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Which Old Friendships Are Worth Hanging On To?

6 tips for separating the keepers from losers — and enriching your life in the process

By Linda Bernstein | January 24, 2014
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Linda Bernstein has written hundreds of articles for dozens of magazines and newspapers, writes the blog GenerationBsquared and teaches social media at the Columbia University School of Journalism.

Recently, during a routine medical procedure, the doctor goofed. Anesthesia went under my skin instead of into my vein and my body reacted badly. Within a few hours, my fever had climbed to 103°. I couldn’t get out of bed. Even TV was beyond me.
 
Then the phone rang. It was Joanie, my best friend from childhood, who lives 3,000 miles away. I hadn’t seen her in years. At first I questioned whether a conversation now would be worth the effort. How could she possibly make me feel better?
 
(MORE: Why Girlfriends Are Good for a Woman’s Health)
 
Make New Friends; Keep the Old?
 
By midlife, many of us are blessed, or saddled, with long-standing relationships that ebb, flow and often lack vitality — and sometimes even appeal.
 
“A lot of friendships are ‘situational’ to begin with,” explains Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., a psychiatry professor at the NYU Langone School of Medicine. We meet people at work, then get a new job and don’t have time to socialize with old colleagues. The people we clicked with while our children were little — often the parents of their friends — no longer share our interests. No wonder we consider letting go of these lapsed or sporadic relationships.
 
From childhood on, we’re taught friendship is golden. Yet as Levine notes, “some friendships take more effort than they are worth.” So how can we determine which to let fall to the wayside and which to nurture?
 
Bonnie Cohen, a certified life and relationship coach, says that decision starts with an assessment of the personal value of our connections. More important than how long we’ve known someone, she says, is how they make us feel today.
 
She says you can quickly assess that value by asking yourself these three questions: “When I’m with a certain person or conversing, do I feel drained or uplifted? Does that friend only talk about herself or does she show genuine interest in me? Do we share values?”
 
Maggie Dunsmore (names have been changed), a high school teacher in Stamford, Conn., recently let two long-term friendships fade away because she finally realized that spending time with these people left her feeling irritated and unhappy.
 
“One man, a former colleague, had gotten friendly with my husband and me," she said. "He and his wife got divorced about five years ago and ever since, whenever we’d meet, he’d spend the whole visit complaining about his ex-wife, even though she and I are still friendly. He was so negative and unpleasant that I decided it would be best to get him out of my life.”
 
The second person Dunsmore “unfriended” was someone she’d met in Lamaze class decades before. “I realized that for 25 years, Stacey had been playing competition games about whose children were smarter. Lately she had gotten into comparing how much money our kids made. After two unreturned emails, she stopped contacting me. Frankly, I’m relieved.”
 
Levine reminds her patients that friendships are voluntary and that midlife is a perfect time for getting rid of things that no longer suit you. “Unless the person is an unavoidable co-worker or relative, there is no reason to work on a relationship that leaves you unfulfilled.”
 
(MORE: The Joys of New Friends)
 
Making Friendships Count
 
Once you allow yourself to let go of friendships that no longer bring you joy, you’ll have more time and energy to devote to the ones that do. And a more vigorous pursuit of intriguing new connections can mitigate any unease you feel about jettisoning relationships that bog you down. These six tips can help you strengthen the ties that bind.   
  • Fit friends into your routines. Do you like to jog in the morning or take the dog for a walk? It’s likely that one of your new friends has the same routine. “I’ve found that inviting a pal to join my walk in the park gives me a chance to keep up with people I might not have time to see otherwise,” says Sarah Rich, a Manhattan playwright. “It also means that the exercise is more aerobic because we’re talking while moving briskly. That’s what I call friends with benefits.”
  • Nurture common interests. Almost every local cultural or educational institution offers free or low-cost classes, so sign up with a friend. “I never thought I’d become a bird-watching fiend,” says Norma Price, a semi-retired nurse in Fort Worth, Tex. “Birding seemed pretty boring. I only took the course at the bird sanctuary because a friend ‘forced’ me to. Now I have a new hobby, plus she and I have become better friends.”
  • Grow your nest. “The concept of family is continually being redefined,” notes Levine. “If a friend you don’t see often is alone on a holiday or a weekend because her relatives are far away, invite her into your family. This is how friendships flourish.”
  • Have quick chats to stay connected. “Even if you don’t have time for a long talk,” suggests Levine, “just call a friend while she’s on your mind. If you put it off now, you’ll probably put it off later too.” Quick catch-ups allow you to “be there” for breaking news. Short but sweet check-ins add an immediacy to a friendship.
  • Go away together. While luncheon dates and 15-minute phone chats are great for catching up on news, they don strengthen connections and create new memories. Levine suggests taking a trip together — as a duo or group, like your college buddies — to reinforce the ties that brought you together in the first place
  • Get old-fashioned. Cohen is a big fan of snail mail. “Virtual is great, but a handwritten note goes deeper," she says. "You’re sending not just your words, but a piece of yourself. You’ve chosen the card, touched the paper, signed your name and licked the stamp. A message you send through the mail literally contains your DNA.” Most important, of course, are the words, so take the time to write a thoughtful letter.
 
Different Kinds of Friends
 
Ultimately, says Cohen, friends play different roles in our lives. She advises her clients to appreciate and celebrate the deliciousness of each one.
 
That’s exactly what I did the day I was home sick in bed and Joanie called. Just hearing that voice I’ve known for more than 50 years was probably the best medicine for what ailed me.
 
My fever was still crazy high and my arm hurt like hell when I hung up the receiver, but my dear old friend had listened to me and made me laugh. Joanie and I may not be in touch that often, but the ties of friendship between us are so strong and elastic, I know they’ll never snap. 
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