The best friend you grew up with who now lives a few states away. Your camp friend with whom you shared a bunk bed every summer, without fail. Your college roommate who moved across the country after graduation.
“Young adults actually have wider networks than their parents did a generation before,” says Dr. Amy Janan Johnson, a communication professor at the University of Oklahoma who has studied long-distance friendships. “Before, maybe where friendships would have kind of faded away, individuals now have the expectation that they are going to continue over distance.”
And these relationships are vital to your wellbeing: Your friends who go way back understand things that newer friends—no matter how close you are with them—simply might not get. If your family member were to get sick, for example, your best friend from book club may never have met that relative, but someone from elementary school definitely has. “Because this individual knows you more deeply than new, geographically close friends, they may be in a better position to provide you emotional support, especially in a time of crisis,” says Johnson.
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An older long-distance friend can reminisce about good times, too. “They know how you used to be, so they hold a special place in helping you remember special moments in your past,” she adds.
All of that said, long-distance friendships require a special kind of TLC in order to maintain them—you can’t just meet whenever for a quick coffee, after all.
Johnson offers three tips for successfully sustaining a platonic LDR.
Pick up the phone, and plan trips to see each other
Sure, you’ve got texting, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Gchat…the list goes on. Those are great ways to stay connected, but they shouldn’t be your only modes of communication. “Just because you’re updating your Facebook doesn’t mean that you are maintaining your friendship,” says Johnson. In fact, research shows that talking on the phone is what actually leads friends to grow in closeness when they’re in an LDR, she says.
When you can, you should also take trips to see other. “It gives you a chance to renew that friendship and build some new memories with that friend,” says Johnson. “Otherwise, you can still keep your friendship as a memory, but it’s not going to be an active friendship.”
Don’t get too caught up in the nostalgia
When you do get together, you might want to stay up all night recounting how much fun you had back when you were younger (and more energetic and didn’t feel like death the morning after you pulled a similar all-nighter). “One thing a lot of people do is they kind of reminisce about the fun times that they had together, and that helps them remember how close they were in the past,” says Johnson.
“But if you want to keep an active friendship,” she adds, “you have to move beyond what you interacted with in the past and build and help each other keep up-to-date with what you’re doing currently, too.” Use your trips and regular phone calls to really get into the nitty-gritty of what’s going on in your lives. You want to make sure you get past the “How are you?” “Oh, good, how are you?” type of conversations.
Don’t avoid confrontation
If you’ve ever been in an LDR—as in, the romantic variety—you’re familiar with how hard it can be to talk about tough stuff when you have such limited time together. “We tend to idealize these relationships because we tend to not communicate with them as much,” says Johnson. “We tend to be kind of on our best behavior when we are communicating with them, and we tend to avoid conflict.”
She says you must combat those inclinations and instead really work to be upfront with each other. “If you avoid conflict, it’s more likely that friendship is just going to kind of fade away, especially since you don’t see them on a regular basis,” says Johnson. Over the course of a lengthy friendship, you’re bound to change as individuals, which means you’re inevitably going to disagree. Make sure you have a chance to grow together by being honest about this.