You Only Have Two Real Friends, Maximum

One of the interesting side effects of moving across the world for an as-yet-undetermined length of time is seeing friendships molt, wither, and then–usually–fade into oblivion. Most friends and lovers (I hate that term, by the way, but it’s more palatable than “person you are occasionally boning”) become nothing more than a few conversations over the span of a year that consist mostly of “Man, it’s been forever. Wow.”

And I know what you’re thinking: “My friends/bffs/blood sisters/trusted clergy members are different. We would Skype regularly if one of us lived on THE MOON.” I know, I thought so, too. As does everyone when they take an extended leave of absence. When we leave, we do so with the best of intentions: Lots of hugs, a couple of tears, breathless promises to call all the time. And while some relationships can’t even stand the separation of a semester away, at least those come with a finite end, and can be planned for and adjusted to. When one just moves away, there’s no motivation to keep the spark alive–you guys might never regularly hang out again.

It’s rather depressing, the trajectory a friendship takes when put on indefinite hiatus. There are an opening few weeks or perhaps an excited little month in which you talk every day, almost. You have so much to say, things are so awesome, you guys can’t wait to tell each other all about that evil wench in line at the grocery store and this guy who could totally hit it if he wanted to but is–as of yet–oblivious to your existence. Then, gradually, conversations become less frequent and more of a chore. Recounting everything that happened since your last big chat–if there’s nothing particularly pressing to discuss–becomes an exercise in forced enthusiasm. “Oh, you took a poop today? TWO!? Big girl on campus!” Eventually, you are reduced to occasionally seeing each other on Facebook chat and barely mustering a “Hey, what’s up?” followed by a “brb” that never ends. And these are people with whom you used to share everything, with whom you exchanged knowing glances at house parties and shared Deer Park bottles full of vodka.

And let’s not even think about the path that most romantic long-distance relationships take, as that is far too sad to even consider.

But the silver lining on all of this is those one or two people that truly stand out–the ones with whom you actually do KIT (Keep In Touch, for the middle-school yearbook illiterate). When there is that person with whom you actually enjoy regular conversation, sharing mundane news, and talking about events that you didn’t necessarily experience together, it’s so satisfying in a way most friendships aren’t. It’s a love that says “You’re amazing and interesting even when it’s not easy to get to you. You are worth the effort.” It’s a beautiful thing and, in some ways, restorative of the perhaps over-zealous and often-broken faith we have in close friendships. It’s a selfless, platonic, mutual love. It’s a Shell Silverstein book drinking together over Skype.

Although we must also acknowledge what that really implies about most of our other friendships: Whether we like it or not, a good portion (if not the majority) of our relationships are built as much on proximity and convenience as on real love and compatibility. Which is fine, of course, as long as we acknowledge it. A friendship that will go the distance and be just as vital when there isn’t the daily drama and intimacy of shared experience is incredibly rare. We have a lot of friendships that are, ultimately, based heavily on amount of time spent at house parties and number of romantic prospects you laughingly veto over drinks.

So cheers to the friends who make it through the distance, and it’s a shame we can’t pick them out as easily when we’re together all the time. They certainly deserve the recognition. But I suppose, if you’re not going anywhere anytime soon, it might behoove you to ask yourself the question as you glance around the next drunken gathering: If I lived in Hong Kong, which one of these douchebags would snail mail me Reese’s cups? TC mark

image - grey74

Chelsea Fagan

Chelsea Fagan founded the blog The Financial Diet. She is on Twitter.


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  • yvonne

    Spot on. Two of them, daily conversations about our lives – but we’ve been 8hours apart by plane for the past two years.

  • Sophia

    This is so true. You are extremely insightful. It astounds me, really

  • Mung Beans

    I keep in touch with a lot of people.  My high school bros are still solid gold.  Although the more times I move, the more exhausting it can get.  I’ve let a lot of friendships fall by the wayside because I just don’t have the emotional energy to keep up with emailing and calling all that many people.  

  • Sarah

    I’ve been living abroad in pretty obscure parts of the world for the last 1.5 years and this article just rings so true.

  • Hermit_theWoman

    I was abroad for the summer and I would get snail mail from my room mate even though it took nearly 2 weeks to receive a letter. Moments like that make you realize that there are certain keepers in your life.

  • Alasdair

    Well, you just made me depressed. Judging by this article, I don’t think I have any ‘real friends’, outside of blood relatives. :(
    (At least I’m close with my family, I guess.)

  • Date By Numbers

    I think there’s also something to be said for the friendships that don’t need maintenance.  That you don’t have to keep up.  That when it’s been a year and a half, it feels like the day before.

    • Anonymous

      I love those.

    • Ali

      Came to post this. My 3 very closest friends (aside from my bf), are currently on the other side of the U.S. And as much as we miss each other, we’re not phone talking/skyping people (unless, of course, it’s the love of our life) But the moment I go back home, I know we’ll fall right back into it. Why? Because we’ve done it many, many times before. I couldn’t ask for better friends.

    • Mung Beans


  • Christina

    Yep. I moved to the UK from the States 2 years ago and this is utterly true. It is a little sad when you think about it, but it’s also really lovely to know the people that really are close to you. 

  • ariel

    I don’t know if I completely agree with this article. You never know how people are going to come in and out of your life. I moved abroad for over a year and was forced to come back due to an illness and there were a few people I kept in touch with and others I didn’t. But, the friends that came through for me when I came back surprised me in a way that made me fall in love with them and my home town all over again even though we would only talk once in a while when I was gone. I’ve had  relationships in my life that have lasted years even if we’ve gone through phases where we haven’t talked to one another.

    Maybe it’s because I’ve had a rough family life and the friendships I’ve made have really become my core social support but just because a relationship fade temporarily doesn’t mean it won’t come back into your life or that it’s not real, unconditional, love.

  • s

    Shel silverstein! (not shell)

  • flipside of a memory

    Sometimes you don’t even have to move for it to wilt and wither. Like if one is jobless and the other is having the time of her life in her job is married or something similar.  (Not always the case of course)

  • A.

    1. I’ve been at boarding school overseas for the last 7 years. I can definitely relate.
    2. I’m from Hong Kong. Fear not, it is not difficult to get hold of Reese’s. 

    • Phoebe Lew

      I’m not sure what is difficult to get a hold of in Hong Kong. Found that somewhat amusing in the writing.

      • Anonymous

        Or you know, people on thought catalog still have parochial notions about asia…

      • Kate

        not everywhere is as western as hong kong, as it’s really the anomaly of asia/china-not-china. it’s totally understandable that perceptions of hong kong aren’t exactly spot on, as anyone else living abroad in Asia would love some packages of Reese’s. 

  • Nick Cox

    You and Ryan O’Connell both have some seriously mistaken ideas about friendship, and it appears to be making you both miserable. As I commented on his piece the other day, what counts in friendship is not how often you talk but how easily you can pick up where you left off after not talking for a long time. A friend of mine that I hadn’t spoken with in four years recently moved into my area, and the first time we saw each other it only took about half an hour of so-how’s-your-family for us to be right back where we were.

    There’s nothing wrong with friendships being based on proximity and convenience. Don’t forget that for most of human history that was pretty much all they *could* be based on. A few of my friends live in Boston, and I see them all the time. If I move to New York, there’s another group of friends that I would see all the time—I see them when I visit New York and it’s like no time has passed. The notion that friendships have no shelf life and require constant maintenance is a vestige of adolescent codependence that we should all rid ourselves of as quickly as possible.

    • Anonymous

      But I think what I’m talking about is a certain kind of friendship, the kind that longs to stay in touch and connected even through physical distance–which I think a lot of us need. Picking up where you left off is relatively easy for most friends, I think, because we long to “get back into the groove.” It’s natural for us to pick back up our tendencies, jokes, and mannerisms around each other. At least, that’s always been my experience. But keeping up with each other on a regular basis takes effort and–if it’s worth it for you–is extremely gratifying.

      I don’t think anyone has mistaken ideas about friendship, and I’m certainly not miserable. Perhaps I just enjoy my “stay-in-touch” friends more than, say, you would. Nothing wrong with being different.

      • Nick Cox

        I’m sorry if my comment was overly emphatic—I get in that sort of mood sometimes. 

        I’m going to overshare now a little bit if that’s okay: 

        I don’t have any friendships like that. I sort of did for a little while with my college girlfriend after we broke up, but it wasn’t quite like you described. We didn’t make an effort to stay in really close touch—we stayed in really close touch despite ourselves, because we’d been so accustomed to being with each other and all of a sudden we weren’t. We actually started making an effort *not* to call each other so much when we realized that it might be impeding us from getting on with our lives. Now we talk every week or so.

      • Visakan Veerasamy

        You’re both fine the way you are. I think everybody ought to have a good mix of all kinds of relationships, but if you’re missing out on something, no matter. Life is rich enough that we can spend the rest of it simply enjoying what we do have, and reminiscing on what we did.

  • Eana

    “Insightful”?  Not really.  Having lived in eight places since graduating high school six years ago, the fact that most friendships are temporary is obvious.  Any person who has travelled knows this.

  • gottaexplode

    As someone experiencing her first semester back from study abroad — YES, YES, a million times YES. 

  • Rishtopher

    I used to think that I couldn’t stay friends with a lot of people because I/they would be too lazy to try and keep in touch via constant calling/emails/Facebook/whatever, but as this has happened to me a couple of times, I’ve come to realize that it isn’t exactly the distance that seems to strip away our enthusiasm, but the fact that your environment can change you just as much as other people. 

    It doesn’t even have to be as big a change as a new country, it could be a city close by. You kind of adjust to your new place and chances are it’s going to be a different scene than your used to. You might change, maybe without you noticing. Eventually, you see your friends and you realize that you’re not as compatible as you remember.  

  • Steven Timberman

    The tough thing is that if you say “most of the friends I have now I probably won’t talk to in a year” you are, by definition, a complete and utter asshole.

    What’s interesting to me is that it can often be tough to tell who you will keep in touch with and who will fade out of your life. I rarely keep in touch with the people I’m BFFs with, we’re just too fucking touchy and intense to not become drama queens once you factor in distance. What’s awesome is when the distance apart actually strengthens a friendship, when people can slap you across the face and say “Hey, dude, you’re doing what you need to be doing. You did it at X, Y, and Z, and now you’re going to do it again.” 

    Those are the friends worth keeping around. 

  • cupeater

    They sell Reese’s cups in Hong Kong. I eat them all the time. 

    • Natt Smith

      They don’t have them in South Korea.

      • Sade

        It’s true!! Thank goodness my Mom mailed me some.

    • Joanna

      they do not exist in South Africa


    What a pessimistic opinion of friendship. I’ve been living abroad for the past 4 years and my dearest friends are still where I left them. I talk with them monthly at best. Having them visit once every other year is worth more than hundreds of emails or phone calls. For me, friendship is not about talking to somebody every day. It’s about the shared experiences, trust, support you developed over the years. If you’re confident and secure about it, proximity is a commodity.

  • guest

    My friends went to university in different cities 2 months ago, upon visiting them I realised I might not speak to them every day but when we spend time together it’s exactly the same

  • EP

    My best friend moved to Boston from Dallas at the end of August. We still skype/text/call everyday. I guess I’m lucky. I haven’t met half of the new people in his life, yet I feel like I know plenty about the ones that count most to him.

    Interesting article.

  • Bev_moisey

    My best friend posted me a vibrator from the UK to Australia when I told her I wasn’t getting any. That’s love.

  • Danielle G

    Bah, I’m currently living on the Galapagos Islands and the internet here sucks so much you basically can’t have a decent skype conservation. I miss my best friend so much and can’t wait to see his face when it is not a frozen screen that disconnects every 3 minutes. 

  • Frida

    I had to show this to the friend who has always been there and I really think always will, even from a distance.
    2 years later and we message constantly throughout the day about anything and everything. never gets boring.
    This is great Chelsea, probably my favorite thing you’ve written.

  • Anonymous
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