Although the relationships in our life may seem constant, our social circles are always changing and evolving. Losing old and building new friendships is just another part of life, and for the most part, we are okay with it. But what if you find yourself missing an old friend?
Our memories are colored by our emotions and nostalgic memories are rarely accurate. Our tendency to over-romanticize the past means that we may remember old relationships being better (or worse) than they actually were. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t seek to reconnect with people who were close to you - rekindling an old friendship may be very rewarding. It just means that reconnecting may be harder than you think…
...But not impossible. In this article, I’ll look at the importance of friendships and why they sometimes fall apart, and introduce you to some tips on how to rekindle a friendship.
The importance of friendships
In their 1995 paper The Need to Belong, Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary propose the belongingness hypothesis, which states: “human beings have a pervasive drive to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal relationships”.
The hypothesis is just a long way of saying that humans are social beings. As such, it’s no wonder that people in committed relationships have higher subjective well-being levels (a.k.a. happiness), as reported by Claire Kamp Dush and Paul Amato.
While people seek to form and maintain different types of relationships, including familial, professional and romantic, friends are a very important part of our social lives. Think about your own social circle. It’s likely that your family, friends and romantic partner play different roles and provide different types of support.
While most research on relationships focuses on marriage and romantic attachments, there has been some research on friendship, too. For example, Vanessa Boute and colleagues have found that friendships play an important role in helping people adjust to a new social environment. In general, studies show that high-quality friendships are beneficial for the social development of children and adolescents.
In their study of the role of friendships over the life cycle, Brian Gillespie and colleagues found that while the number of friends decreases with age, satisfaction with friends was a significant predictor of overall life satisfaction.
Why friendships fall apart
Despite their importance, friendships can fall apart. Sometimes they end with angry words. Sometimes they end with hurt feelings. More often than not, though, they simply disintegrate over time because you just don’t see each other often enough anymore.
Growing up, my best friend was my next-door neighbor. At first, our friendship was solely based on the fact that we lived next door to each other. Later, we cultivated similar hobbies and interests. But as we entered high school and our free time grew scarce, we drifted apart. Then I moved away to go to university and we lost touch completely. Chances are that you have a similar story of your own.
At work, I often find myself discussing a similar pattern with high school students who are experiencing this for the first time. When you’re used to hanging out with someone every day, the realization that you haven’t talked to them for a month is a jarring one.
You get used to it as you grow older and your life is increasingly filled with other responsibilities. You’re busy with work and starting a family. Your once-a-week movie night with friends turns into a once-a-month deal, before turning into a once-in-a-blue-moon deal. Your social network may dwindle down to one or two friends. And that’s okay. It’s not the number of friendships that matters. It’s the quality that matters most.
However, sometimes we burn our bridges, instead of letting them slowly disintegrate over time. Like all other relationships, friendships are not immune to conflicts.
As the designated family babysitter, I have witnessed some magnificent conflicts between children, which often include promises to never talk to each other again. Ten minutes later, the conflict is forgotten. As we grow older, conflicts aren’t so easily forgotten and resolved and may prove fatal to a friendship.
“Some friendships end in betrayal and insults, either real or simply perceived, and that is a part of life, too.”
When you should avoid trying to rekindle a friendship
If this article has got you reminiscing about lost friends, you may be itching to get in touch with them again. Messaging them on Facebook is a great idea, but before you do, you should think about two questions and consider if trying to reignite the spark is a good idea.
Firstly, think about why you aren’t friends anymore. Did the friendship disintegrate on its own or was it a conflict that pushed you apart?
In case of conflict, did your (ex)friend tell you something along the lines of “I never want to talk to you again”? If the answer is yes, then you should respect your friend’s wishes. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment and consider how you would feel if someone you never wanted to see again tried to be a part of your life.
Secondly, think about your own motivation behind reconnecting. Why do you want to be their friend again? If you just want to relive the good times or see what your friend is up to these days, then go ahead. Maybe you want to find closure in a conflict. That’s okay, too.
You should refrain from reconnecting, however, if it can hurt you or your former friend. Sometimes we may want "revenge" on someone by showing them how well we are doing now. Wanting to do this doesn’t make you a bad person, but gloating about your success is not nice.
And lastly, just like granting forgiveness, reconnecting should be done at your own pace. Don’t be swayed by your family’s well-meaning wonderings that usually sound like this: “You two used to be such good friends, what happened?” Don’t let yourself be dragged along to the high school reunion when you don’t want to go. Only reconnect with someone when you feel it’s the right time.
How to rekindle a friendship
Once you’ve examined your reasons for reconnecting and found that the time is right, then it’s time to take the first steps towards rekindling an old friendship. Below are some practical tips for doing just that.
1. Give them time
Although you may be excited to reconnect, your friend may not share your enthusiasm. Instead of calling or showing up on their doorstep, make your first contact through less immediate means like email or Facebook. This will give your friend time to process and construct their response.
Remember, you have probably thought long and hard about reconnecting, but for them, this may be the first time they’ve thought of you in years. They may need some time to consider the idea of reconnecting. You just need to be patient.
2. Curb your expectations
After thinking about it, your friend may decide that for whatever reason, they aren’t interested in reconnecting with you right now. This may hurt, so in order to minimize the pain, go in with low expectations.
Don’t expect an enthusiastic response from your old friend and don’t think that once you’ve reconnected, everything will be just like before. You have both grown and changed and you may find that the old spark just isn’t there or that your friend just doesn’t have time for you.
As psychologist Irene Levine puts it:
“...that’s the reality of friendships, for better or worse: they’re all part connection, part timing.”
3. Be open about your intentions
Tell your friend why you’re getting in touch with them after all this time. If you miss them, tell them that. If you’re going through similar life events (like marriage or the death of a loved one), let them know.
Your friend probably wants to know why you’re contacting them, so being upfront about your reasons can help to establish an honest and open line of communication, which is the foundation of all good relationships.
4. Meet up
If your friend has reacted positively to the idea of reconnecting, it’s time to make plans to meet up… and to actually meet up. While it’s possible to rekindle a friendship over texts and Skype calls, your chances of success are higher if you take the time to see each other face to face.
This is partly because by meeting up, both of you have already put more effort into making this work. But also, if you spent a lot of time hanging out the last time around, chances are that just texting isn’t going to cut it.
5. Take your time
It’s tempting to jump headfirst into your rekindled friendship and pretend that you were never apart in the first place. Try not to give in to that impulse. Although it may feel that no time has gone by, in reality, it may be years or decades since you last spoke.
As stated above, you have both grown and changed and even if you feel an instant click, your friend might not feel the same way. In many ways, you’re not rekindling an old friendship, but building a completely new one. Treat it as such, at least in the beginning. Learn to trust each other slowly at first and make sure that your friendship has a solid foundation before diving into the deep end.
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Friendships are an important part of our lives that can influence our happiness and satisfaction with life to a great extent. Like most things worth having, they can be difficult to maintain and repair once broken. Still, rekindling an old flame, while difficult, can be hugely rewarding and certainly something that is worth a try in most cases.
Now I want to hear from you!
Have you recently rekindled a friendship? Or are you afraid to take that first step?
I'd love to hear more from you in the comments!