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“I Felt Left Behind”: The Loneliness of Friends Being at Different Life Stages to You

It’s normal for friendships to evolve as we age and our priorities shift, but it can also drive a wedge between us and those we love.


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two women holding hands, one stepping through a doorway

“We’re expecting!” 

Instead of sparking joy, this jubilant news shared by my close friends earlier this year made my heart sink. While I care deeply about my friends and their happiness, they’re also the latest in a string of loved ones who are starting families, leaving the city and making children the centre of their lives. Child-free by choice, the number of my friends who still have the time and energy to devote to friendships appears to be diminishing on the daily – and it’s tough.

I’m not alone in this, either. A 2021 study by the Pew Research Center of nearly 10,000 respondents found that 44% of non-parents aged between 18 and 49 said they were unlikely to have children, with two thirds citing the freedom associated with this as cause for happiness. Conversely, it isn’t just parenthood that can have this effect on friendships: everything from relocating to different cities – or even countries – for work or romantic relationships to surpassing your friends’ earnings can sound the death knell for once good friends or, at the very least, make it harder to stay close.

“So many times I’ve wanted to say, ‘Stop sending me unsolicited pictures of your children.’ I’m sick of being cancelled on at the last minute.”

For Wei, 29, from Manchester, moving cities for work caused friction between her and one of her oldest friends, Sara. “I was thrilled when I was offered a promotion at work involving a move to London,” she said. “I threw myself into the new social life surrounding my job. But I couldn’t understand why Sara kept avoiding my calls and taking days to reply to texts.” 

The situation came to a head after a boozy night together. “Sara flipped out at me and started crying,” says Wei. “She said that she felt left behind and like ‘little life’ in Manchester couldn’t compete with my life in London. Life in London was fun, but Sara’s friendship meant the world to me.” While the exchange was awkward, both women were glad it happened. “It enabled us to reaffirm how much we meant to each other.”

Similarly to a promotion, the arrival of a new child, or the beginning of a new relationship, is almost always regarded as a cause for celebration. But changing dynamics among friends at different life stages can also create great division and pain, with potential for individuals to feel ignored or left behind.

“When a friend says they’re pregnant, a kind of grief happens,” says Lily, 35, who is also child-free by choice. “You’re really excited for them, but it’s also like, ‘I’m now going to lose you.’ And it’s really sad.”

Friendships that have once been a major source of support and strength can change dramatically overnight. “Everything immediately becomes about them and their baby, and I understand why that is, but it changes your relationship,” adds Lily. “I’m always expected to go to them, which makes me feel like their time is more precious than mine. I’m expected to meet them at the play park, where they’re completely distracted by their child.”

Lily says that she feels “rude” to even think this way in a culture where having a child continues to be seen as the ultimate realisation of womanhood. “There’s no space to voice these feelings,” she continues. “It feels taboo. So many times I’ve wanted to say, ‘Stop sending me unsolicited pictures of your children.’ I’m sick of being cancelled on at the last minute,” she says. 

Psychotherapist and author Nicholas Rose tells Stylist that life events which disturb relationships often affect all people involved, not just those making the life changes. “The people who are not making active changes which take up their time and focus can sometimes feel they’re being left behind and that can be painful,” he says.

For Meehika, 25, from London, the majority of her 20-something friends are now in relationships, a development she claims they perceive as “the ultimate prize”. “Their social media feeds are just picture after picture of their boyfriends,” she says. “It bothers me because, as women, we’re taught that getting married and settling down is the ultimate goal. It annoys me a lot.”

If you are struggling with changing dynamics in a relationship, you can start by making a distinction between what you’re feeling and what is actually happening, says Rose. “What might have happened is that a friend has stopped texting you as often to meet for coffee or night outs, leaving you feeling hurt and sad. Depersonalising the experience and approaching someone with the facts can be difficult, but it’s a much better starting point for conversations than simply saying, ‘You’re ignoring me and I feel angry.’

“Simply sharing the fact and its impact on you can be helpful,” he continues. “For example, ‘When you didn’t invite me to X’ – which is a fact – ‘I felt hurt and it made me think you didn’t care about me any more’. This way, the person understands the impact of this on you and can see where a misunderstanding has occurred.”

It’s a familiar scenario for Hannah, 45, from Huddersfield. A mother to two grown-up children and single for 10 years, she often feels left out by coupled-up friends. “I’ve been single for so many years – to me it’s completely normal – but I used to get really upset because I wouldn’t get invited to social events organised by friends in relationships,” she says. 

A frank exchange with a friend made her reflect on her own grievances in a new way, however. “But then one day, a friend who is in a relationship but has no children turned to me and said, ‘Hannah, I haven’t been invited to any of your kids’ parties for years. How do you think that makes me feel? Just because I don’t have children, I never got invited.”

Her friend’s candour served as a “lightbulb moment” for Hannah. “She was right. I felt terrible. It made me realise that none of us are being thoughtful enough about how our actions make other people feel. We’re just thinking about ourselves.” 

Honest communication is critical for any relationship navigating new terrain. While it’s important to acknowledge any pain you may be feeling as a result of changing dynamics among friends, it’s vital to recognise that you may not be the only one struggling to adapt. “Being able to talk about how to fix the problem and move forward is much more productive than dwelling on who’s done what wrong to cause hurt feelings,” says Rose. “Coming to people with solutions is another good approach. Saying, ‘Since you’ve had children or got a new partner, I’ve really missed you. Is there any chance we could schedule some regular time together?’”  

While it’s easy to think that you’re the only person suffering, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, he continues. “Whatever your circumstances – whether it’s relocating for work, having a baby, or being the only person in your friendship group who’s single – it’s important to recognise that changing relationships can cause pain for everyone involved. Even if something looks very exciting or fulfilling from the outside, it can be isolating and challenging for the person experiencing it,” he says. “Reflection and compassion are good qualities to adopt in such situations.”

In a culture that valorises heterosexual relationships while often diminishing the magnitude of friendships, I’m committed to prioritising the friends I’ve shared some of my most important life moments with. I’m also under no illusions about the challenges of motherhood. A candid conversation with a friend about the struggles they were experiencing as a new parent and the value of our friendship served as a timely reminder that no relationship is immune to turbulence, that difficult conversations can often yield new insights – and a reminder that no person is an island.

Images: Getty

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This post originally appeared on Stylist and was published March 22, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.

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