Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.
This episode is the first of a few episodes talking about friendships — how to maintain them, how to end them, how to help a friend who doesn't want to be helped.
Today the Sugars focus on the task of maintaining friendships as people's lives change. First, they consider the role of technology — is something lost when we don't answer calls anymore and only text? Next, they discuss how to maintain friendships when children come into the mix.
I realize we are all engaged in technology, career, family and activities. My problem lies with the constant stream of friends who say, "I'm too busy!" "I'm swamped!" "I'm running in a million directions!" My translation is: "I'm too busy for you, you are not a priority, and I am rather important."
Worse yet is the faceless, voiceless communication. Am I supposed to be satisfied with a lengthy text message update about their life, and/or a Facebook status update to keep in touch? Or with statements being said rather than questions being asked? Things like, "Hope you are well," "Hope you had a great trip," "I trust all is well with your family." No asking and listening, probing my heart and mind, seeking my thoughts. I guess no one really is interested or cares.
I have tried to be a good friend, put in the effort with my time, my ear, my physical presence and personal calls that go unanswered, straight to voicemail. Nobody is that bloody busy! So do I just "pull the plug" and walk away from these unsatisfying friendships?
Lone Wolf in Mid-Life
Cheryl Strayed: This is a really common conundrum, especially in the modern age. I'm really of two minds. If you're finding that you're feeling dissatisfied with all of your friends, or a large majority of them, and feeling angry and alienated, maybe it's not them — it's you.
I think you've just described me in your letter. In these last several years I feel like I'm not as good of a friend as I want to be. The reason is that I'm busy — I'm working too much, I'm traveling a lot, and then when I'm not doing those things, I have these two little children and they have to take priority.
I have just straight-out said to many of my friends: "I love you, I care about you and, yeah, sometimes we're going to have to catch up on text." But what I've also done is, every season or so, say, "OK, it's been three months since I've seen you. We must get together." What I suggest to you is, first of all, don't take it personally that your friends are busy. Some of these people might be using busyness as an excuse to blow you off, but most of them probably actually care about you, and they just simply have to prioritize other things right now.
Steve Almond: Lone Wolf in Mid-Life, my reaction is exactly the same as yours. Your emotions around this describe something everybody is doing to one extent or another, which is forgetting your purpose in life: to establish human connections with people who are important to you. We get caught up in the day-to-day, but we need to take a deep breath and recognize, "The burdens ye shall always have, these friends ye shall not always have."
You need to do a little bit of triage and decide which relationships are important to you and cut through that static and say, "I get it, you're busy, but you're important to me. Let's have coffee, let's have a phone call, let's exchange letters where I can really hear what's going on underneath that kind of anxious froth."
I'm 35 years old and blessed to have a number of really strong friendships that have withstood distance, job changes and marriages. We write, call, visit each other and plan mini-getaways. In the weird way these things happen, these women I love have all had their first babies around the same time.
It's been almost a year now, and after the first flurry of new baby visits and texts, I've noticed a pattern: the phone calls and texts from my friends with babies have slowed to almost nothing. Talk of future trips and getaways have become vague and sound less likely to happen. I accepted that as the only childless friend in the group, there would be more pressure on me to be the one to shoulder the emotional labor of keeping our friendships alive. But I don't want to shoulder our friendship in a way that chips away at it because of my resentment toward them for being out of touch.
Do they not need my friendship anymore because there are these new little, lovely hearts to love? Am I just delaying the inevitable slipping away? Can a childless woman really be friends with women who have children? Does she have the right to even ask for one?
Steve: Yes, you do. Just recognize that your friends are tired, stressed out and probably preoccupied in the parenting culture we exist in. What you're picking up on is a very real closing of the ranks — psychically, emotionally and socially. And sometimes, friends who aren't in the middle of that vortex feel shut out, like you don't have as much in common with them.
But I promise you, they need your presence. They need your friendship. They need somebody to remind them they were a good friend with strong, sustaining relationships before Hurricane Baby arrived. I love that you're trying to be so considerate, but don't allow that consideration to become self-punishment.
Cheryl: One of the biggest shocks for me when I became a mother was realizing I could never again leave the house unless I made arrangements. I was essentially tethered to two human beings. They either needed to come with me, or I had to pay somebody to watch them, or I had to make sure my husband could.
In those early years, when friends would get in touch with me, I would be forced to say, "Would you like to come to the zoo with me?" And boy, did I love having another adult along with me! Some of my dear friends didn't want to go to the zoo with me, and others said, "Listen, I know at this moment in your life, you are less flexible than I am. So what can you do?" And I would say, "Let's put the baby in a stroller, and we'll go for a walk at 2 o'clock sharp." Or, "Let's go to the zoo Tuesday morning." That flexibility works both ways.
Shut Out, you sound like you are thinking so compassionately about the moment your friends are in right now, and what you need to know is that your friends love you and that love is unchanged. Our hearts expand with every new person we love. The baby occupies a whole different heart space than you do. Just meet your friends where they are – and yes, that's kind of one-sided. But trust that there may be a time in your life where you need your friends to meet you where you are.
You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the full episode to hear more answers to questions about friendships, including how to end a friendship and how to help a friend in an abusive relationship.
Have a question for the Sugars? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and it may be answered on a future episode.