it happens

How To Deal When A Friendship Fades

Friendships wither or end, especially when you become a parent. Here’s how to weather the loss.

mom on phone at home
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Recently, friendship expert Marisa G. Franco, author of the forthcoming book Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends, shared a fascinating fact with me: “Friendships typically end not because of some big fight, but because someone didn’t reach out.” For parents, that statement likely hit home. Think of all those beloved people you went to parties and concerts and bottomless brunches with, back in the days before your concerns shifted to, say, which brand of juice box to buy for the kindergarten Easter party. Once you had a baby, the space you had in your life for those fun-loving pals — particularly the non-parents — shrunk faster than a postpartum uterus. You know how it goes: texts grow less frequent, plans get perpetually postponed, and soon all you know of their lives is what they post on Instagram.

It doesn’t happen for any particular reason, it’s just that life intervenes. Research has found that in a seven-year period, up to 70% of our close friendships dissolve, and 52% of our social network floats out of our lives. Women seem to suffer particular torment when friendships founder; one study found that our blood pressure increases during negative interactions with a friend, while no such rise occurs in men experiencing the same situation.

The point is that into most every life a little friend-fading must fall (especially when kids are involved) and unfortunately, it can be painful. Here’s how to cope with the loss.

1. Resist the urge to blame — or to take it personally.

There are plenty of reasons why the ties that bind can break. One of them is a global health emergency: 43% of women aged 18 to 29 reported that they lost touch with friends during the pandemic, along with 40% of women aged 30 to 39. But even a simpler shift in circumstances can bring about a friendship’s end. For example, 69% of women say they see many of their friends only in certain contexts, like at work or on the local playground; if they change jobs or neighborhoods, the friends tied to those places may fade away, too. The long and short of it is that these things happen, and it’s rarely anyone’s fault — or an indictment on you as a person.

So, instead of deciding that your friend is a ghosting turncoat or you’re an unlovable wretch, consider how little control we often have over our lives, especially as parents. How we spend our time, and with what level of energy, is largely dictated by how our kid slept last night, or whether they’re home sick, or if we happen to be balancing a work deadline with a terribly timed snow day. Imagine yourself in the throes of a perfect storm of work/kid/life drama, and then imagine setting it all aside to answer a friend’s email. It just isn’t possible sometimes. You know the adage that if someone really wants to talk to you, they’ll find a way? It really ought to come with an asterisk: “unless they happen to be parents of small children.”

2. Decide to be happy with what you get.

That phrase about friends you have for a reason, a season, or a lifetime is hokey (apologies to anyone who has it hanging, Live Laugh Love-style, on their wall), but there’s truth in it. If you want to spare yourself heartache, the key is to stop placing demands, even unspoken ones, on your friendships before you know for sure which category they fall into. In other words, don’t expect “lifelong”-style intimacy from someone who likely fits into the “reason” or “season” category. If you perceive some distance between the two of you, try to take it easy—be happy to see them when you do, and recalibrate your expectations. Instead of “Why does she reply to my lengthy texts with platitudes or not at all?” try, “It seems like she’s not much of a texter these days.” Rather than “I thought we were close, but I guess not,” aim for “We’re a little distant these days, but maybe that will change.” The name of the game is radical acceptance—which you may as well opt into, given that whether you feel betrayed or understanding, the situation is what it is. Why not choose the option that doesn’t drive you nuts?

3. Be grateful for social media.

It may sound strange, but it’s not the worst outcome if the only time you see a fading friend is while scrolling — in fact, it’s a lucky thing, especially since keeping up with wide swaths of people is exactly what social media is for. Seeing her kid’s Halloween costume and husband’s birthday dinner may not have the same impact as confiding over coffee or laughing on a road trip, but assuming your pal posts regularly, you’ll still get to know what’s going on in her life. In generations previous, you wouldn’t have. There’s something comforting in that.

4. Be mindful of your mutuals.

If your bond starts to bend or break, take care not to put any shared friends in an awkward position. Verboten behavior includes, but is not limited to, the following: asking if the friend has asked about you; complaining about her distance or otherwise badmouthing her; or trying to sniff out whether they’re hanging without you. (Look, maybe they are. And that might be because their kids go to the same school, so it’s a little easier, or because their husbands golf together, or because of a whole host of reasons that have nothing to do with your failings. Once again: This is not necessarily about you.) This kind of yuckiness can quickly change the reason for your friendship hiatus from “life happens” to “man, what a jerk.”

5. Remember, you never know what life may bring (or bring back).

I have two personal anecdotes that may prove useful here. First: As a teenager, I had a friend with whom I was very close, though she lived several hours away. We’d email (texting didn’t exist yet; it was the nineties) and visit when we could. But once we went to our separate colleges the connection dwindled, and a few years after graduation I realized I didn’t even know which time zone she lived in. A dozen years later, having seen on Facebook that she was in Los Angeles, I mentioned that I was visiting. I wound up staying with her—and then returning to stay with her a dozen times in the years that followed. Now we talk frequently, sometimes collaborate on work projects, and get our kids together to play, and I never have to wonder how she’s doing.

Second: In grad school, I had a close friend with whom I had a prolific and terrific email relationship. We’d pontificate in prose, enjoying each other’s insights (and, duh, gossiping about fellow students). But once the degrees were conferred, the conversational well dried up, and I didn’t see her for several years—just the odd Facebook birthday message. But the other night, she posted on Instagram about her picky-eating kid and food-allergic husband, and how that nightmarish combo was making meal planning a living hell. I sent a DM, we chatted, and the next day I sent a newsletter I thought might help. It wasn’t a 3,000-word e-soliloquy, but you can’t rightly say we’re out of touch. It’s nice, having a tiny version of what came before.

The point is simply that life is weird and unpredictable, and you never know who might wander back into your orbit, or when, or how, or what weird digital platform that hasn’t been invented yet will someday connect you to people you’ve missed.

But here’s one thing you can almost always count on: Once someone’s been your friend, so long as things ended amicably, they still possess the esteem for you that made you pals in the first place. It’s just gone dormant. In other words, you can often pick right back up — whether you’re hanging on a beach in Santa Monica or forwarding a link with the briefest of “Hey, hope you’re well”s. Even if the current outcome wasn’t what you anticipated, there’s no sadness in the latter scenario. A friend is a friend, whether you talk once a day or once a decade.