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: 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 (because you don’t have to be friends with someone) and that we move into and out of at will (ok marriages too, but there’s more paperwork). When a friendship is based on convenience or a similar life stage, you understand 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 worrying about where you stand or are feeling vulnerable, there’s a good chance that she’s probably going through some of the same and that common emotional 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. Another best friend and I lived in physical proximity only during high school and 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 practically sisters.
Coming to grips with transitioning friendships has been the hardest part of being an expat. If I’m being honest, 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.