Keeping friendships after you move abroad

Believe it or not, it was almost ten years ago that fear of missing out (FOMO)—that yucky feeling of general discontentment now plaguing first-worlders of all ages—was the buzzword du jour. After a quick stop in San Diego a couple of weeks ago, I’d like to add another FOMO to the list: the fear of moving on. I’m talking about friendships and more specifically, my friends moving on from me.

Friendship is strange, in the way that it’s the only relationship in our adult lives free of obligation. You don’t have to be friends with someone and can move into and out of them at will. Ok marriages are like this too, but there’s more paperwork.

When a friendship is based on convenience or a similar life stage, it’s understandable that when you move away that balance is shifted and you may no longer fit in each other’s lives. In the past, I’ve kind of celebrated this fact because it provides a natural petering off of friendships that were past their prime. But how do you stretch and change to carry your lifelong friendships through something major, like moving abroad?

I’ve made no secret of the bizarre experience expats face when visiting home and how weird it is to see how things have changed in your absence. Worse is the alarming feeling that comes when you’re 3,000 miles away, scrolling through social media and see a stranger arm in arm with your best bud, right where you used to be. Sure, you can match those dinner party pics on Instagram with empty white sand beaches or amazing street food, but hearing a friend slip in unfamiliar names when you’re having your first face to face conversation in months is a whole different ballgame. I may be here touting my experience, but the same feelings of ohmygod, are we still best friends? sweep over me every time I’m back in San Diego.

Now that I’m home and have had some time to think about it, I can only assume that this is a common part of the expat experience. When talking about how many expats come and go during the summer season, I’ve said that it’s much easier being the one to leave than the one who is left. I think this philosophy carries over to friendships as well: I can make new friends, but I’m not so sure how I feel about you doing the same. Ugly to say out loud, but no less true.

While in San Diego, I stayed the night with one of my closest girlfriends. Over breakfast the next morning she told me about the surprise birthday party she was planning for her husband, who happens to be Cody’s best bud as well. At the same moment that I was cheering her on for planning this epic surprise and anticipating with her how happy he’d be about the party, jealousy’s slimy grip was tightening on my insides. How could there be a party without us?

Here are a couple ideas I have about dealing with this kind of change.

First of all, put yourself in their shoes and have a little compassion. As often as you hold back rolling your eyes at another story about Tina and Randy (these are the theoretical new friends with terrible names), they probably do the same when you talk about how you don’t work, have a maid, and enjoy eighteen holidays a year, most of which are spent going out of town to those empty white sand beaches or to discover amazing street food. Your best friends have been left with a you-sized hole, you’d have to be a horrible person to begrudge them the right to try and fit someone else in there.

Another thing is to resign yourself to the fact that you’ll be one of the last people to hear about things. When you’re competing with different time zones and therefore having to schedule Skype sessions, there’s really no way around the fact that you’ll trickle to the bottom of the list. And that’s just for major life events, forget about the day to day things you used to chat about over drinks every Friday night. Because of this, you must accept that things will never again quite be like they were. You can gather the same group of close friends, but expect that you will be occasionally adrift in the conversation as a new inside joke flies over your head or there are awkward pauses as you all find your rhythm again.

Using social media, scheduling Skype chats, and having actual in-person visits have been indispensable not only in helping me stay connected with friends but also in establishing a new normal. It may sound obvious to you (it surely wasn’t to me), but telling people how you are feeling works wonders. If you’re worried about where you stand or are feeling vulnerable, there’s a good chance that she’s probably going through some of the same. That emotional common ground is miraculous.

It hasn’t been all gloom and doom because living abroad has only deepened those friendships where distance has always been a factor. My other best friend and I lived in physical proximity only during high school. Even though our lives look quite different from the outside—she’s a stay at home mom and writer in Oregon, I have no kids and am a volunteer in Colombia—the feelings of restlessness and isolation that come from being at home are the exact same. Leaning on each other in these moments has been one of a few things in the past couple of years that have bumped us from childhood friends to practical sisters.

Coming to grips with transitioning friendships has been the hardest part of being an expat. Part of the struggle comes from feeling that by choosing to live abroad, I’ve chosen the expat life over them and am also choosing to strain our relationship. It’s even worse to see how the more time that goes by, the more we move away from the way things were. It would be so much easier if our previous lives would lay dormant, in a Sleeping Beauty style state of suspension, reanimating only when I pop back in.

I know that those friends who are basically family will stay in my life no matter how many miles or moves or changes come. Even though it makes flaming daggers shoot out of my eyes, I am genuinely happy to see my bestie having fun on Facebook. But still, I can’t deny the little sniffle of relief that came when I heard that after everything with that surprise birthday party was said and done, ours were the faces that were missed most.


15 thoughts on “Keeping friendships after you move abroad

  1. This is a very necessary post! It certainly can apply to anyone…anything that significantly changes your life will similarly impact friendships. I think the closer friendships take the hardest hit because you notice all the changes with that much more effect and poignancy.
    I’m glad we’ve found such a genuine way to connect despite the distance. You are my soul sister, and my life wouldn’t be what it is without you.
    Oh, and Tina and Randy got nothing on you. If I ever have a daughter, though, I’m naming her Tina.

    1. I’m so glad too! I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have someone to inspire me to read Russian literature ;-) Please keep me posted about baby Tina…haha!

  2. I love you, Bestie! Forever and always!! Your honesty and your ability to be vulnerable is amazing. Thank you for these words, no shortage of tears over here. You are irreplaceable! xoxo

  3. Love this! In my life, I have moved around a ridiculous amount of time. I have more long distance friends than not and I know exactly what you are saying. I think if we go with a Biblical view it’s kind of like the life of Paul, he moved from place to place making friends everywhere he went and writing letters to them. I think what’s important as well is to be fully present wherever you are and make deep roots and deep friendships even if you are only at a certain place for a specific amount of time. When we live our lives longing for what we once had then we are unable to see the blessings and the people that God has sent us for that specific period of time. Of course it is super important to keep those friendships going, and it is super difficult, but those who are meant to be in your life will be there. It may not look the same but when you love one another that love will overcome all things.

    1. Your comment means a lot to me, Stephany–I like your view about Paul! I completely agree with you that learning how to be present wherever you are and continuing to foster deep friendships is the key to being happy no matter where life takes you. But, learning how to do that has been interesting ;-) Thank you so much for reading!

  4. This is a very touching post for me. Though I live in Boston, I’ve been hankering to move to Mexico since at least 2007, possibly longer. Yet I can’t seem to bring myself to do it. And I’m out of good “excuses.” I don’t have (nor need) a job. Financially I’m set. I speak Spanish. Yet, I’m quite attached to my friends here and dread losing them.

    But when I left San Francisco, the more marginal friends dropped back, but I’m still very close to a core group of people. And I truly believe that some people, once friends, will forever be friends as they just have some ineffably deep connection.

    So maybe I shouldn’t fear. But it’s hard not to.


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where find it easier to make new friends in Mexico.

    1. I’m so glad you related to this post! It’s funny how the more I talk about my struggles as an expat, the more I realize that these same difficulties existed in my previous life, just under different circumstances. It’s been wonderful to see how friendships have kept on (and even become closer) since we’ve been away from the U.S.

      I completely understand what you mean about it being hard to leave your established life behind–we had wanted to move abroad for a few years as well, and to be honest, I have to give credit to a major shakeup in our personal lives that spurred us take the first step in exploring those possibilities. Good luck as you inch your way south ;)

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