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What Happens When Our Longest Relationships Change?
As we get older our relationships with our siblings and longtime friends evolve. What we do with that shift can make all the difference.
A few weeks ago, I found myself rewatching The Originals, the CW Network show about the first vampire siblings, which found them vowing to stay by each other “always and forever.” I started pondering why so many shows with cult followings focus on the evolving relationships between siblings or long-time friends. Despite our general cultural obsession with romantic relationships, Supernatural, Buffy, Boy Meets World, How I Met Your Mother, and other shows all held family — those that are chosen and those given from birth — at their core. While of course these programs had elements of romance intertwined in their plots, they centered on the changing dynamics between family members (except Cory and Topanga, who ruined it for all of us).
It made me think about what these shows are mirroring in offscreen relationships. For many people, our longest relationships are with our siblings or friends. So, why is it that we are taught 101 ways that romantic relationships may change, but no one ever taught us how to manage the evolution of other relationships? Truth be told, we weren’t even taught to anticipate that these relationships would change, let alone how they change and how to adapt when they do. Even in The Originals, “always and forever” was a promise hard to keep when the siblings tried to hold on to each other too tight, not allowing each other the space to grow.
Almost a decade ago, my sister took a job that led her to live abroad for long periods of time. Every time we would talk on the phone or she’d visit home, I’d feel a pang of sadness because I began to feel like I didn’t know this version of my sister. I knew how to be around the younger version of her, and I found myself searching for the right way to interact with her in this new person she was becoming. I heard similar stories from close friends: how they felt like they were losing their connection with their siblings, the people they had known their entire lives, because they had become different people.
I made a conscious decision to start to get to know my sister for who she is now rather than who I had always known her to be.
With the independence of adulthood and without the benefit of proximity, my sister and I were being asked to choose each other rather than be obligated to each other. It was a brand new dynamic in a sibling relationship — and one that I had no idea how to handle.
Fast forward to last year, when my sister ended up staying in the United States for a longer stretch than usual. So much had changed in a decade: She’s a mom now, and an aunt too. And somewhere along the way, I made a conscious decision to start to get to know my sister for who she is now rather than who I had always known her to be. To be absolutely fair, she also gave me the same opportunity: to see me for what I’ve grown into rather than who I was. It made us more open and gave us the chance to build new memories. It helped that I am completely, utterly in love with her children. While we didn’t have a guidebook on how to navigate these changing dynamics, we both chose to learn through trial and error because the relationship mattered.
When Shawn Hunter left New York after Riley was born, Cory and Topanga let him go so he could grow into the person he needed to be. (You didn’t think I’d let the pop culture references go that easily did you?) Relationships are successful if people create space for each other to change and make an effort to get to know the newer versions of those they love. Without that space, it’s nearly impossible. That’s what I was seeing in these TV shows: Everyone chose to be part of each other’s lives, to be there for each other, no matter how the other evolved, or how painful the evolution was. They learned more about each other through how they changed.
That choosing is the part I wish we were taught. That when you love someone, you choose to love them every day — and not just in romantic relationships. You choose to love them as they grow, leave, and do things that you never thought they would do; you learn to let them become their own people. Instead of letting them go, you allow them to grow.
My best friend from childhood got married, moved to the West Coast, and we only talked once a year after she had kids because her priorities had changed. I learned quickly that it wasn’t that I wasn’t a priority, it was that she had new little lives that relied on her in a way that none of us had yet experienced. I chose to prioritize seeing her with her family anytime I visited the West Coast, and in turn, she prioritized seeing me. When my brother and sister-in-law became parents, I had to learn how to respect that all their decisions now were that of parents, and their relationship to the rest of us had shifted as they became new versions of themselves as a mother and a father. Instead, I focused on loving their kids and the joy that brought into my life. When a close friend became an executive and found himself without any time or headspace to manage previously close relationships, many of us found ways to pull him into our lives in a way that gave him comfort not guilt. As I worked through a divorce, I could see my closest friends adjust to me as I managed my trauma. Marriage, pregnancy, birth, job loss, moving, death: they all shake the foundation of even the healthiest relationships, even with the ones who are always supposed to be there “always and forever” — unless we center ourselves on how to support each other through them.
For now, I’ve learned that letting each other grow is the key to choosing each other as we get older. That we have to be more open about how relationships evolve, how they are supposed to evolve, and how we can still find each other through that evolution. Maybe I’ll learn more about this in my 40s and 50s. Until then, I’m sitting here, emotional that my three-year-old niece no longer wants me to rock her to sleep during nap time and realizing, once again, that everything changes. And reminding myself that I get to watch her grow — and who wouldn’t choose that above all?