The Importance of Old Friendships


What do you do when you realize that although you may have years of history, and found real value in each other in times past, that you kind of don’t like a friend anymore? That, after time spent with this person, you feel drained, empty, belittled or insulted. My father always used to tell me that, “you can’t make new old friends.” How do you distinguish if someone in your life makes you change for the better or if you are better off without them? —GP


I appreciate the wisdom in this statement, “We can’t make new old friends.” There is something noble about honoring our history with others. In the context of your question, it also opens a door to an even deeper inquiry: “What does it mean to be a friend?” and “What is our responsibility to others?”

I was wandering around the city today. I enjoy interacting with everyone I meet. People are often much easier to be around when we don’t have history with them—it’s fresh. And this made me wonder…

It seems that the people with whom we share a history we often have a lot of unspoken agreements with. We have agreements that we will stay the same and uphold certain dynamics that are comfortable for us—that make us feel secure. Such agreements can be insidious; we may not even notice them.

We may, for example, share in our relationship a subtle agreement that “Life is hard,” or that “We are the only ones that understand.” Or we may agree to share a common enemy. We may hook up with a high school friend on the internet and agree to relate to them in the same way we did 20 years ago, even though we’ve grown up, have a family, and see the world in a completely different way now. Sometimes in relationships, we agree to deny that something unhealthy is going on, such as substance abuse or illness. Sometimes we agree to take on certain roles in a relationship such as being “the boss,” “the victim,” or “the strong one.” And as part of the dynamic we may have an unspoken agreement to take responsibility for the emotional life of another in a way that is crippling for them—that prevents them from finding emotional independence. Such agreements are challenged when one person starts to change and move ahead in life.

The important thing to recognize about agreements is that it takes more than one person to make one. If we see that an agreement is not serving our well-being and the well-being of our friend, it is intelligent to break it… and it is possible to break an agreement without abandoning the friendship. In fact, it is an act of courage and kindness to ourselves and to our friend.

We are all looking for well-being and happiness in life. So the purpose of friendship is to support and be supported in our search for well-being and happiness. Breaking unhealthy agreements challenges our tendency to withdraw into habitual ways of being that sabotage this intention. At the same time, breaking unhealthy agreements awakens our longing to grow and experience a sense of wonderment about ourselves and the world. There are many ways of being in relationship and this is an opportunity to learn something new.

Of course, there is always a chance our friend may not be interested in working on the relationship with you. That is their choice. But this doesn’t mean we can’t remain faithful to our friend; it doesn’t mean that we have to give up our care for them or our wish for their well-being. There is no need to abandon them. In fact, as citizens of the human race, isn’t it our responsibility to never abandon anyone?

If we live with clarity and integrity, how could it conflict with the well-being of others? Our relationship to others has everything to do with the relationship we have with ourselves, as well as the clarity of our vision. In a larger sense, cultivating love and care for all living beings is the only way to live with integrity and purpose.

– Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel
Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel is the author of The Power of an Open Question