Give up on long distance friendships?
January 29, 2014 10:48 AM   Subscribe

I moved cross country 4 years ago. It's hard to stay in touch with my friends from back there, and I know people move on and away from friends at times. But I'm thinking I should stop trying to keep a connection with them after an email I sent asking for encouragement was ignored.

I tried to reach out to 2 of my old friends recently. I've been planning to go back to visit but I'm thinking maybe I value these friendships more than my "friends" do. I've been depressed and suicidal for a while and asked these 2 for some encouragement. I also expressed how much I value their friendship and miss them. I asked what was going on in their lives, how they were, etc.

And I got zero response. Nothing.

A couple of months ago, I was planning a visit which didn't work out at the time due to money. I texted one of these friends to say I couldn't make it at the time, but would try to swing a trip when I got some extra money in a few months. Her only response was, "Aw." Haven't heard from her since.

I guess I was looking forward to the trip a lot more than she was. I feel like these friends are more important to me than I am to them. I don't have any friends where I live now so maybe I am clinging to the past instead of forging new friendships with people who act like they give a shit about me.

Am I being too dramatic? I just can't imagine ignoring an email from a friend saying they've been depressed and need some encouragement.
posted by dollyllama to Human Relations (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Four years is a really long time to sustain long-distance friendships, especially if you don't have anything tying you to the area or concrete plans to move back.

I've seen friends move away, lose touch, and then eventually move back and drop back into our social circle as if nothing had happened. But if someone leaves permanently it's really difficult to sustain the relationship. Life goes on. Things happen to people. Events occur that you were not around for.

I did a similar move a year ago, and while I'm still in touch with old friends from my previous city, and some people have come to visit me, and I went back for a wedding a few months ago, without specific reasons to see each other, I assume that at some point our relationship will dwindle to the point that other "grown apart" friendships have.

I can imagine this being a lot more difficult if we're talking about friends you've had since childhood, in your home city, and you've never had to leave one social circle to find a new one before. (In my case, while these are my college friends and we share an important bond, I already had similar experiences growing apart from high school friends, childhood friends, etc.)
posted by Sara C. at 10:55 AM on January 29, 2014

Best answer: I don't think it's being dramatic, I think it's being realistic. I have a hard time keeping up with people who live across town, and am much closer with people who live in my neighborhood. Even dear friends who live on the other coast get an email or two a year.

Find new local friends. Don't burn your bridges, but don't count those long-lost friends among your support network.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:55 AM on January 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

How long had it been since you had been in touch with them before you sent the e-mails? If it had been a long time, like more than two years, I can imagine myself ignoring a similar e-mail. It's not that I would be wishing my old friend poorly, it's more like I would be confused about why they were reaching out to me after such a long time, and in such a desperate state. I'd worry that any effort to email a few kind thoughts wouldn't be enough; that my old friend's need would overwhelm my ability to be supportive. And yes, I probably would find an out-of-the-blue e-mail with details about depression and suicidal feelings a little dramatic; I wouldn't really even know how to respond to something like that from someone I haven't seen in years. There wouldn't be malice or hate; I would just be confused about what exactly I was supposed to do and would settle on doing nothing at all.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:00 AM on January 29, 2014 [13 favorites]

I've learnt that a huge basis of a strong, solid friendship is proximity.
There are exceptions to this of course, but for the most part it IS hard to retain that closeness after 4 years of living far away.
You're not being dramatic - it's OK to feel sad about this - but you haven't done anything wrong, and nor have your friends - it's just life really!
posted by JenThePro at 11:01 AM on January 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Hi, yeah, we were emailing about a potential trip and I said I was really looking forward to it because I'd been depressed. My friend mentioned he understood depression, so I felt safe opening up.

I've emailed/called these 2 particular friends several times a year, so it's not like my communications were out of the blue.
posted by dollyllama at 11:03 AM on January 29, 2014

I've emailed/called these 2 particular friends several times a year, so it's not like my communications were out of the blue.

Honestly, if someone I communicated with only "several times a year" reached out about something very serious like depression and suicidal thoughts, I would be confused about the best way for me to respond, similar to ThePinkSuperhero's comment. There are friends that I adore and speak to infrequently like this, but they aren't my support system - my support system is made up of those folks I communicate with often (best measured in times per week, not per year).

Nthing the advice that no one here is wrong, these things just happen, sadly.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 11:14 AM on January 29, 2014 [11 favorites]

Sorry, that sounds tough. If you're feeling suicidal, you should definitely turn to local (and professional) support. As far as your long-distance friends go, I'd echo what others have said about how hard it is to stay in touch over time. Also, personally, I know that I get overwhelmed with emails, and when I get something that seems to require more thought before responding, it can (unfortunately, and with guilt) slip to the bottom of the pile, and in the worst case, I might eventually avoid answering because I feel so bad about not taking care of it earlier. That's just me, but I could imagine something similar happening to someone else. That is to say, just because they didn't respond doesn't mean they don't care.
posted by three_red_balloons at 11:16 AM on January 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

Just a thought. Email is great for those type of things where a 30-second one sentence response does the trick.

But the emails in my inbox that are often delayed for days/weeks or never responded to, are those involving some complex situation that really takes some time & thought to respond, even if the response itself is brief, or those requiring a long response, either in time or words

Point is, email response does not correlate well with "I care about this". Lots of of times the fact that I care about it a lot means that I want to write the long, complicated, and detailed response, and that is exactly the type of email that just never does get written.

So think about that possibility. If one of my old friends wrote the way you did, it might fall into that category in my inbox. I can quickly write even a long response about an issue I don't really care that much about but happen to know a lot about. But if it gets into touchy or emotional issues at all, there is the type of email response that just never does get written, because navigating all the issues to get just the right response down takes a lot of time and emotional energy even if the result is not all that long.

And if that is the problem, the way out is to just give them a call and chat when you need reassurance or whatever. Maybe email is not the best venue for that type of conversation.
posted by flug at 11:18 AM on January 29, 2014 [26 favorites]

People have other things to do. It's a lot easier to be involved with the people I see every day or weekly than it is to keep up with people who live far away who I haven't seen in years. If I get an email from someone like that, I may very well want to respond, but if I don't do it *immediately*, because I might be in the middle of something else when the email arrives, I very well might forget. I have a girlfriend and a daughter and work and friends and family and social things to do all locally, so honestly, responding to an email from someone who used to be a big part of my life years ago doesn't necessarily come in as the highest priority. This would be doubly true if someone came to me, over email, after months or years of no contact, essentially asking me for help. I don't know how to help you. I don't live near you. I have my own life to take care of. If you're trying to tell me you're going to be in town and you'd like to get lunch? Great, let's meet! If you're trying to get me to help you with your depression, sorry, that's not the relationship we have from across the country and years apart.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:19 AM on January 29, 2014

A lot of the answers in this thread also apply to your situation - there isn't much difference between friends who move away and friends who head out on different paths.
posted by jardinier at 11:21 AM on January 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Friendships that last include 'giving.'
Friends that 'take' often do not survive.
Introspection may be needed.
posted by Kruger5 at 11:26 AM on January 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've learnt that a huge basis of a strong, solid friendship is proximity

I don't think this need be true in today's world, but I've learned it's certainly the case for some people -- especially if they feel you've abandoned them by selfishly moving to a better place.

I've been in your shoes, dollyllama, and it's painful to realize people you thought were really Friends aren't really, not any more.
The solution: make new friends in your new place.
posted by Rash at 11:29 AM on January 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

I moved across the country in 1995, and still (almost two decades later!) count several of the friends I left back on the other side among my "Three thousand dollars in Boise"1 friends.

A few things have helped that:
  • We had a pretty good community there beforehand, and when I moved away I turned that into an email group, which then turned into a blog community, and now it's strewn across those two, Facebook and Twitter, with forays into Skype. The critical bit of these was that it let us keep up in an incremental way with each other, "hey, cute kid pictures", etc.
  • Long emails often don't get answered for a while. That's the nature of long emails. Also, big gaps and long emails don't work. Big gaps and two line emails work better. Little gaps work better than that.
  • It helps to have a common focus. Most of us were creative nerds, so we've been able to talk about computing and writing when we've had nothing else in common.
  • Someone's got to put themselves out there without expecting anything back. If you're lucky, you'll have a couple of people in the community who will do this, which in effect means you can rotate this role around. But, yeah, people get busy, kids take over tech talk or writing, moves and personal tribulations get in the way, but if there isn't a fairly regular event that reminds people that you're all there (said event can be nothing more than an occasional email), people will drift off.
So, yeah, make friends in your new place, build a new social structure, but keep sending the occasional "hey, thinking about you", because a decade (or two!) down the road, some of those cultivated relationships will bloom.

1Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard used this phrase to describe friends who, if they called you up and said "I need to meet you at the Boise airport tomorrow with three thousand dollars in cash", would get a "what time?" response.
posted by straw at 11:36 AM on January 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm going to go against the grain here and say that I think it's pretty rude for your friends not to reply at all. I agree that email might not be the best medium for asking for support, and receiving such a note would have been overwhelming and confusing, and I understand that people grow apart. But, I feel like the human thing to do would be to respond to ANYBODY asking for support, let alone an old friend.

But unfortunately, whether your feelings are valid isn't really the point here. The point is -- where do you go from here? I think everyone's agreeing that the best thing to do is build a new support structure. As it would be weird to talk about suicide or depression with a new local friend, I'd start with a therapist or a support group.
posted by tinymegalo at 11:37 AM on January 29, 2014 [12 favorites]

I have been both friends in that equation before. I've also been the friend who immediately responds. It is very hurtful to be on the needy side of that, but it is incredibly draining to be on the giving side of that.

Through their actions, these acquaintances have told you very clearly what level of friendship they are currently able to maintain. That level is pretty low. Two-four emails per year and a dinner out once every 5 years, from the sound of it. You can't really get more out of them; if it is less hurtful to write them off, you might consider doing so.
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:42 AM on January 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

I can only tell you from experiencing this more times than I can count on one hand. Most people suck at long distance communication. Relatives included. Bottom line - Stay in touch with the very few who are responsive, forget about ever hearing from or staying in touch with the rest.
posted by cashman at 11:50 AM on January 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

There are ways to keep up distance friendships, but they aren't easy and don't necessarily work forever. They also involve a lot of effort on your part.

The first way I've had success with is visiting the area regularly. For a while after I moved away from where I did college, I continued to visit every 6 months or so. That was just enough to keep up connections. In the past couple years though my visits have dwindled and I do see people there less, so this doesn't seem to be permanent. It may also not be financially feasible.

The next way is to have a group that gets together regularly. I've got two of these- one from college and one from my first postdoc. The college group, we got together for years whenever someone was getting married/having a baby/etc. We all lived all over the country, but now it's getting harder because soon we will be all over the world, too. The one from my first postdoc- they were all college friends, a rather large group of them, so anywhere in the country I live, there's always a few around. It keeps me connected to the group as a whole. But 90% of them get together every January for a yearly event, so we all keep in touch better.

The last way is to have a regular virtual meetup. Google hangout, skype, online board games- semi-regularly there's a few people I meet up with to keep up connections.

But yes, it's tough. (It's the most irritating thing about my life, the moving all over and losing touch with people). And yes, I agree with others that the best thing to do is build a local support structure. That's hard when you're in good spirits, and seemingly impossible when you're not. But I think the real problem here is that local support, and you should concentrate on ways to make it better going forward.

Oh and one more piece of advice-- sometimes friendships come and go. You may have a friend you were close to years ago whom you don't really talk to now-- but in a few years that friendship could blossom again. I've had it happen tons of times, and I think it's possible because nobody got too bent out of shape when the contact dropped off.
posted by nat at 11:51 AM on January 29, 2014

You're not being too dramatic at all.

"I've been depressed and suicidal for a while and asked these 2 for some encouragement. I also expressed how much I value their friendship and miss them. I asked what was going on in their lives, how they were, etc. "

And while it seems absurd and insane that a couple of your "friends" did not reply to the above situation, it doesn't surprise me at all. Nor when your other friend didn't display even perfunctory enthusiasm or disappointment for your trip.

While a lot of people will say things like "people are busy" and "people drift apart" to excuse this, (and anything to explain away a failure to respond to such reaching out is only an excuse) I think it is clear that they don't value your friendship and are probably making a big mistake since you do seem to. You should stay clear of them from now on, they are not worth any effort, and as you say, try and find some good friends who give a shit about you.
posted by Blitz at 12:15 PM on January 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think it's very hard to discuss something as personal and upsetting as depression via email. Most people would fee awkward trying to reply. You might have had a more helpful response had you said you'd like to talk about something with that person, and could you set a time? If your friends are phone-shy, that's probably not as good, but I think email doesn't lend itself to emotional discussions.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:34 PM on January 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

I want to speak up in defense of the friend who didn't express a lot of disappointment about your trip - she could also have been trying to be tactful. Like, maybe she was super looking forward to your visit but doesn't want to pressure you into spending money you don't have. Admittedly, this is possibly an over-generous interpretation of the situation, but it's entirely possible, you know? I've seen friendships break up over similarly small interactions that looked like misinterpretations to me, and it made me sad.

So I'm on the side of "Don't burn your bridges, don't assume these people are jerks, but also find new friends who you can interact with more."

(Said as the friend who moved away AND is terrible at maintaining long-distance friendships.)
posted by mskyle at 12:52 PM on January 29, 2014

I agree with Blitz.

I am a bit surprised by the number of people here who feel the friends’ behaviour is no big deal. I mean, I understand that this kind of thing happens, people grow apart. I wholeheartedly agree with those saying the OP should back off from these friends, now that they’ve shown the OP where he/she stands. But wow, are we really that wrapped up in our own lives now that we can’t find 5 minutes to interact with someone in need? Is it really that awkward and difficult to express basic kindness?

I have a lot going on in my own life, my own problems to deal with; I can totally understand not being able to take on more. And I hate responding to long emails, particularly the “catch up” kind. But it's not hard to say, "Hey, so sorry to hear you’re going through a tough time. Hang in there! Hopefully things will improve soon.” If I had the bandwidth -- and desire -- I might also say, “Let’s try to hang out or catch up soon”. But even if I couldn’t say the second bit, I’d still say the first. It’s short and positive; it conveys the fact that I wish my friend well but can’t offer anything further. That to me is the minimum requirement, it’s just basic human kindness. Your friends have decided to take the lazy, hurtful way out.

Dollyllama – I’m sorry you’re going through a tough time, and I’m sorry these friendships aren’t what you’d hoped they were. I’m sure you’ll make new friends in your new city. Good luck, and hugs.
posted by yawper at 12:58 PM on January 29, 2014 [11 favorites]

I can understand how you feel.First I moved some 60 miles away 10 years back.Only 2 friends kept it touch for 8 years.During my next move just 6 miles away 2 years back , I felt a huge difference in my friends(so called??)behavior.Maybe,they felt,I'm not their neighbor anymore and they don't have anything to gain from me.But true friends no matter how far you move,they will keep in touch.Two friends moved out of country and I was constantly sending emails hoping I'll keep the friendship.One friend maintains even now after 3 years of her move.She emails me whenever she finds time but regularly.That's true friendship!!!

It really hurts when you value their friendship and they don't.Accept the reality in life and try to think that that person's time in your life is over and move on.

Try new classes in your local library and keep yourself busy.Do something that'll keep your mind off these thoughts.It's easy for me to preach but honestly it will help you be a strong person in a long run.

Good luck!!
posted by SunPower at 1:05 PM on January 29, 2014

I have long-distance friends who I've had forever, and who I can go years without contact and pick up where we left off. When we are not in the same room, what we talk about can seem superficial. Snow days, new shoes, dog peed on the carpet, Friday-wine, yay! Everyone has real/serious things going on, mental health issues included. But we don't talk seriously about those things when we're hours apart & months from the next visit.

If you had a physical ailment, you would say so and at best a long-distance friend can say "I'm sorry you're feeling bad, hope you're seeing a doctor for it." Mental ailments are the same. They can't treat you, they can't help you, the best anyone can do is say "I'm sorry you're feeling bad, please see a local doctor."

I think you are right, you haven't made friends where you are so you are attaching more importance to friendships you've moved away from. So it's time for new friendships. But it's also time to see a local doctor. You can feel better, with the help of pros. Friends are not pros, they're amateurs.
posted by headnsouth at 1:18 PM on January 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

I have had long-distance friendships that lasted and long-distance friendships that fizzled.

The commonalities in the friendships that have lasted are:
- Both the friend and I were committed to keeping up regularly by text, email, or phone
- The friend and I visited in person at least once a year
- The friend and I *continued building our relationship* -- we were not just reminiscing about That One Adventure We Had In 1995 every time we talked

The commonalities in the friendships that fizzled are:
- The friend, while completely awesome, sincere and devoted in person, was just not a huge distance person -- didn't like to call, email, text people who were far away
- The friendship was based on a static event or experience in the past that was no longer meaningful to one or both of us
- I never saw the friend in person so it turned into a penpal-ship

Some people are wired for long-distance friendships. Some people aren't. If people don't keep up with you, it doesn't mean they don't like you, or that your friendship was meaningless to them. I know some of the most awesome, hilarious, caring, smart people who just only have energy for the people around them. When you move away from them you're just not going to interact with them. Try to remember the great things about your friendship with them and appreciate the good times. And use all of the now-available friendship energy you have to make new relationships with people in your own neighborhood. Good luck!
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 1:30 PM on January 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

Seconding flug. I moved far away years ago. There are very few friends I keep up with. They are happy to see me once a year or three if I visit and we are close then. But, if I sent or received an email like this I might not know how to respond. Pick up the phone. Maybe email first to tell them you want to talk for a while just so they know to expect it.
posted by Gotanda at 1:42 PM on January 29, 2014

One consideration is that people don't feel the same obligation to respond to group emails or texts as they do to individual communications. Nothing to do with their personal feelings towards you.

I'm sorry you're going through a rough time.
posted by JenMarie at 2:53 PM on January 29, 2014

This is exactly what Facebook is for. Responding to emails feels too much like work.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:09 PM on January 29, 2014

There are a thousand excuses that people can make regarding the lack of communication and support your friends are giving you. I want to pipe in with my personal opinion, as a person who has been on the receiving end of your story.

You are not being too dramatic.

Your feelings regarding the devolution of these friendships is valid, and I give you permission to break up with your friends (in a non-dramatic way, of course).

You deserve to put your time and energy into people who will give you that time and energy back, and you deserve friends who are not too busy to offer support and encouragement (for christ's sake, you aren't asking them to drop everything and be at your beck and call - you are asking for a fucking email offering an "it's going to get better" or "it's going to be okay" and you still managed to be lovely and inquire about them in your email). You deserve friends who are excited to see you when you plan a visit, and are disappointed when it doesn't work out.

I am so sorry you are going through such a rough time. I hope you are in therapy, because I want things to get better for you.
posted by rideunicorns at 7:11 PM on January 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

I haven't properly replied to a long email I received from an old, far-away friend about four (six?) months ago. I didn't feel I could offer an appropriate response on the day I happened to get it -- I was tired, had been running around. This person is dear to my heart, someone special; my life would be worse for not knowing him. The more days that pass -- it's never the right time! -- the less able I feel to respond, and the greater my guilt and avoidance. (That's it, I'm writing him this week.)

I agree it's possible your friends are similarly guilt-ridden, and unsure of how to proceed. Particularly if they feel responsible for your well-being on the planned trip... it's true it might be more expected for this kind of revelation to go to someone nearby. I do hope you reach out for help nearby.

Maybe let things cool with these few for a bit, and see where time takes you.

Take care :)
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:29 PM on January 29, 2014

I'm sorry you're going through this. You did mention having suicidal thoughts - I encourage you to take that seriously and get professional help. There are a lot of resources here.

Good luck to you and I hope things are better for you soon.
posted by Space Kitty at 9:46 PM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

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