Tuesday, October 18, 2011

When Relationships Change, How Do You Know When to Let Go? Part 1

(I'm going to divert from my student-prof communication message this week and delve into my interpersonal comm background. Never fear, my regular message will return. This particular topic is close to me right now and I was thinking about college students who are progressing with new situations, perspectives... and how that's affecting "old" relationships. Read on!)
When my students are no longer my students, I will typically accept friend requests on Facebook. I've only been on FB about six months and it's far more business than personal... (though I did just lament about needing my first pair of reading glasses, so that felt a little expose-y).

A wonderful former student of mine, Scott Hamlyn, recently posted this quote on his wall (He gave me permission to share): 

"It happens to everyone as they grow up. You find out who you are and what you want, and then you realize that people you've known forever don't see things the way you do. So you keep the wonderful memories, but find yourself moving on."

Now I know Scott just moved from Washington to Hawaii to pursue a degree at the university there (yes, every single one of us in our CMST 220 class wanted to join him!). I am sure Scott left behind family and friends, and his status update tells me that he might be undergoing some relational changes. Based on some related changes in my own life--not going to college, but some relationship alterations--Scott's words resonated with me at just the right time.

(Don't you love when that happens?)

I thought about the many, many college students I've met over the years who have, themselves, started anew in a fresh location. I've met countless other students aching because they were "left behind" while a friend or significant other went on to a university in a different city.
Figuring out where old relationships fit into a shiny new life is extremely challenging, emotionally distressing, and can be downright painful. Maybe you don't have a new life, but you suddenly have a fresh perspective, a renewed knowledge of yourself. Maybe you're realizing that an old friend is immobile, unchanging, or not-as-supportive of the newer you.

I have had to face this very situation recently. At 42 and an only child, my friendships have always been the touchstone of my existence. I hook into friendships loyally, deeply, thoroughly. I foster my relationships with an open heart and open communication. I try to be a friend who is steadfastly supportive, and one who owns my wrongdoings when necessary.

For these reasons, I am proud to be someone who can sustain friendships for many years. 
For these reasons, I'm also a person who doesn't always see the ready signs when it is time to let a friendship go.

With some recent eye-opening relational changes in my own life, here are some realities I can relate to you, a college student, who may be wondering, "Has this relationship reached its shelf life?", now that you are in a different space:

1.  Listen to your body when you communicate (or anticipate communication) with your friend.
Is your stomach knotted up? Do you feel generally uplifted when you are in conversation with this person? Do you find yourself anxious over whether this person will or won't call or text you? Do you look forward to speaking with this person? Most importantly, are your physical signs holding you back from experiencing what's in the moment? For instance, are you skipping that party or study session--or lacking the ability to "be present" with new friends--because you're feeling nauseous about your contact (or lack thereof) with your at-home friend? If so, your body is speaking to you. Listen to it.
2.  Watch for signs of jealousy or raining on your parade
There is never, ever, ever any guarantee that friends or lovers will grow together at the same rate, and in the same time. However, each person will hopefully support each other in successes, rather than feel threatened by them. If you share that you aced an exam, made a new friend, became an officer of a campus club, then your old friend will hopefully celebrate and applaud that right along with you. If not, this could be a red flag that your friend is unable to grow with you.

3.  Is the other person there to support your anxious, frightened, stressed moments?
In your "former life", you may have had a consistent support system and a relatively stable existence. Now, you have plunged yourself in a totally unfamiliar situation, whether it's another city/state or just that you are going to a different school with all new people. You may feel triggered in ways that you haven't experienced before. You may react differently to your feelings than you have before, which is surprising and possibly unsettling to others in your life.  
This will put your friendships to a test: Will your friend be supportive of you? Change the subject when you try to bring up your fears? Criticize you for feeling the way you do? Will the person become triggered, themselves, and then you end up having to help them? 
If your relationship is solid, it should be able to withstand some situational turmoil that you are going through... and some funky moods you're experiencing. 
However, if you have to constantly be okay in order for the friendship to remain, then this is a problem.

There are other signs that you may have outgrown a friendship, of course, but this is a start. 
Now you're probably wondering:  What if thinking about these things signals that there should be an end? How do I know? What do I do?  
My answer? 
(For now).
Just observe and listen... to your heart, to your body, to your mind as you continue your new communication interactions, and your former ones. 
Taking inventory of relationships is not a quick and easy process, but it is an introspective one. Part 2 of this discussion will come next week.
In the meantime, I'll mention that my Interpersonal Communication students do a journal assignment based on social exchange theory. Essentially, they complete a "cost-benefit" analysis of three friendships. While the complexities of friendships can't easily be broken down into a simple "here's what I'm getting vs giving/here's what I'm not getting vs giving" list, you may be able to see some patterns emerging or areas that are overdue for change. In your week of reflection about your friendships, give this strategy a try... take some notes. 
I look forward to continuing the discussion, and, as always, I'd love to hear your thoughts! 


  1. I needed to read this today. Thank you!

  2. Mandy, I really needed to write it, so we're together on that :-). Ellen

  3. Ellen, it took me years to finally realize that my high school "Best Friend" was really not much of a friend. I remembered and held on to who we were, "the way we were" as it were...

    We do change and therefore we need new relationships...and have to allow the old ones to go...

  4. Bruce, thank you so much for writing. I find that I'm still learning this lesson... far beyond high school. The reasons why we hang on to relationships seem valid at the time. Sometimes, depending on our family histories, we may not feel that we "deserve" to let certain relationships go. I'm going to discuss that in next week's installation. I appreciated your words. Ellen

  5. Hey Prof, the quote is actually from "Dear John" by Nicholas Sparks

  6. Anonymous, which quote are you referring to? I haven't seen "Dear John" :-).

  7. Very Nice post
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  8. Ellen, I just came across this post again, a year after I read it the first time. How timely it was. I had been wrestling with a friendship that was on its last leg, and this post was one of the things that helped me handle it later on. I have grown so much as a result of being able to let go. Thank you.