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Reviving Friendships In Real Life

Reconnecting online is one thing, but can old friendships really be resurrected?


Former friends occupy an unusual place in our social orbits. We all have those people who knew us “when” — prom dates, pledge brothers, sorority sisters, college roommates, high school biology class partners with whom we dissected frogs. These are the people who re-emerge through social media connections and engender warm feelings from the past, but know little depth about our contemporary lives.

Recent psychological studies report that moving from a casual friendship to “best friend” takes more than 200 hours of face-to-face contact. While we may consider a historical friendship as “close,” it is disconcerting to feel that we have to move back to square one with a person with whom we have a shared history. These same studies show that quality friendships provide positive health benefits and that cohesive social networks buffer stress, depression and anxiety.  So, the consideration of reviving an old, distant friendship is exciting, but requires thoughtful examination.

I Found You on Facebook!

Eliza Segell is an Atlanta social worker who teaches a workshop entitled “Anti-social media? Creating safe spaces in an anxious, digital world.” She says, “Reviving friendships can be done later in life with a certain amount of caution. There is such a difference between linking with a person and having a continuing relationship. Real-space is significantly different than online.”

The realization that significant life friendships have faded can generate a sense of loss, so reviving a friendship requires more than hitting the play button on one that has been paused. There is nothing simple about picking up a former relationship.

“Part of the danger of online connection is that personal sense called a ‘fixation on us.’ We are easily stimulated by a ‘like’ or a ‘ping’ which has nothing to do with anything interpersonal. This makes it too easy to confuse a relationship with technology and a relationship with a person,” says Segell. “Friendship is a skill that must be practiced and maintained in ways that cannot be sustained electronically.”

All too frequently, we are inspired by connections that are just a text message away. It is less clear how, or even if, we should approach an old friend to regain the closeness that once was cherished. There are markers for observing the lay of the land for revival of a former friendship.

Long Time, No See

Take a careful inventory by asking yourself if this is a relationship worth reviving. If the friendship has been outgrown and is outdated, like that polyester leisure suit hanging in the back of the closet that’s reminiscent of Saturday Night Fever, let it be. If the dynamic of the friendship might translate into real time, then convey the hope to resuscitate.

Make yourself available to the other person and manage expectations by keeping them low. Talking from the foundation of shared experiences creates an atmosphere of comfort, though it really doesn’t jump start the friendship. Do more than text. Call, email or write a letter. Be persistent in inviting contact, but take care not to be overeager. A revival needs breathing space. The goal is to resume contact with purpose. Be up front with your interest in renewing contact after so much time has passed.

Let’s Get Together

Go slowly as you test the waters for viability of the renewal. Keep the first meeting short.

Segall says, “Take it as a given truth that the online relationship can’t hold water to an in-person friendship. Meeting will be discovering again what originally was attractive between the two of you. So, treat the person as if they are someone new. Assumptions based in the past barely scratch the surface of our current time and stage of life.”

There is wisdom in keeping sensitive topics on hold until you learn if the relationship can tolerate up-to-date information. That said, though, be prepared to be brave and take a bit of a risk to be honest and upfront about who you are now. Gauge receptiveness to the exchange of information. Small, low stake truths set the stage for more personal and meaningful conversations later.

See You Soon

Remember that it will take both of you to keep a renewed friendship going. If the relationship is one-sided, it will not last. As you reconnect, keep thinking and stay clear-eyed about what the notion of friendship means to you at this time of life. Remember: Each of you has gone in different directions and you both have histories that need to be factored into how things have changed.

You might want to act as acquaintances first, rather than expecting the friendship to drop into its previous level of intimacy. Trust takes time to build and is based on mutual experience. Take care against the possibility of being blinded by a desire to make things work, whether out of loneliness or excitement, for having this person back in your life.

And keep in mind that reviving a friendship is a two-way street. Being cautious keeps you from pouring too much into a relationship that is a nonstarter. If things progress slowly and deliberately into a genuine friendship, it’s more likely to be based on a real, sustainable bond. The realities of friendships, for better or worse, are part connection, part timing and part circumstance. In the right place at the right time, and with luck, you may be able to follow though, reconnect and reflect on coming back together.

By Jackson Rainer
Jackson Rainer is a board certified clinical psychologist who practices psychotherapy with individuals and couples at the Care and Counseling Center, Atlanta.  He is a Professor Emeritus of Psychology with the University System of Georgia.

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