When I was growing up my step-dad always told me that when I was all old and grey and looking back on my life, I’d be able to count my true friends on one hand. When I was younger I took this a quantity thing. Now that I’m older—and see he’s right—I realize that he was talking about quality. Many friendships have a natural ebb and flow. However, when the stars align and give you that person who practically shares your DNA, you hold on for dear life.
During my last visit to San Diego, I was talking with one of my two besties about how similar lifelong friendships are to a marriage. Like marriage, friendships require forgiveness and compassion. Like marriage, over time you learn both the beautiful and not-so-beautiful parts of someone’s heart. And like with any close relationship, distance makes things hard.
But just because you’re living on the other side of the globe as your BFF doesn’t mean you’ll lose that closeness. It takes more work, sure, but there’s also a special pride that comes from persevering against the difficulties of distance. Keep reading for a few ways to work around the struggles unique to expats and their long distance BFFs.
Don’t compare adventures
There is a mountain of truth in the saying that comparison kills joy. When it comes to relationships, comparisons also cause us to isolate ourselves and withdraw from those we love the most. A fellow blogger put it perfectly, saying that comparison prevents empathy. Operating from a belief that your life isn’t as important as someone else’s can be divisive in friendships. Think about it—it’s hard to be close if someone isn’t letting you get close.
This empathy disconnect is sneaky and creeps into both sides of the expat equation. It can be especially hard when you and a bestie are first adjusting to life in different places. When I first moved abroad I was feeling listless and lost. I didn’t anticipate the emotional tidal wave (and identity crisis and culture shock) that would come with it. I talked to my partner, sure, but I wasn’t so quick to share my feelings with my best friends. Compared to the busyness of raising families and full-time jobs, I thought my struggles were stupid. One of my besties back home had a similar struggle because she worried that I didn’t want to hear about “regular life.”
Empathy is a crucial part of relationships—it’s what lets us feel cared for. Most of us would agree that problems and adventures are relative. Still, many of us have a hard time not diminishing our own importance. Remember that if a person is close enough to call a best friend, they are going to care about what’s important to you.
Watch your words
Talking, of course, the major way we communicate. But oh, how tricky it is. Even with the best intentions, it’s easy to step on conversational toes. I’ve written several blogs about innocent comments that get under my skin. And after lots of mistakes, I know that I can make eyeballs glaze over in less than two minutes. Here’s some advice for navigating those conversational minefields.
For those who are living abroad: reel it in. Temper all those reminiscings that start with one time in… with memories that involve your friends or places you’ve been together. You don’t need to pretend that you haven’t done cool new things, but don’t turn the conversation into a speech on your travels. And while it’s good to talk about life in your new home, take it easy on the cultural comparisons. Don’t blab about how portions are too big in the U.S. or try and force your friends into a 9:00 pm dinner à la life in Madrid (oops). Yes, you’ve adapted to life in a new country. Still, spare your loved ones back home the cultural lectures.
To the non-expat friends: put your comments through the engagement scenario. If someone told you they were getting married or having a baby—or any big life moment—you would never respond with I wish I could do that or oooh, it must be nice. Similarly, you likely wouldn’t point out all the things that could go wrong or the obstacles that are waiting just down the road. Like marriage or changing careers or getting a tattoo on your face, living abroad is a life choice. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t express concerns or worries, but first and foremost just celebrate the news.
Find a new middle ground
When you’re not a part of someone’s physical life, distance slips in real fast. Unfortunately, it’s harder as time goes by and the effects of timezones and busyness and different life stages add up. One day you’ll realize you haven’t talked in a couple weeks. Worse is to be stopped mid-scroll on Facebook by an update that your best friend’s kid is now walking or that something you had no idea was on the horizon has just happened. As good as our intentions may be, it’s hard to keep in touch every day.
When it comes to your bestie, of course, you want to feel a part of their regular life. My advice to work around this is to put a new twist on your old common ground. Did you used to meet once a week for runs? Shoot a text of your new route or times. Are you both watching Stranger Things? Share theories of what heck is going on in Hawkins, Indiana. One of my besties has basically curated my reading list for the past two years, introducing me to Crime and Punishment and all things Hemingway. It was great to go through some of the same books together and then chat about what we thought. It seems obvious now, but these little common threads make consistent communication seamless.
How have you managed to keep close with your bestie despite all the miles and time zones and hemispheres between you? I’m anxious to hear what has worked or what you think needs fixing, so please share your thoughts in the comments below!