Julie Beck, a writer at the Atlantic, recently wrote an article about how friendships change over time. She notes:

“The voluntary nature of friendship makes it subject to life’s whims in a way more formal relationships aren’t. In adulthood, as people grow up and go away, friendships are the relationships most likely to take a hit.”

Even in the social media age, when we can keep track of friends from long ago no matter where we each happen to live, there are some friendships from earlier phases of life that aren’t maintained. Others are maintained, but barely: seeing facebook posts a couple times a year written by someone I worked with 20 years ago means we are still in touch, but the fiber of connection is stretched so thin that it makes little difference to either of us.

Beck describes the developmental trajectory of friendships. In childhood, a friend is mostly someone to play with. In adolescence, there is more talk, more self-disclosure, and friends are important in our search to discover who we are. Young adults are “more likely to seek out friends who share their values on the important things.” Young adults are also quite mobile, so many friends get left behind as we travel to get educated or take a job. By middle adulthood, we’re all quite busy, shuttling between work, marriage, and parenting. “[I]t’s easier to put off catching up with a friend than it is to skip your kid’s play or an important business trip.” Thus, friendship researcher William Rawlings of Ohio University found that middle-aged adults defined friendship as “being there” for each other, but actually had little time to spend together. Busy middle-aged adults make relatively few new friends other than among people they already see regularly, such as co-workers.

Later in life, though, kids leave home and we work less, or not at all, and we have more time. Some of that time is devoted to friends. As Beck indicates, “People tend to reconnect with old friends they’ve lost touch with. And it seems more urgent to spend time with them…” Of course, some old friends are lost for good. Others live at such a distance that it is difficult to get together. It’s not impossible, though. There is one friend I’ve known for over twenty years that I go to Georgia a couple times a year to see. I also have a high school friend who lives in California but was able to spend time with when he came to Michigan twice since 2012.

I grew up in West Michigan and returned here in 2012 to help my parents. There are several old friends in the area with whom I thought I would be spending time, but it hasn’t worked out that way. I’ve seen a few of them briefly, but only meet regularly with one–the one I had made time for throughout the decades I was really busy. I’m not fully retired, so my desire to renew old friendships may increase once I do quit working. For now, though, rather than reconnect with old friends, I’m devoting more time to friends who were already a priority for me, and I’m making new friends.

I’ll write more about why I think I’ve maintained strong friendships with some people but don’t have much interest in renewing friendships with others with whom I was once close. I’m curious about other people’s experiences, though. How have your friendships changed over the years, and why have you kept the friendships you have?

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost.  I write about those movies to engage these and similar questions.

herSpike Jonze’s Her is a distinctly modern romance. It’s between a human and a computer, after all. More specifically, it’s between a man (Theodore, played by Joachin Phoenix) and a computer operating system, albeit one that is conscious, capable of self-awareness, and, as voiced by Scarlett Johansson, richly expressive. The story is certainly about our relationship with our devices, but still has the flavor of a traditional tale of intimacy and growth. As Leah Reich wrote for The Atlantic, “Her is less an examination on the implications of falling in love with artificial intelligence as it is the better-late-than-never coming-of-age story of a 39-year-old man.”

Theodore works for beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, composing letters for those who want a personal touch to their correspondence without being bothered to actually do the writing. The irony is that Theodore is able to express his clients’ feelings effectively, but has trouble expressing his own. He is going through a divorce which in part resulted from his emotional constipation. As he states at one point, “I think I hid myself from her, left her alone in the relationship.”

Theodore purchases OS1, the operating system, after seeing an advertisement that, oddly, wasn’t so much about the capabilities of the system as about self-invention. “Who are you?” the announcer asks. “What can you be?” Theodore decides to find out. He chooses a female voice for the system, then is asked to describe his relationship with his mother. He responds (I’m paraphrasing here), “The frustrating thing about mom is if I told her something about my life, her answer was about her, not me.” So he petulantly withholds himself from his wife and other women because his mom ignored his efforts to make himself known. He actually does pretty well being himself with his friend Amy (Amy Adams), but that’s probably because she isn’t a prospective mate. He can only get so close to women he’s interested in before shutting down emotionally.

Samantha, the name that OS1 chooses for herself, at first serves primarily as his administrative assistant, telling him when emails arrive and the like. Pretty soon, though, their conversation takes a more personal turn. Samantha wants to learn about the world and enlists Theodore to teach her things. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, he opens up to her. Shortly after telling her about having been distant from his wife, he tells Samantha, “I can say anything to you.” Was Samantha programmed to draw him out, to provide what psychoanalyst Franz Alexander called a “corrective emotional experience” in order to undo the deleterious effects of early parenting? Or does his openness to Samantha simply a function of her being software? We present a persona to other people, seeking to manage the impressions they form, but there’s no need to put on the mask when interacting with a computer program. In the article referenced above, Reich describes a “Twitter bot” designed to take one’s tweets and respond so as to reflect the characteristics of the tweeter. People flocked to the site, preferring to interact with the bot rather than each other. There’s something appealing about receiving personal responses from someone or something not human and presumably not likely to judge us negatively.

Theodore eventually reverts to form, withholding negative feelings from Samantha in a rather passive-aggressive way. Without revealing too much of the plot, I think it’s fair to say that his issue isn’t with Samantha or even with his mother complex, but with himself, particularly his doubts about whether he can ever have a genuine relationship. In the end, the relationship with Samantha is more real than any he has with flesh-and-blood women. He grows in his capacity to be in relationship, resulting in his corresponding growth as a person. Isn’t that the way it is with all of us: when we cultivate relationships, we are also cultivating ourselves.