Travel and the Art of Losing Friends

A black and white photo of a solo female traveler sitting on some stairs
Last Updated: 5/21/22 | May 21st, 2022

After months on the road, you’re finally home, excited to resume your old friendships. You plan dinners, get-togethers, and nights out. And, as people fail to respond or show up, you begin to realize an awful truth: while you were out exploring the world, some of your friends crept out the back door of your life.

And, unlike you, they aren’t coming back.

They ghosted.

After a six-month sojourn a few years ago, I came home to New York City eager to reconnect with my friends. I missed their faces, stories, and presence in my life.

But, as most New Yorkers will tell you, friendships are often hard to maintain under the crushing pace of life in the big city. Everyone here moves a million miles a minute, there’s always an event to attend, and making time for each other is a constant battle of highly conflicting schedules. It’s a lot of hustling.

“What are you doing two weeks from now?” is a common question in the city that never sleeps.

But, after many weeks of missed connections and noticed absences from events, I realized that while I was away, many had taken my absence as an excuse to finally exit stage left without hopefully being noticed. People I had seen on a regular basis for years had cut the tenuous tether holding us together. In a city constantly on the move, some had moved on.

At first, I was devastated. People I cared about left my life for seemingly no reason. “What did I do wrong? How can I change to get them back?” I wondered.

Then sadness gave way to anger. “Screw those jerks! They weren’t good friends anyway,” I said in an attempt to mask the hurt.

But, as I calmed down and thought about it more, I realized I was looking at this situation in the wrong light. Going away didn’t cause me to lose friends; it had shown me who my true friends were.

Most people maintain a wide social network and, when you are in touch with that network, it’s easy to think relationships are deeper than they are. We all have our casual friends we meet for coffee or drinks or see at networking events. We “know” them because we see them often. But, as COVID showed us, when something breaks those bonds, we find out they were pretty tenuous. One of the downsides of COVID was that it cut a lot of our causal bonds.

Travel did the same for me. When I came back, I found out which connections were actually deep versus which ones were only deep in my mind.

It’s true that friends move in and out of your life regardless of whether you travel or not. It’s life — people change and grow apart. You move to different cities, interests change, you forget to reply to a text (or even text in the first place), and the ties that bound you grow weaker with time. Suddenly, years have passed, it feels awkward to reconnect, and so you both keep moving on.

But this gradual uncoupling makes the separation a little easier to bear.

Imagine throwing a party, having a great time, and going to grab a drink. The night goes on and you see Bill a little less. Suddenly, you realize Bill is gone. But since he slowly phased out, it’s not a big deal.

Now imagine you get that drink, turn around, and everyone is just gone in an instant.

That sudden shock would be very depressing.

Part of me thought, “Well, this is just New York.” But then I remembered the tales of other travelers who’ve experienced the same thing and realized it’s not just me and it’s not just this city.

Travel expedites the process of separation and exposes the quality of your friendships.

Being away frays the weak bonds you attempt to maintain, while strengthening the ones that will withstand the distance and passage of time.

My lifestyle doesn’t make maintaining friendships easy, but it doesn’t make it impossible either. I have friends around the world I only see every few years, but we make the effort to stay in touch. When we are together, our bond is still strong.

One of the things I love about travel is that travel friendships remain strong over time. You only had that time and place, and there’s an understanding it was all temporary. When you reunite, you go back to the way things were.

I know my friends wonder if I’m actually back or just passing through and thus often leave it to me to text them. However, after establishing that I am really back and I do want to hang out, you begin to wonder how strong the bond is when you’re doing all the work. When your texts go unanswered and plans constantly get canceled, you see the writing on the wall.

Maybe they want a friend who isn’t a nomad.

Maybe we grew apart and I just didn’t realize it.

Maybe one day the people who’ve left will wonder how I am and what I’m doing.

Maybe a part of them will be sad that they don’t know.

But what I do know is that, while they were ghosting, I became closer to those that stayed.

And, for that, I am truly grateful.

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