Q: My best friend, “Gail,” and I have grown apart the past few years. It’s no one’s fault; we just don’t have anything in common anymore. She’s a stay-at-home mom with two kids under 4 and is busy with all of the things that come with that. I’m single, dating a couple of guys casually, very busy and engaged with my career.
Five years ago, we couldn’t be separated; we worked in the same building, roomed together and socialized together. These days, we might catch up a few times a year. We really try to get together but even picking a night when we’re both free to go to a movie is a nightmare, but we managed one last weekend.
At dinner, Gail broke down crying, saying that I don’t care about her, don’t make time for her anymore, never go to their house.
It’s true, but their house is kind of messy and chaotic, and with the kids and husband around we can’t really talk, so what’s the point? I feel bad that Gail is hurt and lonely, but I was blindsided by this. I thought she was happy with her kids and her husband, who is a genuinely nice guy.
Since we’re in our 20s none of our other friends are even married, let alone have kids. I thought about suggesting Gail find a “mommy group” or something but that makes it sound like I don’t want to be her friend anymore and I’m blowing her off. Her family lives on the opposite coast so her local support group is pretty thin. What can I do?
A: You can start acting like a friend of substance, or you can admit to yourself—and Gail—that you were only a friend of convenience.
Before I explain, a pre-emptive clarification: I’m actually not judging here (much) because it’s normal and necessary for some friendships to be deeper than others. The deeper ones yield the most but also demand the bigger investment from us in time, attention, and sometimes discomfort, so it’s OK that not every friend we have gets everything we’ve got.
What’s not OK is to declare someone your “best” friend in the same breath that you admit you stay away because her kids annoy you and her house is a mess.
That’s everything but an open admission that you care more about Gail’s circumstances than you care about Gail herself.
Which, again, is fine if you’re just a party pal—but Gail seems to think you’re her best friend, too, so she’s expecting you to be more drawn to her than you are repelled by her floor Cheerios.
Gail’s circumstances, by the way, are pretty typical for households with small kids. And, no, it’s not fun for parents, either, to have more housework than energy and more commitments than privacy. Gails can be happy about their choices and steadfast in their devotion to a “genuinely nice guy” and their kids and still be howling from their souls for a break.
Are you willing to be hers? She thought so, and you weren’t, so now she’s asking you directly instead of signing on to your “it’s no one’s fault” theory of drift, which only works when it’s not patently self-serving.
As long as your attitude toward visits is “What’s the point?” then you are indeed only an acquaintance of Gail’s now, not a friend—which again I don’t judge as long as she knows this so she can go “find a ‘mommy group’ or something.” A suggestion I would have judged if you hadn’t caught yourself before making it. Because wow.
If instead you can—if you want to—find purpose in these visits beyond what’s in them for your amusement, then you can be her friend. Some of these purposes being: to keep her company as she does her mom thing; bring dinner or help out in other ways; understand what her life is like so you can remain close; get to know her husband as a potential friend in his own right; get to know her kids so you can become Auntie Friend to them as they grow older and more interesting; slog through her tough time just as she would through yours (be it kids of your own someday or something else entirely); and even just logging in a good faith effort to appear on her turf, to validate any effort she then makes to appear on yours.
Kids suck parents in and push non-parents away. They test both sides of a friendship. You close your letter by asking, “What can I do?”—and that’s the first question on your test. Is it just a rhetorical shrug, or are you sincerely open to change?