How to Keep a Long-Distance Friendship Alive

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Photo: Lilly Roadstones/Getty Images

There are plenty of Hallmark cards and movie moments dedicated to the joys and deep emotional bonds that come with best friendship, but really, so much of the job description is about ease: A best friend has another couch you can sit on when you’re bored of sitting on your own couch but don’t actually want to, you know, do anything. A best friend is your default plus-one for all those things you don’t really want to go to, but feel like you should, but either way definitely wouldn’t do without a buddy. A best friend will come over after a minor catastrophe and make you laugh, or get you drunk, or just sit there and let you vent in their general direction. Best friendship is a two-way constant standby: You’re always on call, but it’s fine, because they are, too.

But it’s a definition that hinges on a lack of distance: It’s not that hard to be there for someone when you can physically be there, when your body is just a short drive or a subway ride away from theirs. When you’re separated by more than that — whether it’s a state or a time zone or even an ocean — the calculus changes, even if the label doesn’t. Moving away from a close friend doesn’t mean you stop being close; it just means you have to figure out a new way to do it. It’s not easy in the same way, but it’s not impossible to preserve what you had, either, if you know how to put in the work.

Keep creating your own shared experiences.

Two things happen when you see a friend regularly: One, you develop a collection of memories that both of you share, and two, you have a more intimate understanding of what they’re up to, in a general sense. Maybe you’ve hung out with their other friends, or third-wheeled a date with their significant other. Maybe you’ve cheered them on at a soccer game or poetry reading, or been a guest at one of their work parties. The point is, you’ve been a firsthand witness to all the other pieces of their life outside of your relationship.

But if you’re separated long-term, that point of view shrinks. Suddenly, your relationship is the only part you really have access to, at least in the same way. You don’t have the context you once did. When a friend moves to a new place, “they pick up a new life that doesn’t include the other person — they make new friends, they engage in new leisure pursuits, they may have a new job,” says Irene Levine, a psychiatry professor at NYU and the author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend. “And it’s important to create something you share with the other individual, not just exchanging information about the differences in your life.”

You want to make sure you both continue feeling invested, in other words — that your conversations aren’t reduced to a laundry list of updates whose stakes you don’t quite grasp, or to an endless rehashing of your past time together. The key is to create new context in a way that moves things forward. Exactly how you do that can depend on who you are and the nature of your friendship — research has shown, for example, that men are more likely to use activities to bond, while women tend to rely more on conversation — but whether your relationship was more about talking or doing, your best bet is to just adapt that core element to your new circumstances, explains April Bleske-Rechek, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. “If those are linked with perceptions of closeness, then they’d be linked with how you’d maintain perceptions of closeness long-distance,” she says.

In other words, find new ways to have what you’ve always had. One of my co-workers, for example, runs marathons all around the world with a friend of hers, building their reunions around an activity they both love. I’m in a video-chat book club with two of my best friends: Once a month(ish), the three of us convene on Google Hangouts, partly to talk about the book we’ve chosen and partly because it’s a scheduled excuse to talk about everything else. If neither of those is your thing, maybe try the same beer, or the same workout, and then report back. Video chat during the Oscars or the Super Bowl so you can react to the same events together. And the more opportunities you give yourself to connect, the more organically you’ll get to know the specifics of your friend’s new life — to follow their work drama from afar, or learn their friends’ names. Even if you’ll never meet them, it’s a lot easier to keep up with stories if you know all the key players.

Accept that it’s going to take more effort than it used to.

Even if you and your friend are the kind of duo who fell into mutual platonic love at first sight, keeping the friendship alive across so many miles won’t be nearly so effortless as getting it started. “In writing my book, I interviewed about 1,500 women and asked them what it was that led to people being best friends, and so many of them used the same wording: They said, ‘We just kind of clicked,’” Levine recalls. “It’s this ability to connect with a person, to be understood, to communicate easily.” But the idea that that can sustain itself — that you can always pick up right where you left off after long stretches of radio silence — is a myth, she says: That connection is a strong one, but like anything else, it grows stronger through nurturing.

And no matter how many long-distance hacks you come up with, there’s no replacement for in-person interaction: Yes, it’s more expensive and more of a hassle than FaceTime, but it’s also the best way to recharge a long-distance friendship that’s running low on juice, or to make sure that an already strong one continues to stay that way.

“There’s something about being together where it’s like, this came to my mind and I get to tell you right away, rather than meaning to send you a text and then forgetting, or not wanting to bother you because you’re busy,” says psychologist Nicole Iannone, an assistant professor at Penn State, Fayette. “You have more of an instant gratification when you’re face-to-face.”

I know what she means. My two friends and I — the same ones that do the long-distance book club — also plan an annual weekend trip to a new city, and even if we’re talking about the usual things, it just feels different. Nothing’s filtered — everyone’s the most natural version of themselves, reacting to things in real time. You can see each other’s facial expressions as you talk; you can crack up at the same small provocation; you can ramble rather than thinking through your words in the more measured way that typing requires. You can simply soak up each other’s lives, filling in the gaps that all the stories didn’t cover.

Making time to see each other also has symbolic meaning: The fact that it’s hard is kind of the point. “If the friendship is a priority to you,” Levine says, then scheduling a visit shows that you’re willing to put in the effort and the money to make sure your bond is preserved.

Treat it like a long-distance romance. (Because, in a way, it is.)

The internet is awash with advice on how to keep a long-distance relationship alive, but there’s comparatively little about how to do the same with friendships — largely, Iannone says, because they’re much more a part of everyday life. “Most of us are in a long-distance friendship — probably almost everyone past a certain age,” she says. “It’s almost a given — if not when you go to college, then when you graduate college — that you’re likely going to be in a different place than at least one of your good friends. And because it’s so common, you don’t give it a lot of credence.”

And because long-distance friendship is so common, we tend to downplay how hard it can be — not just logistically hard or financially hard, but emotionally hard, too. “There’s not as much sympathy for the significance of friendships compared to romantic relationships,” Levine says. It’s not a breakup, but losing a friend to a new locale can nevertheless feel like a loss, too.

On the flip side, the pain of seeing them leave also helps to reinforce just how much they mean to you — something that you might want to share with them, too. Bleske-Rechek says that when a friendship goes long-distance, it can be helpful to have a define-the-relationship talk (a DTR, as the kids might say). If you have hopes or expectations about how often you’ll talk, or when you’ll see each other, say them. My boyfriend and his own long-distance best friend, for example, have a standing phone call on Sunday nights; rather than having to worry about when they’ll have their next conversation, they know they already have that sacred time on the books.

And if you want to let your friend know how they’ve changed your life for the better, say that, too. “It’s similar to a romantic relationship — you just go ahead and lay it all out there without being fearful of rejection,” Bleske-Rechek says. “When they take the time to say, ‘Nobody ever does this,’ or ‘Nobody makes me feel like this’ — I think putting out those explicit reminders that you value that person, that you’re also committed to a long-term friendship with that person, seems to go a long way.” A long-distance friendship, after all, can be one of the strongest relationships you’ll have in your life, because you’re choosing it so deliberately. You’re putting in the effort to make something work when it’s often easier to let it wither. And while ease may be what we strive for, effort is more meaningful.

How to Keep a Long-Distance Friendship Alive