Maintaining (and Growing) Long-Distance Friendships

A while back, Molly, Leah and I realized that we have spent more time apart (living in different states, at different schools, etc.) than we’ve been together. We really only had two years all together before graduating high school and venturing to different places. My family moved back to MA, where I’ve also been at college; Molly and Leah both went to colleges in VA that were hours apart. The past few years have been full of transitions for all of us, but I’m thankful that our friendship has not suffered in the midst of great change.

Long-distance relationships of any kind are difficult — and now, with COVID-19 forcing everyone into relative isolation, they are not optional. As the pandemic persists and as high school seniors move on to college, I thought it would be timely to recall some of the tips that the three of us have found helpful in maintaining and growing our relationship since starting college.

Be prepared for the friendship to change.

Note that in my little intro above, I said I was grateful that my friendship with Molly and Leah has not suffered despite transitions. It’s true — our friendship has not suffered — but it has changed. Over the course of our freshman year of college, we had to adjust to not knowing the smaller details of one another’s lives, and this was jarring. We were so used to seeing each other every day in high school, knowing the particularities of everyone’s relationships and family lives and involvements. We had innumerable inside jokes because we had so many mutual experiences.

But in college, this changed, because we were living each day in completely different worlds. I no longer knew the friends and roommates that Molly and Leah were spending time with. I couldn’t grasp all of the fun and unique details of their colleges’ cultures or traditions. Their routines were different. Overall, we had increasingly less of life in common, and that changed our friendship.

Of course, we continued to update each other and explain the best we could. Yet we found that there was a proper place for us to transition out of our small mutual world and into the separate worlds God had placed us in. As this happened, our friendship changed from being primarily rooted in our common experiences to being more rooted in our mutual faith and love for one another — which transcend differences in location or stage of life.

Create things (anything!) that you can have as a commonality despite separation.

During the aforementioned transition, we realized (whether consciously at the time, I’m not sure) that creating something we could have in common could compensate for the increasingly small number of shared experiences we were having. So we made Common Ground Blog. One of the biggest benefits of keeping Common Ground is that it has provided a project for us to all work on despite our different lives at college. Text and facetime conversations about blog logistics, proofreading one another’s posts, and topic ideas have added a layer of necessary communication to our personal conversations. It’s brought us together time and time again, increasing the frequency of our conversations and keeping us close.

It’s also been a beautiful venue for us to track with one another’s spiritual lives in a way that would otherwise be hard to achieve. As college schedules (and sometimes drastic time differences) have sometimes limited the frequency and length of calls we can have together, reading one another’s blog posts has served to fill in the gaps and has functioned as a kind of spiritual conversation online.

I don’t think that keeping a group blog is the only kind of project that could bind friends together from afar. Simple activities like reading a book together and discussing it every other week, writing letters to each other in the mail, or even watching the same show on Netflix Party could all serve this function! Whatever the activity of commonality is, it’s the principle of working on something together that helps bind people together.

Try to keep a consistent rhythm of communication.

This one seems obvious, but can be hard when the rubber hits the road and college schedules differ and everyone has meetings and work and events filling up their calendars. Life in college (and, I suspect, after) gets hectic very fast, and this is why it’s so important to be intentional about setting consistent (read: scheduled) rhythms of communication. One of the worst parts of college is having too many things to do and not enough time at all– resulting in a constant need to prioritize and choose how to use the limited hours in each day. At times, it’s been really easy to let my remote friendships fall to the bottom of my priority list, meaning they get very little attention and time. (“But the midterm I need to study for! Or the paper that could use extra editing!” My inner taskmaster likes to shout. Quiet, you.) The truth is, work and meetings will always be present, but friendships can fade without intentionality and time. Not to mention, which will matter in the big picture 30 years from now?

Perhaps it is a once-a-month facetime. Or perhaps it’s a biweekly phone call. It doesn’t really matter what the schedule or mode of communication is, but have it — and make it a priority to keep it.

Molly, Leah and I have done this well at times, and other times we have let it slip. Actually, more often than not, we haven’t set regular patterns of communication (the exception being quarantine… one of the shining benefits of COVID-19 was our ability to facetime every week!). So this tidbit of advice is as much for us as it is for you.

Outside of scheduled and consistent communication, there are some tools we’ve found helpful for staying in touch. Texting, obviously. But also asynchronous messaging tools like Marco Polo (for sending video messages) and Voxer (just voice messages only). And of course, nothing can beat the times when we have been together in person — which we managed to do twice a year for our first two years of college. (I got very familiar with the Greyhound bus stations between Boston and Philly!)

Remember the purpose of Christian friendship.

This is, perhaps, the most important point on this list because it is the source of motivation for all of the other points. The Bible paints a beautiful portrait of friendship that sets Christian friendship above all other types. In The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller describes it as thus:

“[Spiritual friendship] is eagerly helping one another know, serve, love, and resemble God in deeper and deeper ways.”

He also says,

“Friendship is a deep oneness that develops when two people, speaking the truth in love to one another, journey together to the same horizon.”

(The first three blog posts on Common Ground were about Christian friendship. Read here and here and here.)

If your long-distance friendship is rooted in faith — on top of your affinity for rom-coms and ice cream and softball — it will endure and even grow stronger despite physical separation. Not only because matters of faith are connected to the deepest matters of the heart, but because the Holy Spirit mediates connection and mutual sanctification.

Pray for one another individually as well as when you are together.

This really flows out of the former point. If your long-distance friendship is founded on faith, you will know how to pray for them. By asking how you can pray for them (and sharing how they can pray for you), you help cut to the meat and potatoes of Christian friendship’s sanctifying action by drawing attention to one another’s spiritual lives. Moreover, the act of praying for another has relational power that texting and following on social media do not. It is an act of support, and act of mindfulness of the other and care for their deepest victories and struggles.

And when you are together — over facetime or in person — pray with one another, together, in real-time!

Be open and honest about life!

This may seem a little redundant by now, and has been implied frequently in everything you read above. But it can’t help to be said explicitly: honesty is necessary for a friendship to fulfill its role as a sanctifying agent. Without transparency, there is very little available for spiritual communion that will challenge, encourage, and grow the friends involved.

Honesty requires trust, though, and sometimes building trust takes time and risk. And it cannot be pressured or unidirectional; it must be mutual.

Honesty is also essential when conflicts arise, as they do in any close relationship. More on this in a future post!

These are just a few principles and tips that we’ve found helpful over the years of growing our friendship while apart. We hope they are helpful to you — regardless of the transition you might be making. We’d also love to hear your advice for maintaining long-distance friendships, so share in the comments if you have some!

For any new college freshmen, here are three posts we wrote last summer about our experiences with that transition:

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