Why the Best Friends in Your Life May Actually Live the Farthest Away
"I love that our long distance friendship can survive solely on sending each other picture messages," says one e-card. "I really value our extremely low maintenance and long distance internet friendship," another quips.
We joke about it, but there is an underlying truth: With so many of our friends, we're not as in touch as we used to be. Whether it's due to long distances or overwhelming schedules, the hours-long phone calls of yore have now been boiled down to a weekly Snapchat of our dogs, a daily Instagram "like" and maybe the occasional midnight Facebook message.
For some of our friendships, this shift in communication has spelled the end, as two people drift apart. But with other friends, as the number of texts dwindles and the check-ins become less frequent, something special is happening: We stay as close as ever. And when we finally do get together, we pick right back up where we left off.
These "no check-in needed" friends are some of the best ones we have.
Friends for a modern social landscape: The existence of the "no check-in needed" friend is arguably an outgrowth of our young and restless millennial behavior. Whether for new jobs or new partners, young adults accounted for 43% of all movers between 2007 and 2012, data from the U.S. Census Bureau found. Gone is the era when Joey, Ross and Chandler all stay in the same city.
It's no surprise, then, that a 2014 study by Erin Sahlstein found approximately 83% of us have long-distance friendships, and we usually average of 10 of them at a time. Thus we've established a new kind of friendship, one that isn't nurtured by daily post-work drinks or even weekly conversations, yet still retain a close sense of connection.
They're what Shasta Nelson, founder of women's friendship matching site GirlFriend Circles, named "confirmed friendships," relationships with all the intimacy of a close friendship without requiring the frequency of communication or dedication of time others day — they're confirmed.
Rochelle*, 26, finds that these types of relationships — she can name three of her own — come more naturally now. "These are friendships with 10-plus-year lifespans for me, so my low-maintenance friendships are all with people who I used to see on a daily or near-daily basis for years and years," she told Mic. "We know each other better in some ways than the friends we see frequently now."
Following from afar: As much the constant interruption of technology, as well as the annoyingly long leash it gives us, threatens our friendships, it's what keeps the long-distance ones going. A 2011 study from Eastern Michigan University found that relationship satisfaction and communication levels were much higher for long-distance friends who used Facebook than those who didn't.
"Technology has allowed us to maintain asynchronous, long-distance relationships. Thus, we can remain emotionally intimate with people we rarely see," Irene Levine, a psychiatry professor at the New York University School of Medicine and creator of the Friendship Blog, told Mic.
That includes social media like Instagram, which can be useful crutches. "We feel like we know a little bit more about each other's lives and we can easily comment on each other's lives a little bit more," Nelson said.
"I love seeing photos of my friends lives — their faces, the minutiae on the street they find beautiful, daily life snapshots)," Joanne, 26, told Mic.
"It's definitely easier, in that we get to see photos and snippets of what each other's lives look like without having to put in any extra effort or find a mutually agreeable time to catch up across different time zones," Rochelle said.
Even the littlest bits count: But when actual communicating is required — and it pretty much still is — small bits and pieces can be just as effective as big conversations.
"Anytime we use any small way to stay in touch with somebody, we still get the benefit," Nelson said. "If we just send a text, 'Oh, I just saw this and it reminded me we always wanted to go to Santa Fe together.' Anytime we can take 10 seconds to send a photo, text or go on Facebook, we help build the nest of our relationship."
With a count of six of these types of friendships, Joanne uses "sporadic check-ins" when a friend pops into her head or she needs help. "I tell Diane, Rachel and Leigh things I wouldn't admit to Pope Francis. I'm OK with occasional notes and delayed responses from my friends, partially because of my understanding," Joanne told Mic.
Currently, Joanne's long-distance friend is knitting her a sweater and another is making her a playlist, special projects she counts among the reasons she doesn't really stress that they barely talk, voice on voice. Just because you're not talking doesn't mean you don't have each other in mind.
The upside to falling — temporarily — out of touch: The beauty of staying in touch with the small stuff is that, when we do hang with our "confirmed" friends, we get straight to the good stuff. "There's a lot more physical affection too — hand holding, hugging, snuggling up — because it's such a rare thing to spend time with them. Even though these friends know the least about my day-to-day, they are some of my most unconditional cheerleaders," Rochelle said.
Moreover, sitting outside the stream of our daily lives, these friendships might be the most solid thing we have when our lives shifts beneath us. Major events like babies, new partners and new jobs interrupt our schdules — but a friendship that isn't subject to that daily grind won't feel the impact.
"Half of close friends will change every seven years, is what the research shows. I actually think confirmed friendships can be more protected from that change," Nelson said.
"Time does a good job of weeding the less important people in your life," Brandon, 27, told Mic. In that way, our "no check-in needed" friends may be the best representations of what friendship can be — the ones whose value and importance transcend and survive the time and distance that comes between.
"It's about more than just meeting up for drinks," Rochelle said. "It's not about being the center of someone's world. And that if it's a real friend, that relationship is a lot more elastic than you might think."
* Some names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.