The Erosion of Friendship in NYC

Elizabeth
9 min readJun 22, 2022

It is with the enthusiasm of stepping out of Covid-times and into a hot NYC summer that I reflect on my past NYC friendships and their erosion. The intent of this piece is to reflect, ponder, and honor these companions that have been my witnesses to my life.

For those that question the term WITNESS, here’s a 2min clip from the underrated legend “Shall We Dance” that explains the intentional choice to use this term.

But numbers aren’t relationships. And my relationships are 1:1, unique per person, and by gosh, there are levels. After thinking deeply about this topic, here is my TAM SAM SOM of classifications:

Glossary of Friendship Levels:

1. Best Friend — not a term applied loosely

ex: at least 200 hours invested into co-working, dining, trips, etc. this is the person you pick up a call from at 1030pm. The person you call for reassurance after a shitty call with your partner / Mom / investor.

2. Strong Friend — Commitment and frequency with buy-in from both parties

ex: weekly meeting, monthly deep work.

3. Friend — loose commitment

You and this person define how frequently to communicate. This person can border on acquaintance, depending on frequency and bond.

ex: I have a friend that checks in with me quarterly — quick call + text. She’s my go-to for deep shit in my life but in lieu of that, we don’t talk/text often.

4. Go-to Friend — specific ask/relationship w/ this person

ex: on Monday, Tues, Wed — my fav coffee shop barista and I always discuss the latest tv shows we’ve watched. I love this interaction and will never change coffee shops because of her and our frequent discourse. On off days, I still visit the coffee shop but I *especially* visit it the days she’s there.

Note: a #2 Strong Friend and #4 Go-to Friend will sometimes overlap.

5. One-off Meeting — “We met once”

Here are 3 relationships that have changed levels over time:

Friendship #1:

One of my best friends and I met at the beginning of my career years ago — a #4 go-to friend for women in tech and teach-kids-to-code volunteering events. But in early 2019, our #4 friendship blossomed to #1 best friend. In my life, I was ending a relationship, moving out, and starting my consultancy. I had time and was in the market for a witness. She had her side business of coaching and a full-time job.

With our similarities, shared history, and budding businesses, we gelled! We made excess time for each other. Texts, coworking, dinners. And our similarities grew :) Questions about respective experiences led to “wait you did that too!?” With similar backgrounds, assimilation, code-switching, problems setting boundaries with work, and difficulty discovering needs, let alone voicing them to a partner.

I heard her stories. She heard mine. Not the shallow kind. The deep family “here’s how this shaped me” kind. And not just once, but many times. I knew off-hand her feelings about her mom, dad, partner, siblings. As a friend, I had enough data points to build a baseline. When we met or talked, I could recognize if she was more angry than usual. More sad, centered, annoyed. There’s a high likelihood I flatter myself. I was probably focused on myself and giving airtime to my grievances far more than her emotion. But still, I knew her. And I hoped I knew enough.

This is where you announce the gravity of your friendship, that you are #1 best friends. Reaffirmed again and again. That you acknowledge and both invest time, energy, and provide podcast recommendations to the other based on your last convo or a frequent theme of frustration.

I remember the gifts she gave me: an introduction to a roommate, half bottles of moisturizer because I was in my stage of playing with facial skincare and she had too many, a place to stay for a few days in-between an Airbnb and new lease, check-in cards every few months, and a book on boundary setting.

In visiting her and her home in Covid, I’ve been reminded of our closeness. Our conversations of familiar topics. With new eyes, I view her new job, the progression of her romantic relationship, and the extended family of the many stories. And the ties that currently bound us — our businesses — I have delved deeper into mine and she’s delved deeper into her job. That’s ok. It’s ok. I feel comfortable as a founder, as a discoverer of a solution that’s always evolving. And she feels comfortable as a highly-valued member of her department with a boss and massive budget. Our background will always be tied — asian female dropouts forever. But our paths have differed for now.

It was in the midst of attending her wedding — this momentous event — that I pondered and processed the downgrade of #1 best-friend to #3 friend. A very good friend. But no longer best as communication stemmed from a jolt of forgetfulness to check in. The physical and now emotional separation had already happened and I struggled with it.

It was this best-friendship that forced me to confront the downgrades. The accidental, non-malicious erosion evident of a rampant disease and a New York City lifestyle.

Make friends, lose them faster.

Friendship #2:

A woman I met through my partner went from #5 “we met once” to #4 go-to friend. Our first bind was her desire to be a PM, of which I teach at General Assembly. We lunched virtually every Thursday in Covid for a few months, finding commonality with career movements, shared struggles, and family rollercoasters, we moved from #4 go-to friend to #2 strong friend. Then I moved in 2021 and our routine was disrupted. I must have had a maximum of 2–3 discussions with her in the entire year. With our repetition broken, my 5hr time difference, and her new busyness with a job as our first bind, we had our first major hurdle.

I remember an introduction to a friend knowledgeable of the place I moved. It was thoughtful, long, and detailed. I felt grateful towards her and excited to meet a friend-of-friend. Since the start of our acquaintance, she’s emailed at least 2 thoughtful introductions. I haven’t emailed any.

In June 2021, I moved back to NYC and texted to get brunch 2 / 3 / 4 times. With Saturday nixed from my weekend schedule (Fri => Sat I head to NJ to hang with my fam), her travel, and the river between us (she lives in Prospect Park, I live in East Village), we haven’t met for the deep lovely “fill the cup” quality time.

Since then, I heard from a mutual friend who was at her engagement party about the status update. I felt sad to have been left out, but we haven’t seen each other in a year and a half now. Just a 30min train away.

New York City lifestyle strikes again.

Make friends, lose them faster.

Friendship #3:

At a hackathon years ago, I worked with a #5 “we met once” who would become a #3 friend 4yrs later when we accidentally ran into each other in NYC. For a few months in 2019, he became a #2 strong friend as we weekly advised each other on our respective expertise: product and sales. I remember I had just started dating my partner and he heard all my excitement after our sales <> product barter.

Then in Sept 2021, he moved back to NYC. I was so excited, thinking we’d get back to #2 friendship of weekly or monthly hangouts. But again Brooklyn <> Manhattan woes. I ran into him once in Oct 2021. And my infrequent reach outs haven’t yielded a cup-filling brunch.

To summarize, here’s a few feelings:

- I feel sad that I’m losing my friends.

- Locality is especially important but there are friends I haven’t seen for 3–5+ years in NYC. Guess it’s time to start hosting a yearly Christmas party.

- A reach out is a bid for quality time. For my introverted self, 1:1s are the *best* way to fill the cup, get facetime, and go deep. I love coffee/brunch meetings (especially when we meet after 3pm and still call the meal “brunch”)

- From S2 of Ted Lasso, Rebecca’s mom correctly states “it takes 2 people to build a pattern, but only 1 to break it”. I feel like I’ve accidentally broken some of my friendships. And others have broken with time.

A few realizations from my therapist sesh:

- NYC is a constant erosion of friendships.

- No one person can do it themselves.

- Plant analogy for friendship: Imagine there’s a very thirsty plant. Plant needs both sun and water. If you are infrequent and when you think of the plant, water it a gallon and pour sun on it, it doesn’t keep the plant alive. We BOTH need to water+sun the plant.

- I need you to put in your half.

- It’s not really both people’s fault. It’s a non answer. If both of us work together, we can fix it.

- If you feel that your friendship has drifted, you can say to your friend: “Hey I think we’ve both drifted. Want to help me keep this friendship alive? Let’s keep our plant alive.”

- There are lots of different plants you can nurture. There are many different options to jump between.

My Apology:

If you’re a friend reading this, I’m sorry for my part. I contributed to this erosion. And I’m incredibly sorry for canceling that brunch, for double scheduling our coffee, and for squeezing you in for a 30min hangout with a hard stop on a busy day. I’m better than that and I hope you’ll give me another chance.

This is my processing of my current NYC friendships.

If you need permission to reach out to that #1 bestie who’s less frequent in your life, I give it.

If you need wording to bring a strong friend back into the fold, it’s above (I recommend the plant analogy).

If you need a virtual hug because you’re taking stock of how your friendships have changed/eroded/are different, *virtual hug*.

And if you needed to read this to process how greatly YOUR life has changed and how the friendships that previously nurtured you, no longer do so, I witness your changes, your progress, and how you’ve entered this new chapter.

I hope you find the friend you’re looking for.

Resources to Explore:

  1. “How Many Friends Do I Need?”

A woman moves to London and processes her friendships (sound familiar?). It took her 200 hours input over 3 months for an acquaintance to become a best friend

2. Esther Perel friend podcast: “Friendship a Reliable Gift”

Notable quote: “a relationship is like a rubber band”

Extra Credit Reading: Background on social circles + witnesses

My partner is my primary witness, but friendships? They are a special type of witness — different topics, different intimacy, different questions, different memory.

Hopefully you have a chorus of support, but your current best friend? That’s a key witness.

My best friends are women that I feel like I could have been born in their shoes. “By the grace of God, there go I”. During our decade-long careers, for months to years, we were witness to each other’s orbits, side projects, non-profits, day jobs, and new hustles.

My “best friend friendship style” is frequent, daily discussions of the shallow (“have you seen {{insert Kardashian gossip}}?”) to the thoughtful (“I’m pondering how this {{insert situation}} reflects on my ability to {{insert verb}}. Thoughts?”) to the difficult (“I hate that {{insert privilege}} means you have more resources for {{insert difficulty}}”. My last month of discussions with my best friend have ranged from dates that looked better on Tinder than irl, an assault they experienced when walking home, that new Korean drama on Apple TV, and the interviewee that mansplained product.

But witness or not, this person is part of a greater circle: the support of the people around you. So let’s back up and look at the science of social dynamics and community.

You may have heard the name of Dunbar: his breakdown of the concentric circles of relationships surrounding you include:

  • 1.5 = partner and/or parents
  • 5 = ^ + best friends
  • 10 = ^ + frequent friends
  • 150 = the maximum number of relationships a person can maintain

In a desire to create a relationship CRM, I had my VA pull all my meetings from the past 2 years: 223 contacts. Most people/meetings I don’t remember (unless the person was awful in which case you received a special emoji). Out of 223, I consistently speak with about 7. So with Dunbar, my experience-ish lines up.

Want to share this article with a “Gentle Bro”?

Here’s a few talking lines to share with a friend:

  • “Hey Jill — want to explore our TAF (total addressable friend group)?”
  • “Hey Brooke — love our level 1 friendship. Just wanted to call out your time investment — it’s been 208hrs over the past 6 months”
  • “Hey John — as we chart out our investor outreach, it would also be ideal to chart out our friendship circles too.”

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Elizabeth

Founder @ EMO (Easy Mobile Onboarding). Product Teacher @GA. Co-founder @WomenWhoCodeNYC. Ex-software engineer @ Time Inc.