Friendship is hard when you’re a grownup.
I’ve heard it over and over again that relationships take work, but I find myself amazed at how hard it can be to stay friends as an adult. When I was a kid, it honestly felt as simple as figuring out who was fun to play with and who lived near you. We both had American dolls and liked Mrs. Grossman stickers and our moms would drive us to each others’ houses. Done.
As an adult, it doesn’t feel remotely that simple. Relevant Magazine recently published an article called, “Why is having friends as an adult so hard?” which seemed to echo my recent lament. Even if I have the best of intentions with people I know who share my interests and values, I can still seem to miss the mark.
Transition seems to play a big role in this for me. So many of my friends became my friends when we were both single. And now, so much has changed. Here’s proof with just one of my friendships that started in our single days: We were virtually neighbors. We cried buckets when I moved away. I got engaged. She was in my wedding. I got a new job. I got pregnant. She got engaged. I was in her wedding. I had a baby. She got a new job. I moved back to the area. I’m honestly getting tired just remembering how much change has happened in the last few years for us. Granted, you don’t have to go through this much transition and change for your friendship to change. Sometimes all it takes for someone to start dating or get engaged or start a new job or even just time passing, for the friendship to change.
Sometimes I feel like I barely know who I am anymore after so much transition for myself, let alone how to navigate BOTH of our transitions and what it means for our friendship. I’ve had lots of moments where I’ve come to a reunion with a friend to realize that things aren’t the same as they used to be. Something’s changed. It’s probably partially me and it’s probably partially her. It isn’t good or bad, just different. As complicated and messy as it feels to be figuring out friendship after so much change and transition, I keep coming back to what is TRUE about friendships. It can be so easy for me to focus on the mess and the different, but that isn’t all there is. Here’s what I know to be true:
We are made for doing life with other people. Life can be hard and painful. We need other people, because that’s how we were made. When I was engaged and depressed because I hadn’t seen my fiance in weeks, my friend reminded me of who I was and the things I liked so I could plan my wedding. When I was in nursing school and failed the test I’d studied so hard for, my friends sent me flowers and cheered me on.When I was lonely and missing people who were far away, my friend sent me care packages and prayed for me. When I was angry at God about what he had asked me to do, my friend pointed me back to Jesus and spoke truth to my heart. When I was having a hard time emotionally with my pregnancy, my friend threw me the only kind of baby shower I could have received at the time, full of children’s books and paint chip love and prayers.
We need our friends to remind us of what is true. We need our friends to help us remember that we are loved. We need our friends to tell us that we are not alone. It’s how we’re made.
We aren’t designed to predict the future. I remember during my sophomore year of college being convinced that I would do whatever it took to stay friends with the people who I had met and learned with and loved in that season. They had taught me so much and I couldn’t imagine life without them. By senior year, after three years of residence life, I was overwhelmed with the sheer number of how many good people I had met and I wanted to stay friends with. I remember Jesus whispering to my heart, telling me it was okay to only invest in some. It simply wasn’t possible for me to invest in everyone I’d ever met. It was okay to just invest in some for a season and entrust them to him when that season was over. I wasn’t the one responsible for them. He was.
One summer, I was preparing to move and had just started up a friendship with a dear girl. I had imagined the people I had done life with for the last few years to be the ones to process with me and help me pack my boxes. But instead, it was this sweet friend who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. I remember being sad that we had not become friends sooner, convinced that our friendship would dissolve as soon as I left. In that season, Jesus whispered to my heart again, asking me not to try and figure out who would stay for a lifetime and who would only be there for a season. He asked me to trust him and be friends with the people he was giving me. I said I would, and that same girl who packed my boxes and who shared silly dog-sitting adventures and picnicked with me all summer long, became one of my very best friends.
If I had tried to predict who would stay and who would go in my life, I guarantee that she would have not made the cut. It looked impossible to have a real, lasting friendship with someone who I only started getting close with mere weeks before a move across the country. I’m so grateful to not be the one who decides who stays for a lifetime and who is only for a season. Jesus knows far better than I what I need and can be trusted with who stays and for how long.
Even in recent days, I had to remind myself of this truth. I had thought I had “realistic” expectations for a friendship in this season, even talking through our hopes once I had moved back, but quickly discovered that those expectations couldn’t be met. I felt upset and embarrassed that I had made such unrealistic expectations, despite my best efforts.
But my husband (and friend) reminded me that I was doing the best with what I had. I wasn’t supposed to predict the future. My expectations were appropriate for what I knew at the time. I have new information now, and need to adjust. There is no shame in being human. I wasn’t designed to predict the future.
What worked in one season may not work in another. It can be incredibly painful to have friendship expectations not met, especially when you may not have even known that you had them. When our friendship norm was talking for hours on the phone every week in one season, it can be incredibly disappointing when that isn’t able to be replicated in a different season with a newborn or as a newlywed despite “understanding.” I’ve experienced incredible guilt at being “the bad friend” when I simply don’t have the ability to invest the way I’ve done in the past. I’ve found that talking about the changes in season helps tremendously. Asking about expectations and verbalizing the commitment to your friendship goes a long way in establishing a new normal.
Right after I got married, I was talking to one of my best friends on the phone. She burst into tears when I told her that I was still planning on being her friend and walking with her in the challenges of single-life as much as I could. I wasn’t planning on forgetting how hard it can be to be without a spouse, just because I had a husband now. We talked about how to realistically adjust our expectations for talking on the phone with the change of me being married, and said again how glad we were to be friends. I think it made it possible to stay friends in the way we needed, instead of just trying to follow the friend-script of something that only worked well in a past season.
There is no playbook for friendship. How I sometimes wish there was a guidebook or a step-by-step of how to be a really good friend. After your friend starts dating, here are the 12 steps to supporting and encouraging them in their new relationship. When your friend has someone die, here are the 7 things to do to care for them in their grief. But as much as I want that, it simply doesn’t work like that. I think the best friendships are always asking how they can best love the other person.
The hard part is that it is always changing. And it looks different from person to person. Sometimes the most loving thing to do is patiently wait with a friend through a rough season. Sometimes the most loving thing to do is say good-bye and be honest about how your friendship has changed, without pretending to be something you’re not. Sometimes the most loving thing to do is having a conversation about hard things. Sometimes the most loving thing is to stand next to your friend while she marries someone you’re not crazy about. Sometimes the most loving thing is to tell your friend the red flags you see in her dating relationship.
I’m not perfect at this, far from it. I know I’ve done some hurting in a friendship, even when I have the best of intentions. But I also think I’ve done shown love to my friends in the ways they needed it most. As awful as it can feel sometimes to not have a playbook, I think it is part of what makes friendship so beautiful. It gets to be custom fit for the two people in it and for the season they find themselves in.
Grace is the currency of friendship. Too often I’ve felt guilt for not being able to call a friend back as promptly as I think I should. But when I think of what I would tell her if she was in my shoes, I think how quickly I would be to offer grace. There is so much grace for friends who fight to believe the best about each other, choosing to love well.
In his book, Coming Clean, Seth Haines talks about some of the forgiveness he’s had to offer and receive from the people in his life:
“Not every pain is the result of ill intent. There are fewer sociopaths and more broken, confused, flailing folks than any of us would like to admit.” (168)
I think I can easily forget that anyone I’m in relationship (outside of the Lord) is going to be human. They are going to be flawed, broken, doing-their-best humans, just like me. If they are a real friend, they will hurt me. And if I am a real friend to them, I will hurt them. I guarantee that much of this hurt won’t be intentional at all, but merely from the sheer fact that we are human.
Some days I need to offer grace to my friend. Some days I need to offer grace to myself and remind myself of what is true. In friendship, grace is what we offer each other.
I’m convinced the Lord not only cares about our friendships but is in them.
So much of what the Lord teaches me is through other people. I need alone time to be with Jesus, but then, he sends me into the mess of life to practice. It isn’t enough to confess my bitterness and resentment to him. He is asking me to live out forgiveness with a real person. He is asking me to be a friend when I don’t want to be or when it costs me. He is asking me to slow down and read a book to my daughter. He is asking me to make a family dinner. He is asking me to pray for someone.
This weekend, the missing in my heart was profound and I was, quite frankly, a mess. I wanted to hide and be alone, but I knew that wasn’t what was good for me. The Lord prompted me to started a vulnerable, weepy conversation with my husband. I am so grateful for how my heart was heard and cared for. A few hours later, the Lord timed the arrival of a surprise box of clothes to come. I couldn’t help but cry, as I felt Jesus tell me how he loved me through this thoughtful gift from friends. He had sent me new things to wear for Easter, reminding me that I’m seen. And not long after that, a dear friend called me, in the midst of her own hot mess, and we got to pray for each other and speak truth to each other.
Could the Lord have cared for me without these people? Absolutely. But I think he likes to involve us. I think he likes to let us be part of the redemption and restoration he’s doing.
I see the Lord loving me through other people. I see the Lord letting me be part of how he loves his kids.
He is in our friendships.
He is in the emails and text messages that we’re loved and remembered.
He is in the conversations and the chats.
He is in the mess and the grief and the tears.
He is in the parties and the laughter and celebrations.
He is at the table and the front porch.
He is in the ice cream and the hard cider and the enchiladas.
He is in the box of baby clothes and the tomatoes from her garden and the money to fix your car.
He is in the mail I get and the people behind it.
He is in the hugs and the hand holding.
This is the church. Not the buildings, or the weighty, messy ideas we have about church, or the doctrine or the sermons. These friendships, these people; this is where I see Jesus.
Friendships that point us to Jesus and show up in the mess and eat dinner on a moment’s notice, this is the church.
The Lord is with us.
This is what I know to be true about friendship.