Nine years ago, I moved away from my hometown of San Diego, leaving behind my three best friends as I started a new life and career in Florida.
I left with the notion that we’d maintain our friendship by virtue of the invisible power of brotherhood, and for several years that worked. Then I got married. My friends had kids. My wife and I moved to Europe and we had a kid. The texts and phone calls and Skype sessions started to dwindle, and I felt that bond between myself and my best friends start to deteriorate.
Figuring out how to navigate this weird place is tricky, but it’s important to wrestle with it for the sake of your own social growth and development. You’ll find that there are hard truths you have to accept – you’ll change, they’ll change – but dealing with those truths in a straightforward way will strengthen your existing friendships and help you build new ones.
Change Isn't a Bad Thing
Life doesn’t play out like pithy yearbook admonitions: “Never change.” The fires of our professional life, marriages, fatherhood, and all kinds of other roles temper us into someone who is the same person at our core, but whose views and tastes and philosophies have changed.
When it comes to our friends, though, we tend to think that no amount of time or distance will change the inside jokes, the favorite movies, the conversation topics, and the other artifacts of what life was like before we left.
I’ll admit that some of those things don’t change because those jokes, movies, and topics are the intersection of interests that brought us and our friends together in the first place. Know, however, that you will change and your friends will change. Your views on life will transform.
The most difficult change will happen between the friends you leave behind. They'll bond and grow together in your absence. It's normal, but those changes will hurt. You’ll feel like you lost something, like you missed out on an unfolding narrative you should’ve been around for. But that’s okay – it's the new territory that you have to embrace.
To reject the change or ignore it is to build a reality where everyone in your group of friends is frozen at the point when you all lived in the same place and saw each other every week. That's not realistic. Make peace with the situation and you’ll grant yourself the ability to accept and enjoy it.
For about nine years now, my friends and I have seen each other at least once a year. In my own experience, a once-a-year clip is a healthy pace if you have a family.
The standard schedule is to rotate who does the traveling – you go to them, they come to you. I find it easiest to plan trips around two things: holidays or once-a-year events. July 4th, President’s Day, Labor and Memorial Day are solid choices for extended weekend visits. Events are more organic and nuanced to your friendships: Burning Man, MLB Opening Day, Coachella, and the like.
Keep in mind that, as much as you like going back to see the bros, you still have your own life back home – a new place that you chose. If you visit your friends too much, you might develop an unhealthy attachment to a life and place that is no longer yours. I’ve felt this struggle several times. And yes, you might now live thousands of miles away, but that new place is where you're building an evolution of your life, where you're thriving and growing. So while it might seem like a good idea to plan visits as often as possible, it's better to protect your own life and development with once- or twice-a-year trips.
The Past is the Past
When you move away from your best friends, all of you lose something: the satisfaction of maturing side-by-side as you grow in your careers, meet partners, get married and, possibly, have kids. You can't get that back; it's the cost of moving away. And you may find that, when you visit your friends or vice versa, you’ll feel pressure to bend time and cram all the lost years into the four or five days you see each other.
I can tell you from experience this doesn’t work; it’s unrealistic and it can ruin the value of the present because you’re spending your time focused on the past. The strength of your friendships isn't what’s written in your communal history; it's how well you adjust to and embrace what is happening now, in the moment, when you’re sitting across from each other and enjoying the time you do have together.
Visit the old bars and restaurants, that’s fine. But don’t live only in the old memories. Add to them with what’s unfolding now.
Making New Friends
For me, this has been the most difficult part of adjusting to the separation between me and my best friends. I think each one of us wants to have that small clan of guys on whom we can rely, and when we find it, we feel like we’ve arrived at a pinnacle meant to be reached only once. It’s like whatever devices men are supposed to use to create friends are jettisoned once you make your best ones, kind of like how booster rockets are chucked from a space shuttle once it reaches the right altitude and speed. So when we move away, the thought of making new "best friends" is irrelevant because we already have them.
While I think this philosophy has merit, it shouldn’t impede you from building new relationships. Find new friends through sharing common interests, whether it’s booze, books, politics, sports, shows, working out, or what have you. And as you do it, remember that you aren’t replacing your most meaningful friendships, but preserving and supplementing them by pursuing your own social and personal growth.
I mentioned earlier it’s been nine years since I had the luxury of living in San Diego with my friends. That separation has forced me to walk through each of the truths I’ve mentioned here. The process is slow and, I’ll admit, I had a hard time embracing the changes.
Whenever I’d fly to San Diego, I wanted to use a two- or three-day weekend to make up for two or three years of separation. It never worked. As I saw my friends change, I personified our differences in tastes and philosophies; little separations became disorienting chasms.
But over time, I’ve learned that what we’ve got with our best friends is like a good tobacco blend. You may not get the chance to savor it often, but, when you do, you can revel in it and the slow passing of time. Don’t rush it. Enjoy the gradual unfolding of new ideas, transforming tastes and seasoned camaraderie you love.