself in relationships that seem like they are “sub-par.” Part of the reason I am able to evaluate it is that I have good examples. And when it is difficult to find in the present, it serves as encouragement that it is available. Perhaps a small thing, but definitely supportive in the present.

  • Disagree … with some caveats. Life is not merely day to day. Certainly, the course of one’s life very much involves the day to day or “one day at a time,” but life is also made up a vast number of days past, experiences, moments, weeks, years, even, the accumulation of which form the person – and personality – that you may be interacting with and asking, “What do you do on a day to day basis?” My closest friends are those who I perhaps speak with a few times a year, perhaps see – if I am lucky enough – once or twice a year, and certainly exchange emails and texts with or interact with on Facebook quite a bit. But they are my closest friends because during the period of time that for me was most formative, they were with me almost every day, and I for them. Without that time or experiences, I would almost certainly be a much different person, perhaps on a much different life trajectory personally and professionally. One cannot share that depth of friendship – and revisit it in some form or another with them over the years – and not consider the relationship “close” if the relationship is maintained albeit in a less intense manner.

    • Ed, thanks for the comment, and I definitely agree that for the people who were with with you during a formative period of life you will maintain a permanent bond. And I also agree that we are, as people, the sum of a range of experiences over a long period of time, not merely what we think/feel/act in the present moment.

      Perhaps the issue is how we define the word “close.” Many people think their closest friends provide them the most emotional sustenance on a day to day basis. If that’s the case, there needs to be a relationship, in my opinion, in the here and now. (Unless you derive present-moment happiness from just thinking about those far-flung friends.) Otherwise, if “close” just means the people who, overall, we’ve had the most formative experiences with or historical bonds with, but not necessarily the people with whom you share day to day life with today, tomorrow, and next week, then we need a different word to refer to the latter group. And my argument is that this latter group is the group that’s critical for the emotional boost we expect from friendship — a boost that manifests in the present moment or not at all.

      • I like this idea. I think most of us can get along with and interact favorably with a lot of people in our day-to-day lives, no matter where we are. But there is something about those close friends who you’ve shared many memories with, and who can prop you up when need be. Just knowing you’ve got a few people “in your corner” can do wonders for your mental well being and help you rise to the occasion, even if you’re not seeing that person constantly.

        Of that list you had, I think “support” definitely is there with friendships like that, even if the “truth telling” and “laughter” might not be.

        Another thing is that you can almost anticipate how that person might respond in a situation, so their perspective and voice becomes “part of you”… although it’s important to replenish it with new experiences since both of you are growing and maturing.

        A third thought is that in the age of social networking, it doesn’t take tremendous amounts of face time to maintain a close interaction. Kind of like that “ping your network every few months” principle – it doesn’t take much – perhaps just liking a status update or sending some texts, emails, etc. to maintain that sense of trust and awareness.

        Fourth thought… perhaps there’s some sort of “monitoring” (“Looks like Mike is moving well toward that goal.”) and there isn’t a need for constant interaction, but as soon as job changes, new relationships, expecting children, or a personal struggle come up, the person can revamp that relationship and the two of you can be right back where you were. Much like how your driver’s license is automatically renewed at some point, and how a doc will just refill the medication(s) you’ve been on after you’ve reached a “stable state”, I think there’s a certain level in a friendship where things are steady, stable, and you can count on that friendship and include it in your inventory of “good things that help prop me up during the low moments” even if there isn’t regular in-person interaction.

        Now the next thing to ponder…how often must people interact for that level of trust and companionship to be “passively” maintained?

  • I tend to agree with Ed McFadden and will add that in my view there is no prescription to close friendships, particularly as it relates to the amount of “emotional sustenance” required to fit into this category.

    “Close” friends come together over time, and form a bond that is saved and nurtured, using personal or culturally accepted formulas of interaction. This bond is created out of “something” and you know is there until proven differently. Depending whether you come from western or eastern cultures (even regional within continents), you will use what you are taught by your surroundings and exposure to these cultures. I’ve been lucky to experience this first hand around the world.

    For friendship to be of value to us mortals, and mean something, it does not even have to be reciprocal to the extent of having to measure based on a degree of closeness. I am pretty sure that there are folks I call “close” friends and I dearly love, that perhaps don’t have me on the same scale, and that’s ok with me. The inverse is also true too.

    I think the importance of having friends beyond what we all know it to be, is in part the network effect and the quality of the individuals, whatever the latter means to you personally. Your level 1 orbit friends (to be scientific) are the “closest” in a particular period of your life and level 2 and down are “supporting” friends that could switch places over time. And, what you call a friend, close or not, will be based on your personal value system. As we know, value systems change over time so its likely that friends will move down or up the network. There is nothing wrong with these changes either.

    Ultimately you will know who to seek for help and who to seek to share a happy moment. You will also know who to assist when in need and when to share their happy moment. All this based on who you feel closest at that time in your life.

    My friend Tony has been a friend since 9th grade and for the past 30 years he has been on my level 1 orbit, although I don’t see him more than once per year if at all. Ralph who I have know almost the same amount of time, used to be on my level 1 orbit and now is on my level 2. Why? Because he became more religious and I became less. Our value systems changed and that’s something you can’t fight if you want to maintain the friendship, which I do. On the other hand, I know that Ralph can be in the level 1 orbit any time. He also knows that.

    I know is a long winded comment! Cheers and have a beer with a “close” friend.

  • I believe that for something to be a value, one must *actively* act to gain and or keep it. In fact that’s that’s the meaning of “value”: it is what an organism acts to gain and/or keep in order to sustain its life. (This is Ayn Rand’s a profound identification of the biological origin, and objectivity, of the concept “value,” and expounded upon in Binswanger’s “The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts.”)

    The implication here is that to value a particular friendship requires active effort. Otherwise, the friend is no longer a value. (He or she may still be a potential value–you do appreciate them–but that’s true with many, many things in life.)

    I recommend taking an inventory of your friends and figuring out if you allocate sufficient attention in accordance to how important they are. Let old friends go–or exert regularly effort to maintain them.

    I had let some old friends go, unintentionally, and I decided not to let that happen anymore. Now we connect regularly, and they have become, once again, a very important part of my life. Whereas I found I was emotionally hanging on to other old friends, and as much as I might truly enjoy their friendship if it were more convenient, the facts have made it too difficult and not worth it to me (or to them).

    Enjoy the occasional walks down memory lane with an old friend, but–I agree with you–that’s not the same as true friendship.

    My meta-advice is to have fewer values and be very committed to them. We have finite time and resources in life.

    • Nice comments. I agree that walking down memory lane can be very fun and even meaningful in the moment. But it’s not the level of true friendship.

      Your meta point is intriguing. I tend to agree with the “fewer” point. How committed to be to them is a bit more complicated I think — people change, the world changes, we change.

  • Hey Ben, I agree with your temporary list point. In fact, I’ve been taking my life in the same scenario. I’ve been lucky to have hundreds of friends with whom I’ve shared a part of my life and they all have happened to help me in one way or another. In short, we should take this relationship thing lightly as people are different from each other. And, rather than relying on our friends, we should become a master of our own, finding solutions to our problems and then dealing with the consequences on our own. 🙂

  • 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.

  • In reading this, the only thing that kept coming to mind was “who cares?” The fact that the relationship can pick up as if no time has passed is meaningful, and to demarcate the nature and extent of that meaning into emotional sustenance vs lack thereof is valueless.

    It’s better when long-distance not to update each other on minutiae on a regular basis. It can wait. I know it’s hard to understand in an age of social networking, but “catching up” information is fluff. That’s not what you’re there for. Next time you see that person, they can fill you in on the highlights and–more important==where their thought processes and belief structures are in the present. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been.

    Think of it like rich people food. Maybe you can’t afford to eat it all the time. But at all times, you’ll sure remember the last time you ate it. And there was just as much sustenance as any other meal.

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