Expat dictionary: Friendship divorce. Either a two-way split-up, when friends mutually, often tacitly, agree on a divorce, or one-way, when a friend divorces you and you want her to stay, or vice versa. Separation by geography can be a contributing factor to a friendship divorce.
If we stay friends with our childhood friends – the ones we swore we’d stick to for better or worse until death do us part, our blood sisters, future maids of honour and godmothers of our precious children – it’s pure luck, isn’t it? However real our feelings were at the time, chances are slim we’ll end up having enough in common as adults. At some point we stop playing and giggling, and the friendship ends in an often amicable, barely noticeable and quite natural divorce.
Friendship divorces occur later in life as well, albeit more complicated, and for various reasons – at one point you stop partying and being in and out of love, at one point you stop talking about the things you used to love to talk about, at one point you realise that this person actually isn’t good for you – and at one point you move away.
Ask any expat what they miss the most about their home country, and friends will often be on top of the list. When you live abroad, friends back home are a link to who you are, and someone you can truly be you with. You speak the same language, whether it be your mother tongue or the way friends talk, you laugh at the same jokes and share a set of cultural codes. You go way back, and that’s important in a place where everything is new. And another important thing – you can be silly with them, I mean really silly. Do girlfriend conneries (by the way – there is no age limit for such silliness!). Luckily, there’s usually someone to be you with when you go back home.
But some friends we miss because we lose them when we move away. Long distance relationships are never easy. Between here and there, between now and then, we change. And those of us who move abroad often change more. Let’s face it, for those who stay home, life goes on without us, often in the same routine, and the friendship gap is easier to fill than when you’re the one who goes away and leaves it all behind. Consequently, you might feel that friends back home seemingly lose interest in your life. They don’t visit, they really don’t care to know about your new life in your new country, and it’s always up to you to stay in touch. In fact, they might even think it’s your responsibility – after all you’re the one who moved away! Mix all this with envy – you get to see the world, they’re stuck at home – and the next step could be a divorce.
Now it might be that those friends feel it’s the other way around somehow, so who’s divorcing whom? It might also be that you go back all excited to see your friends again, only to find that things are not the same and you can’t really explain why, but it’s not just geographical. Then it might be a two-way thing and just one of those things that happen. You can’t always make new old friends, and that might be tough to discover if or when you move home for good and wish to pick up where you left.
The word divorce indicates that you have been very close and that the separation process is complicated. You don’t have the “I’ll-get-the-summerhouse-you-can-take-the-car”-issues, and often not the anger that comes with the kind of divorce we’re used to talking about. But there can be other common issues, like jealousy, hurt feelings and a sense of losing a part of yourself. Friendships can be complex when you stop playing and giggling.
Do we talk about it? Girlfriends talk about everything, right? No, in fact we rarely discuss it and agree not to be friends anymore, do we? Which might leave at least one of the parties with a lot of questions whereas the other one might find it’s natural – such is life. And if one tries to renew the bond, the other will be “very busy right now” or “promise to be in touch soon”.
Should we have friendship therapy? Friendship contracts? Maybe not, but there could be talking. Maybe we should dare to talk about it more often if we feel the need to. Might even save a friendship. After all, what are friends for eh? Or ex-friends? If you don’t know how to go about it, let Jerry Seinfeld show you how.
By Unni Holtedahl, March 2013
Dan Franch also talks about this, and about how we build a new network as expats, here.