There was no dramatic Real Housewives–level falling out. Not even an annoying miscommunication over text. Just the slow realization that the spark that sustained you through many a marathon phone call or a late-night diner run seems to be fading. If you’ve noticed that those “let’s get together soon” plans never actually materialize, or, if they do happen, you’re both struggling to find something to chat about over your lattes, then you may be in the midst of a “friendship drift.”
Here’s why friendships drift apart. The most likely culprit, of course, is that life just gets in the way. Hectic schedules mean it’s not as convenient to meet up for an impromptu beer or a Sunday-morning yoga class as often. “We’ll feel like we’ve lost the chemistry, but usually it’s just because we’ve lost the intimacy due to not connecting as regularly,” says Shasta Nelson, CEO of GirlFriendCircles.com, a website that introduces women to new friends.
Big life transitions—marriage, a new job, having children—can also test friendships. If your lives have moved in different directions, you’ll have to work harder to find your common ground to keep up the emotional connection. “And if your values or your friend’s values have shifted, your relationship won’t be as likely to withstand the more superficial changes in your lives,” explains Jan Yager, Ph.D., sociologist and author of When Friendship Hurts. In other words, if you and your friend suddenly can’t see eye to eye on topics, such as parenting styles, money or political views, your relationship may not be able to survive a move a couple of states away.
Social media isn’t helping either. If you’ve been relying on Facebook to keep in touch, it can negatively affect your close relationships. For example, if you’ve announced that you were engaged to everyone in your social network instead of first telling a select group of friends, that may lead your close buddies to think they’re not as special to you anymore. “Social media has the ability to make casual connections stronger, yet it can weaken your closer bonds if you aren’t continuing one-on-one interactions with them,” says Yager.
Don’t take it personally. Maintaining perspective helps ease the pain somewhat. Research shows we are replacing half our close friends every seven years. That means BFFs—“best friends forever”—are pretty rare. “While it can feel very disappointing or stressful when it happens to you, it is normal for many friendships to only last as long as you have something in common—the same job, living in the same neighborhood, or your kids going to the same school,” says Nelson.
Downgrade instead of dissolve. Friendships don’t have to be all or nothing, so there’s no reason to resort to a “break-up.” “Most of us don’t need an out of a relationship as much as we may need to give ourselves permission to let the bond ebb from an intimacy of level 10 to a level 5,” says Nelson, who confirms that there is value in having companions of all levels of intimacy, even those who only connect on a surface level. Besides, it’s entirely possibly that a year or two from now, you and your pal will ramp up to level 10 again.
You can work to rekindle the chemistry. There are three required ingredients to maintain a meaningful relationship: positivity, consistency, and vulnerability, says Nelson. If your dates are few and far between, get some regular time on the calendar with her, and be sure the plans you’re making will maximize the amount of positive energy between you two. Yager recommends thinking about the types of activities in which you had the most fun together (say, hiking) as well as the moments when you may have not got along (a night of drinking, perhaps), and plan accordingly. If you suspect your friend may be upset about something you did, broach the issue in a way that opens the door to discussion without it leading to a fight. You could say, “I hope I haven’t done anything to offend you. I’ve really missed you. What’s going on in your life?” Her reason for pulling away could have nothing at all to do with you—she could be experiencing marital trouble, health problems, or just a lack of time and energy. Either way, you’ll be building a stronger rapport.
But don’t force it if it doesn’t happen. You won’t always be able to get back to the place your relationship once was. And if you try too hard, you could even end up pushing your friend away. “Guilting someone into being your friend is never healthy; friendship has to be freely given by each party—that requires going with the flow,” says Yager. And if you and your high school bestie only reminiscence about old boyfriends and skipping 8th period when you meet up once in awhile, so what? That doesn’t diminish what you had together. Even if you never build new memories together, what you’ll always have in common—your shared moment in time—is something you’ll never be able to have with another friend.