Friendships have a use-by date

Cuba seriesHow it is that some relationships stand the test of time and others just don’t?

I RAN into an old friend the other day. It was a chance meeting. I consider this woman one of my true soul mates; someone I’ve shared so much with during the early days of my career. We have a similar sense of irony and humour, and see life through the same eyes.

We lost touch. The last time I had dinner with her was maybe two years ago. And yet the moment we sat down there was the same familiarity and comfort as if no years had gone by at all. We did the “OMG, what have you been doing?” thing for a while, and then reverted straight to the observations, laughter and social commentary that marked our friendship. I knew we would be friends to our death.

But I was left wondering how it is that some relationships stand the test of time and others just don’t, even though we give those friendships all the love in the world. When I moved back to Sydney a few years ago I stepped straight back into some of my friendships even though we’d lost contact over the years. And yet there were some that no longer jelled. What is the glue?

My theory is this. We have people we belong to. We don’t know why or how; possibly from a “past life” or from the same original species of apes; or the same tribe of early nomads. But it’s such a deep and obvious bond, we know we have come home. Such friendships don’t erode, even without tending. They are self-generating gardens, desert fruits, that require no water.

Other friendships are there for “a reason”. They are community based; in other words the community we are in at the time – other mums while the kids are young; colleagues from work; friends from art class; a partner who suited us then. We drift apart as circumstances change, our time being so limited. There is always a fondness when we meet later in life, but the connection has gone. Meanwhile, tribe members ignite the soul; make us laugh; make us feel real and accepted no matter how much time has elapsed. The common bond is not based on need or circumstance.

I believe friendships are like milk. Many pass their Use-By Date. Nothing to feel guilty about. We change. But there are just a few souls on the planet we belong to. And those friends will be there at our deathbed. Thankfully there are only a rare few, given the size of most standard bedrooms.

Do you have a friendship that is passed its use-by date; how do you deal with it? Do you agree there are friendships for reasons, seasons and to the death bed?

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37 Responses to Friendships have a use-by date

  1. Rhianne 29 July 2011 at 8:38 pm #

    Very much, friendships are for “seasons, reasons or a life time”. Sometimes it’s mutual, other times you wonder why? I have certain friends who are like soul-mate bare-all realtionships. Others are passing threw. Another phrase that goes hand in hand “Things happen for a reason”.

  2. Brian 20 July 2011 at 10:16 pm #

    I loved the article and sent it to a couple of mates. We have a strange but strong bond and could sit and talk for hours. No macho crap. Just talk. There are mates I would hug and others that just want to share each others company. This is not gender related. One of my friends has said he was not interested in making new friends when he reached the age of 30! I am now one of his two close friends. Sadly a father he met at his sons junior footy is dying of luekemia and he is looking after the mans children. I suspect he may have broken his rule! His closest mate commmitted suicide late last year. Funny how life plays out.

  3. Lucy 19 July 2011 at 6:01 pm #

    Diana you put me to shame, as I see that you really like people and travel. Your comments make me realize and fully admit that I don’t care for people that much – collectively they don’t really interest me, but individually they do. I’m living in Vienna this year and am currently moving about Europe for 2 months. I’m meeting wonderful people, albeit briefly, on my travels and enjoy talking to them. My husband and I met two lovely men from San Paulo, Brazil (?) recently in Amsterdam – they were 35 years our juniors – and we found the discussion enlightening and invigorating. These are the things I enjoy, but I don’t want to particularly belong to a ‘tribe’ or a ‘community’, as experience has told me these can be problematic and troublesome. Good luck to you, Diana!

  4. Ruth Ostrow 19 July 2011 at 4:16 pm #

    Thank you for this comment Diana. I love the concept of Friend’s Day

  5. Lucy 19 July 2011 at 4:13 pm #

    I always think of “acceptance” as being like “tolerance” – rather passive qualities. Yes, I think we have to have both of those things, but also the active roles of sympathy, empathy, compatibility, caring and reliability have to be engaged in a friendship. I can be rather selfish myself and these days I look for a friendship which provides mental stimulation, humour and similar values – these are increasingly difficult to find once one is retired and seniors become increasingly engaged with family and grand-children. Of course, not everyone is like this and I occasionally meet interesting people who have a wide range of interests – but they are thin on the ground. Otherwise, I don’t bother these days.

  6. Deb 19 July 2011 at 3:28 pm #

    Lucy, it makes alot of sense what you say regarding us believing that there is something wrong with ourselves when friendships appear to be failing and eventually fade away, and that perhaps we should lower the expectations. Imagine how comforting that could be.

    Ruth, that is so interesting that you should ask about role acceptance in friendships. On reflection, I think about my relationship with my husband and I readily accept that from time to time our roles can change depending on our current circumstances. We alternate being the emotional carers and we consciously try to work out when we individually need to be more proactive in progressing through certain situations….it’s taken us a long time but somehow it works (most of the time). But that doesn’t apply to all friendships does it? Somehow we have a role, be it the one who is perhaps maternal and does all the comforting, makes all the phone calls, remembers all the birthdays and the friend readily accepts being on the receiving end of that and does not consider that it ‘needs to go both ways’ (haven’t we all said that before….). And certainly the opposite applies – recently a very close friend passed away and the early years in our friendship, she was very much the adviser and the carer due to the circumstances under which we met. Over the years it subsided a little and it became more mutual, thankfully. I don’t think we would have remained as close if that had not occurred. She no longer wanted to be that person, have that role, and she made it very clear. I accepted that and wanted to try something new….hard as it seemed at the time.

  7. Diana Rodriguez 19 July 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    Dear Ruth,

    I am so thankful and pleased that you managed to put into words what I have always believed and experienced in my nearly six decades of age!

    Having been born overseas, traveled and moved often and worked and acted in different social, cultural and ethnic environments I have experienced both the “tribe” and the “community” friendships exactly as described in your article.
    By the way, do you know that
    Día del Amigo (Spanish, Friend’s Day) is a celebration of friendship, held annually on July 20 in South American countries including Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay, it was created on the anniversary of the first landing on the moon as on that day we all became “friends of the three astronauts” and believed a better world was possible. Read more:

  8. Ruth Ostrow 18 July 2011 at 8:10 pm #

    Agree people always want something; but don’t think this and altruism are mutually exclusive. But I do think we connect to people who have the qualities we need because perhaps we don’t have them within. Much of love is need. But then it usually is a two way street.

  9. Ruth Ostrow 18 July 2011 at 8:07 pm #

    Was reading all your comments. I womder what role acceptance plays in maintaining friendships?

  10. Lucy 18 July 2011 at 6:01 pm #

    Do you think it’s guilt, Deb, or a sense that there may be something WRONG with us if a friendship fails? Guilt arises often from insecurity and that vague feeling that some weakness or something else lacking in the self and that this has resulted in the loss of a friendship. We need to be less hard on ourselves and understand that none of us is perfect (I know I have my tiny faults!) and we shouldn’t expect the other in the friendship to be perfect either. Perhaps too high an expectation of what a friendship should be is one of the reasons for the end of a relationship too? One thing I’ve learned in my 61 years is that friendships are CONDITIONAL, family is not!! Many of my divorced friends who rely on friendship alone have found this to be very true.

  11. Deb 18 July 2011 at 11:26 am #

    Further to that, I do believe that in the early stages of difficulties experienced in a friendship, it is right to examine the detail and see if it can be worked out ie. accepting some responsibility for something said or done, not said, not done, on both sides. I guess in time, if it doesn’t get better, then that acceptance of change must be engaged.

  12. Deb 18 July 2011 at 11:23 am #

    This is so thought provoking – all of us can relate to having friendships on so many different levels and I have been thinking about this alot over the past 2 days. But I wonder what it is that makes some of us feel that sense of guilt if the friendship doesn’t ‘go the distance’ or simply as you Ruth so bluntly said, ‘nothing to feel guilty about..things change’ ? It feels very comforting to reflect on friends from the past without that sense of guilt and to accept all the changes that moved us to different platforms. But why is it that some of us live for so long with that uncomfortable guilt, that question of could I have done something to save this friendship, and others somehow steer clear of any of these fragments of emotion.

  13. Lucy 17 July 2011 at 12:59 am #

    Helen said she believes in altruism, which I’ve already suggested hardly exists – except in the super religious/self-sacrificing. And, in the same paragraph, Helen says “the benefit is that it makes YOU feel a little more godly”. Are you, therefore, suggesting Helen that it is about what you can get for YOURSELF after all? I think this is what I was always suggesting with my earlier comment. There is no such thing as real altrusim – we always want something, no matter how small it may seem: approval, love, feeling more like God, affection. This is my meaning and it does relate to friendship and what we derive from it. An interesting topic, to say the least.

  14. Name (required) 16 July 2011 at 8:06 pm #

    yes we all have friends where we are on the same wave length and gel regardless of how long we have been apart for, we just pick up from where we left off. This usually happens where we have been in the same soul group or team, that shares different cycles of human experience. and that includes shared lives in ancient civilisations be it in Africa or the Middle East

  15. Yael 16 July 2011 at 7:18 pm #


  16. Ruth Ostrow 16 July 2011 at 6:26 pm #

    Thanks Yael, a very special response. Especially the last three words ! 🙂

  17. yael 16 July 2011 at 5:50 pm #

    What a awonderful subject to discuss ,that of friendship. I have had lots of experience being a senior citizen. My view is that even when we have a real connection with a friend it still needs watering as one of your correspondants cleverly said. I do have friends I love and have lost, but time moves us on and circustances change in life. My asdvice it cherish the ones you have now, and if an old friend meets or makes a move to you ,accept that and enjoy it. luv you Ruth

  18. helen 16 July 2011 at 3:59 pm #

    Hi Ruth

    I call it spiritual landscape, our inner connections, to people, places, songs, images, smells, foods…these are the reminders of who we are, who we have been, who we are to become, messages from our outer world that alludes to our inner world.

    And i also believe that altruism is real. Its the beginning of spirituality, helping others, by just being kind, and the benefit is that it makes you feel just a little more godly, instead of thinking only of our baser needs and selves. win win. what is wrong with that?

  19. Lizzy 16 July 2011 at 12:21 pm #

    Thanks so much for this article! I’m 22 and have recently had a mental breakdown, one of the many causes being that I have felt extremely guilty for not being a better friend. I’m an introvert and would prefer to have 5 friends as opposed to 5000. Because of the pressure to conform and get on with everybody I am in turn feeling depressed not making an effort with anybody. I totally agree with what you say about having people that we belong to, as there are few I can truly connect with. Thank you for reassuring me that it’s okay to let go of those who aren’t soul friends 🙂

  20. colleen smith 16 July 2011 at 12:14 pm #

    Hi Ruth. I agree with the thrust of your article but I think that at some stage of life our friendships do require water. If you don’t tend them, especially in later years, they don’t have much going for them. Most people appreciate that we are so busy in the early part of life that we often have “instrumental” friends, but as we grow older we can focus on and appreciate the hardy souls that have always had a piece of our heart. At this time, I think it is vital to show our appreciation, support and love for the rest of our lives.

  21. Ruth Ostrow 16 July 2011 at 11:35 am #

    Harry how very very funny! I laughed out loud at your comment 🙂

  22. harry martin 16 July 2011 at 10:48 am #

    Good morning Ruth Ostrow,
    Reading your speculation that perhaps we meet some people we know `from a past life’ or from the same species of apes or nomads remind me of an article in a local newspaper I read while living in Kenya. It said there were many Europeans or Anglos who had a sense of `coming home’ when they arrived in Africa. My feeling was that they had seen too many Tarzan films as children.
    But who knows. The longer I live the less I know.

  23. Lucy 16 July 2011 at 4:54 am #

    Caitlin asks about whether or not we’re in friendship for ourselves or for the other person. I think this a difficult concept – there’s no such thing as real altruism, so I suggest we want something for ourselves. I learned this concept years ago when I studied Anthropology and the gift-giving rituals which were all about getting something in return: that real altruism is a myth. This need not be something negative, because we are all from the human family. We want something for ourselves, yes, and few of us are self-sacrificing enough to want nothing for ourselves, unless we are Mother Theresa!! Just thinking…

  24. Ruth Ostrow 16 July 2011 at 12:31 am #

    Thank you Caitlin and Lucy for your interesting reflections. I am off to bed now, its midnight but let’s all resume the comments and reflections on friendship in the morning. Ruth

  25. Lucy 15 July 2011 at 10:20 pm #

    Oh, this is such an interesting topic. Thanks, Ruth, for instigating the discussion! I think friendships are largely situational. I’ve recently lost a friend of over 30 years because we just moved apart psychologically, even though she lived interstate and we had a long-distance friendship for over 22 of those years. She had resentment, I think, because she and her husband went financially backwards and we progressed – and are now living in Europe for a year. I agree with Ralph that people who rave on about their kids are empty and boring and simply living their lives vicariously. This is all too common in the ‘senior’ age group (mine) and I’m just bored by it – I want to travel, read, learn languages, enjoy great music etc. This leaves lots of people behind, necessarily. I march to the beat of my own drum so friendship isn’t so important to me, neither is what people really think of me. I’ve had and lost lots of friendships but the strangest one I’ve had is lately when I met a male on an internet music site. We really hit it off – same tastes in music, books, same humour. We used to Skype regularly but something went wrong. I realized he had some psychological problems and tried to help. No use. He just became angry, and this saddened me because it was just fabulous to have that kind of cerebral connection. I look back now and, despite the problems, realize I enjoyed contact with him more than almost anyone else in the last few years. Go figure.

  26. Caitlin McGregoe 15 July 2011 at 8:12 pm #

    I think it depends on how ‘real’ the friendship is, and that comes down to whether each of you are in the friendship primarily for yourselves, or mainly for the other person. If you’re in a friendship purely or largely for what you get out of it, chances are it’s either lopsided or it’s the same for the other person, and so it’s less likely to last!

  27. shoshana 15 July 2011 at 8:10 pm #

    Ralph you sound really selfish to me. Bet there were times when you went on with pride about your kids. How awful to be dropped because one doesn’t meet your standards of being entertaining. All those years, and you wouldn’t even put the effort in to trying to bring your friends into some of your new interests. Just drop them with a yawn. Glad I’m not your friend.

  28. Ruth Ostrow 15 July 2011 at 8:01 pm #

    I guess what I am talking about is more the Dr Deborah Tannen’s (linguist and gender specialist) argument in her book You Just Don’t Understand where she says men are bonded by problem solving, and women bond by not wanting solutions rather to sit for hours and hours and complain and create intimacy by conversation.Therefore male friendships would be different in their inception because they thrive on different criteria. Any comments?

  29. Ruth Ostrow 15 July 2011 at 7:59 pm #

    Olly and Margie, an interesting point about male friendships versus female friendships. I have noticed male relationships with each other can be just as passionate as women’s. It’s just that there is more of a competitive edge between males; whereas with women there is more of a jealousy edge. Hmmm not sure if any male wants to expand on this strange point I am making.

  30. Ruth Ostrow 15 July 2011 at 7:57 pm #

    I admit that I too have probably sabotaged a few friendships by blaming someone for something; rather than watch them whither. it is a lot safer to blame someone and move on, rather than ponder too much about why things have gone so wrong. But having done a lot of introspection in the last few years and looking back on those friendships I can see that it was simply time for me to move on and some friendships hold us back. They seem to dumb us down, or make us too complacent. Explorers on the high seas of life have to set sail.

  31. Ruth Ostrow 15 July 2011 at 7:55 pm #

    I really get what you are saying, although it is a little unclear. You are saying that real friendship does have to have action behind it. Saying I love you but just enjoying the love yourself is a selfish act, as opposed to friendship where sacrifice is involved. I agree, but it still doesn’t explain the question of why some friendships even of this sacrificial calibre die on the vine whilst others continue to thrive. Any thoughts?

  32. Andy Campbell 15 July 2011 at 7:48 pm #

    Yes I do think there are friends for seasons. But I know the feeling you get when you hit someone that you feel you have travelled with before. It’s so weird and its like “same same”, and you get all excited. Usually the sense of humour is the same. But you don’t have to call or do the whole day to day thing with soul mates. ALthough Robert Johnson in his book We talks about I love YOU and “I” love you, meaning this love is about my gratification — the point I am making badly (sorry) is that maybe these soul mates are just romantic illusions, because when you really put time into them they don’t stand the test of reality. In other words real friendships have not just “feeling” but real “doing” (actioms) behind them? Just a thought.

  33. Ralph 15 July 2011 at 7:45 pm #

    I did notice my wife and I used to hang around with this other couple and I am not using my real name because I don’t want them to read this, but suddenly we got really bored. They seemed to be going on and on and on about their kids, and the marks the kids were getting at school. Maybe we were once like this too, but I have recently taken up tennis and spend time with people who are move involved in my hobby and my wife is doing an adult education course in play writing, and we just don’t sit around obsessing about our children any more. I think the reason we were close has evaporated like Sandy says,

  34. Sandy 15 July 2011 at 7:41 pm #

    Ruth I have just had an exact situation like this where one of my oldest girlriends in the world and I just suddenly stopped seeing eye to eye. It was as if we became irrelevant to each other. I think that there are friends for reasons and that we were very close when the kids were young; but now we just don’t have that much in common. At first we sort of drifted but then there was a fight, and i do suspect that it was her way of putting a clean knife through the friendship rather watch it die a painful death. Does that answer your question?

  35. Olly 15 July 2011 at 7:39 pm #

    Margie I wasn’t talking about in business which is a particular form of mateship. I was talking about intimate frienships where women go out together all the time and love each other and then bang, over the smallest thing.

  36. Margie 15 July 2011 at 7:38 pm #

    Olly that is very sexist. I know plenty of men who spat with each other. My dad used to have friends who became enemies and enemies who became friends. It was a moveable feast, as I think it is particularly in the business world.

  37. Olly 15 July 2011 at 7:37 pm #

    Men don’t have such tempestuous situations. I’ve noticed that it is more women who fall in love with their friends and then have these dramatic fallings out. I am more curious about why women carry on this way. Maybe they expect too much and get disappointed?

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