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Relocation, New Friends, and Long Distance Friendships

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A host of recent studies have examined the effect of frequent relocation on children and adolescents.  Military families relocate significantly more often than civilian families, and service members’ kids are not the only ones affected.  Leaving close friends and established support networks, and bidding farewell to friends as they leave for their own new assignments, is often a strain for adults too.

This way of life tends to forge unusually strong bonds, but ironically, the nature of military life also means that close friends are regularly separated by relocation.  The  buddy that had your back and kept you laughing through a deployment or two will get transferred, or the friend that helped plan your wedding while your husband-to-be was still overseas will stay at the same post while you PCS across the country.  It seems that the inevitability of the loss never makes it less painful.

Losing friends and leaving friends can take an emotional toll, and eventually it may start to seem that you can avoid being hurt by avoiding attachments in the first place.  It may also start to seem that making new friends is pointless since either you or they will only leave soon anyway.  Do not give in to these feelings; although it may seem emotionally safer, isolating yourself will actually only cause you more pain and make the challenges of military life harder to cope with.  There are much healthier ways to handle parting ways with your friends- and staying in touch with them.

  • Talk about it.  Be open with your partner about what you are feeling.  You are probably both experiencing similar feelings and losses as you leave close friends behind, and you can and should be great sources of support for each other.  Neither of you can change what is happening, but commiserating and feeling understood can be surprisingly helpful.  Too often in military families, the service member seems to feel that he or she must be strong- whether to maintain a tough image or to protect his or her family from some of the stress of the situation; at the same time, the spouse often seems to feel that he or she must be stoic in order to show support and avoid causing the service member (and/or their children) further stress.  Try to avoid this.  The odds are actually very good that your spouse does not need you to be strong or stoic; he or she probably just needs to know that you’re in the same boat and that you “get it” too.
  • Plan to stay in touch.  This generation of military families has a much easier time than our predecessors with certain things, and communication is one of those things.  Email, text messaging, social media, and Skype- the same tools we use to stay in touch with our spouses during deployments- make it remarkably easy to maintain an active friendship even over a long distance.  Be flexible; if you find that your friend always calls at inconvenient moments, or that he never seems to answer his emails or respond to Facebook messages, don’t give up.  Remember that everyone’s lifestyle and schedule are a bit different, and that switching to a different method of communication may help.  When my best friend I went our separate ways after college, she spent several months being terribly frustrated with me for rarely wanting to talk on the phone; switching to email helped us both immensely.
  • Get help if you need it.  If your quality of life is seriously impacted, or if you are having an especially difficult time coping, don’t hesitate to use the counseling resources that are available to military families.  Counseling is not just for people with serious or chronic mental health problems; counselors are also there to help people through difficult transitions, like relocating and leaving friends behind.  A counselor can give you someone to talk to if you have a difficult time expressing yourself to your spouse, and he or she will probably also have good advice for making new friends and staying in contact with your old ones.
Even if you still talk regularly with your inner circle of friends from your last station, arriving in a new place without a social circle or support network can be daunting and lonely at first.  Again, resist the urge to isolate yourself; you made friends before, and you can do it again.  Here are some things to think about:
  • How did you make friends at your last station?  Try that again (with the caveat that some things truly are hard to repeat, like my own experience of being called to help bail out a nearly total stranger’s flooded garage at midnight; I got a lifelong friend out of that, but it’s a bit hard to stage a second time).
  • What are you interested in?  What do you enjoy doing?  Consider places you might meet other people who are interested in the same thing; sign up for a class, find a club to join, or look for a group on MeetUp.com (which is a site for activity groups and clubs, not a dating site).
  • Be open-minded.  Sometimes the person you think you will never even coexist peacefully with because you’re total opposites will surprise you by becoming a best friend, precisely because of how well your differences balance each other.
Remember that you are allowed to be sad when friends leave or when you leave them, and you are allowed to miss the people you care about and no longer see regularly.  Also remember that even being physically separated no longer has to mean you are losing a friend; you are, however, getting a chance to make some new ones.