Long-distance friendships: When to keep them going and when to take a step back

Whether it’s going to uni, moving schools, or changing jobs, starting a new chapter of your life can bring exciting new opportunities, fun new friends, perhaps even a brand new haircut?!

But while our mobile phones and social media make it easier than ever before to stay in touch with the people we leave behind, the transition from spending almost everyday together to barely a monthly phone call can be tough.

Most people are aware of the challenges of long-distance romantic relationships, but what about long-distance friendships? How do we know when to keep them going and when to take a step back?

When our closest friends are suddenly miles away, how do we know when to hold on tight and when to let go?

We spoke to some students about their experiences, and got some top tips from Dr Rachel Davies, a senior practice consultant at relationship counselling service Relate.

'The endless arguing wasn’t good for either of us' - Lorna, 25

When she went to study Psychology at the University of Bath, Lorna was the only one in her friend group to go to university. At first her friends loved hearing her stories from Freshers’ Week but being busy with university work and expensive trains meant it got harder to go home and see them.

For Lorna and her best friend the distance took its toll. Eventually messages weren’t responded to as quickly and they ended up “sniping and blaming each other”.

“I wanted to go home and speak face-to-face and sort things out but could’t find the time,” she said.

“Eventually we just stopped talking as the endless arguing wasn’t good for either of us.”

According to Dr Davies, how much a friendship will change depends on the nature of the contact before the move.

“If you were used to seeing each other face-to-face every day and now live 100 miles apart and have to rely on video and phone calls then it can change the friendship,” she said.

Social media envy: If you're missing a friend don't just look at their most recent post, send them a message!

Top tip for Freshers’ Week:

If you’re worried some friends or family might feel like you’re ghosting them, explain to them you’ve had a busy few days but you’re looking forward to telling them all about it.

'I didn’t really know how to act around them anymore' - Annie, 20

Social media has provided a way of connecting with friends when we move away but when Annie was studying Maths at the University of York she experienced how social media isn’t always enough to keep a friendship going.

When she went to university Annie struggled to make friends and felt quite isolated. She didn’t expect this would affect her relationships at home, but the instability she felt at university meant despite keeping in touch online, she ended up feeling anxious around her home friends.

“I spent so long without face-to-face contact with friends that I didn’t really know how to act around them anymore,” she said.

But once Annie settled in at university she found she could feel comfortable around her friends from home when she did see them.

“Even though I had stayed in touch with them online throughout the year it was stability at university that I needed to finally be myself again around my friends from home,” she said.

Dr Davies said reading posts and seeing pictures of what your friends have been up to can give this sense of having caught up but it also has a downside.

“You are aware that you are not engaged in the activities actually with your friends but as a more passive observer of them,” she explained.

Face-to-face: Use social media, call them up, but remember face-to-face time is second to none.

Top tip for Freshers’ Week:

If you have been used to doing a lot of things with your old friends, then observing on social media can feel hard, if you are feeling distant from your friends from home… pick up the phone!

'Allow new friends in' - Ellen, 21

Ellen spent a year in Paris as an au pair before she started studying English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Kent.

In Paris, Ellen didn’t have Wifi in her apartment which made in very difficult to stay in touch with her best friend. They went from seeing each other every day at school to not speaking for a year.

Now Ellen thinks that because they had that time away from each other it’s actually easier for them to go longer without speaking, because they know where they stand with each other.

She recommended not just speaking to your long-distance friends when you have a problem or need some support, but call them up for a general chit-chat.

“It’s about maintaining a balance,” she said.

“If you have got an issue it’s not putting all that pressure onto your friends and allowing your new friends in at the same time.”

Dr Davies reminded us although people at home will be interested in your new life, we should make sure we keep being interested in theirs.

Friends Re-United: One advantage of long-distance friendships... the reunions.

Top tip for Freshers’ Week:

Having interesting experiences gives you something to talk about with other friends. See one area of your life as enhancing the other.

'We really value our time together' - Rebekah, 21

While Rebekah and her friends were off at university, something very difficult happened which had a big impact on the group. Because of this they make an effort to check in on each other whenever they can.

Rebekah, who studies History at the University of Nottingham, said:

“Even though we might see each other only a couple of times a year we talk on social media a lot.

“When we do see each other it is always really special. We really value our time together, probably more so than we did when we saw each other every day at school.

“I know that a lot of people would no longer be in touch with school friends three years later so I feel very lucky to be in the position I am.”

Your oldest and closest friends may have a depth of knowledge about you that means they can support you through difficult times. Dr Davies said to remember that not all friends have to tick all the boxes, especially in the early days of friendship.

Worth the wait: Time apart can make meeting up even more special.

Top tip for Freshers’ Week:

Try not to compare new and old friends too much. It’s important to understand friendships come in all shapes and sizes.

If you are struggling with friendships while at university you can find help and support at your student services. Organisations like Student Minds and Young Minds also offer support and resources.

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