How is it possible to truly feel, and express, love for a friend when they live in a different city, or different country from you? Or for those who are not able to be seen in person as regularly as normal because of, for example, a government-imposed lockdown? As with any friendship, it really depends on you, and on them.
Recent research on long distance friendships have categorised them as ‘flexible’, rather than ‘fragile’ as previously thought. Friendships that take place across countries and continents go through stages, oscillating in strength across time and life events. I would agree with this in general, but I would also argue that there are certain friendships, certain close friends, who after a point can be relied on no matter how long since you last saw each other, or even last spoke.
In recent weeks, any form of relationship has devolved into one of two categories; roommate or long-distance. You are currently either isolated together, or in isolation far from each other. Being separated from the people I am closest to is not a new experience for me; boarding school, living abroad, and attending a very international university 300 miles from home have resulted in friends being scattered all over. Throwing in a pinch of self-isolation doesn’t make that much difference to how often I’d see some of these people anyway.
Long-distance friendships are different from long-distance romances. They are definitely easier; the physical absence that defines a romantic long-distance relationship isn’t missed so dearly with friendship. Neither is the exclusivity; there is little resentment, jealousy or insecurity when seeing pictures of a friend enjoying themselves with people who are not you (well, not much). The problem with long-distance friendships can be the lack of urgency; with romantic relationships there is an almost constant pull to travel nearer to your person, to get on that bus or book a flight or just get in the car and drive. With friendships it can be months before you realise you haven’t actually been in the same room as someone who you might consider your favourite person in the world.
This could be because, despite physically being separated, you are together in so many different ways. Letters, voice notes, playlists, memes, facetiming in the bath. Featuring in their songs, their poems, their articles about long-distance friendship. Being talked about with their friends, having any one you know understand exactly who you are referring to when they’re mentioned because you talk about them all the time. And of course, talking. Another study, although slightly outdated having been carried out in 2007, seemed surprised to find that friends used email to keep in touch day to day, but almost universally discussed important matters over the phone. This shouldn’t be surprising. Everything that happens in my life is then repeated and historicised on the phone. Each story, each embarrassing incident, every progression in my love life, or flatmate’s life, or academic struggle, or family comedy, is almost immediately passed on, for the consideration or amusement or commiseration of a friend who may never have met any of the people involved.
I think it is necessary to understand and acknowledge that time and distance are in between you. Things will happen that you don’t tell each other about. An unremitting stream of daily updates will peter out. Long-distance friendships are more subtle, more nuanced, than that. Why they are not noticed in the same way as long-distance romantic relationships confuses me; it is far more common to have friends move further and further away over a lifetime than a partner. This love is just as important as the love of someone you see on a daily basis. Perhaps the overlooking of long-distance friendships might be because they cannot be commodified, or because while important they are difficult to dramatize, unhelpfully mundane to be televised. The excitement comes once every few weeks, with the phone ringing, a letter dropping through the door, a ticket being bought.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that you don’t need to ‘keep your friends close’. You can have your friends as far off as they need to be according to whatever life events are dictating the rules of your interactions at the time. Long-distance friendships are unique, valid, and important, that’s all.
art by Kate Grant