Standing the Test of Time


friendshipSherrey Meyer’s guest blog last week explored the ways in which social media has altered how we think about friendship. This past Sunday, NY Times columnist David Brooks, weighed in on what he saw as the essential and universal aspects of friendship.  Both essays are well worth reading.

But both left me pondering the “why and wherefore” of my own friendships over the years.  Neither essay quite captured my own experience.

As I look back, I have been blessed with many wonderful friends, but only a few who have “stood the test of time,” only a few with whom I can pick up where I left off, no matter how long it has been since I last saw them.

I think it’s because friendships, so often, are situational. You work in the same office or for the same company. You volunteer for the same charity.  You are in same bridge club or book club or investment group. Your kids are on the same team.  But when your world changes—you get a new job or leave town or get a divorce—the friendship begins to fray around the edges. As your immediate interests diverge, you talk less often.  Eventually the relationship devolves to birthday or holiday cards and the occasional lunch when your paths happen to cross.  The emotional memory remains strong, but the “friendship” itself is gone.

Don’t get me wrong.  Friendships are to be treasured, however long they last.  Shared interests and values make such relationships comforting, while educational, political and religious differences make the conversations stimulating.  Such friendships offer critical support to each other during life crises, and as Brooks suggests, provide a powerful motivation for us to live up to what our friends believe to be.

A striking feature of many of these situational friendships, particularly those formed during my working life, is how silo-ed they have been. For many years, my bridge club friends did not know my community service friends. My book club friends did not know my work mates. Each friendship satisfied a genuine aspect of my personality and/or character, but few friends ever saw the “whole” of me.

By contrast, the friends who have stood the test of time are those made when my life was not compartmentalized, in periods when I was not consumed by busy-ness.  A few date back to my youth, when we were still trying to decide who we would be when we grew up. Others appeared during periods of transition in my life.  What these friends share is that we got to see—and all too often had to endure—all the dimensions of each other’s personality and character.  We got the bad along with the good.

Because we have come to know the “whole” of each other, the friendships do not depend on knowing the same people, or working with the same clients.  Having shared our dreams and our aspirations, these friendships have been able to “grow, ” to remain alive and vibrant and mutually supportive, even as friends and spouses and specific life challenges have changed.

How have the important friendships in your life been formed?  I would love to hear your experience.


  1. Mary, As a child I moved almost on a yearly basis. I have no friends left from my early years. Since then, I’ve kept in contact with most of my friends. Some I see and hear from fairly often, others I hear from at Christmas or other holiday. They are all valuable to me, but those who know me completely are the most the most enjoyable. It’s often those folks who walk into my life after a long hiatus and we’re able to pick up where we left off.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Joan … I’ve never moved with the frequency that you have, but I’ve lived in a lot of different places as an adult … and even in those places, I changed jobs (I was a consultant!) and moved houses with regularity. Perhaps if I had stayed in one situation longer, I might have more of the “stand the test of time” friendships. On the other hand, I’ve often heard that if you have 2 or 3 really good friends in your life, you are lucky. So I guess I am very lucky!

  2. Mary, thanks for helping me think about friendship in a slightly different way. I wrote about this subject on my own blog a few months ago:, but what you say here helps me understand something.

    College friends are not based (solely) on roles. We might have met in a particular class or club but we were mostly sharing a developmental stage of late adolescene/early adulthood together. For us this means that we have moved through next stages together also, interested in the joys and sorrows of our sisters and knowing they will be there for us. One of the great gifts of life.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Shirley … I LOVED your metaphor (verbal and visual) of the vine … the young branches reaching out for a stable place to grow, and years later, so entwined that is as strong as a tree. I have an intertwined ficus in my living room — it will remind me of you every time I look at it.

  3. I have a group of friends from college and from our first year of married life (the men all taught in the same high school as my husband)–that means we’ve known each other for a long time! I’ve written about our friendship on my own blog. When our children were younger it was difficult to get together–one friend called those “the lost years.” Yet I know I can always count on these friends, and when we do get together, which we now try to do every couple of months of so–and at our kids’ weddings!–it’s like no time has passed.

    I think, too, Facebook and other social media, has allowed people to keep in touch or reestablish friendships with people they haven’t seen in a long time.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Merril … I have such ambivalence about social media. Through FB, I have met so many good people (yourself included) and “reconnected” to others from my past, but to the extent I have a feeling of friendship (as opposed to a generalized good will and/or interest about learning more), it has come through email and phone conversations. Which reminds me that we were going to schedule a conversation some time back … I will email you and see if we can it on the agenda.

  4. Mary, I appreciate your perspective of “compartmentalization” in relation to friendships. I have a handful of close friends who have stood the test of time. We pick up where we left off, no matter how much time has separated us. Then, others are special but life circumstances take us in different directions and we lose touch. Friends are precious in any form. I agree with Merrill about Facebook helping to reestablish past friendships.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Kathy .. it was so fun to see you last week … with a friend who has obviously stood the test of time. It was lovely to watch the two of you and see such obvious affection and powerful sense of shared history.

  5. After your conversation with Sherrey Meyer last week on friendship, I discovered a fine essay on this topic in one of the three hatboxes where I keep clippings and such. In “Modern Friendships,” author Philip Lopate quotes Cicero who insists that what brings true friends together is “a mutual belief in each other’s goodness.” I had to think about that regarding my two long-term close friends, Wendy and Sylvia. There have been faux pas and irritations between us over the years, but part of what keeps us together is that belief in each other’s goodness at the core of our shared lives.

    How have these friendships been formed in the first place? Similar stage of life, similar values, and love of beautiful things. Very stimulating topic, post, and commentary, Mary!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Hi Marian … I don’t think any “good” friendship — anymore than a marriage—can avoid those “faux pas and irritations.” If you are emotionally invested in the relationship, you often struggle to balance your own needs and desires against the needs of the friend and/or the friendship. As I think of my really good friends, I really that part of the strength of the friendship lies in having made it past those bad moments, in being able to understand and to forgive and to trust in the good intentions of the other.

  6. Great topic Mary. I resonate with the “picking up where we left off” friendship mode. And I can think of two women for whom that’s true. One’s from college, and one’s from the early years of my first marriage, when my kids were very young. At the same time I value Medody Beattie’s take on friendship as “a reflection of the issues we’re working on.” Your silo metaphor is apt. And, I realize as a result of your post, that as I get older I experience friendship differently. Today my new friendships feel like a gift, to open to, explore, and enjoy as I am able. There’s no angst in my newer friendships as there often was in those earlier ones. Time with friends is just more relaxing. Hmmm. Perhaps they are a reflection also of this later (slower) stage of my own life.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      What a lovely, succinct summary of my thoughts. I have one “forever” friend that I have known since the month after I graduated from college (nearly 50 years ago). We have been through so much together and she is my rock. But I also have had some amazing friends who were, in their day, a kind of soul mate … but a soul mate for the time. Watching these friendships drift off is painful … but it is what it is. Was it Tennyson who said it was “better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.” That goes for friends as well as lovers.

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