In Which We Dissect How Your Female Friendship Will Change In Your Late 20s
The Debrief: Good friendships are the elastic ones, they’re strong but they’re flexible as hell
12.24am. My phone started ringing. I looked at blue screen, glowing screen in the dark, it was her again. I didn’t answer. I was having an early night and I knew what it was about. I had picked up every other night that week. I wanted to be there for her, I really did, but I just couldn’t be.
We’ve all been there. On the other end of the phone. Things aren’t going so well, you’ve broken up with someone, your mum’s told you to get a real job, you’re being aired on Whatsapp by someone you thought was the one. Who you gonna call? Your BFFs. That’s what friends are for, right?
Well, yes, and no. When the shit hits the fan, your best friends will be there, of course. But it’s much harder to round everyone up for a forensic post-break up Sex and The City style brunch at a moment’s notice. You find yourself planning get togethers with people you once saw every bloody day, months in advance via convoluted group chats which, if drawn as a chart, would look something like the Theory of Everything. These are the trappings of adulthood.
Sometimes, when this gets a bit much, I think I’ll watch an episode of Friends to cheer myself up. I think I love it, remembering the comforting after-school staple, killing time before Hollyoaks, that it once was. We learnt how friendship was meant to be from Ross, Phoebe, Monica, Rachel, Joey and Chandler. They were the ultimate family unit – but better – because they created it themselves.
But, the thing about Friends is this: it’s well lit, always funny and they all live right next to each other. Real life just isn’t like that.
Real life is less like Friends or Sex and the City and a lot more like GIRLS or Greta Gerwig’s black and white meditation on female friendship, Frances Ha, and not just because nobody, and I mean nobody, I know can afford Manolos.
Dr Irene S Levine, friendship expert and psychologist, says: ‘TV shows, movies and novels perpetuate this myth that friendships are forever. There are some long-standing friendships that people have, but there are very few of these. Friendships, even very good ones, don’t last forever. We don’t stay the same, people move in and out of relationships.’
Growing up, especially as teenagers and in our early twenties, our friends are like our co-pilots and co-authors. Some people really do have those real life, super intense i-feel-like-you’re-my-soul-sister BFFs, while others have enviably solid girl gangs. With them, you ride out the hormone fuelled teenage years, the quest to try and work out who the hell you are.
You’re in it together and that’s what makes trying to crawl out of the messy post-graduation primordial ooze bearable
University (if you go) is more of the same. Then, in your early twenties, you find yourself in the world without two-month long summers, playing at being an adult and hoping that nobody notices you’re a fraud. Together, we write the stories of how our lives are going to be and consult each other about which path to take.
Your friends take you to get the morning-after pill, eat jacket potatoes with you five nights a week when you’re trying to be ‘frugal’, shout at the boys who betray you and stay out with you for two days straight, touring East London’s seedy after-parties.
These years are full of big questions: is this the career I want? Is this the person I want to commit to? What, actually, do I want from life? What sort of person do I actually want to be? And your friends mirror these struggles, crises of faith and uncertainties. You’re in it together and that’s what makes trying to crawl out of the messy post-graduation primordial ooze bearable.
In your mid to late twenties things start to settle. Some people leave the jobs they never really liked and/or the relationships that were never going to work, some move town, country or even go back to school and start again, and others make big commitments to stay put while a few turn the music up and pretend it’s not happening.
Dr Levine says that ‘the easiest time to make friends in your life is when you’re at university or [secondary school], because everybody is in the same place at the same time in the same situation. When we graduate our lives diverge. People get involved in romantic relationships, start their careers, people move. A great deal of complexity is added to our friendships.’
You wouldn’t go weeks or months without speaking to your significant other (I hope). However, you might with even the closest of friends. At first this is a difficult change to get to grips with.
‘There’s no legal institution’ or formal structure for friendships, Dr Levine, points out. ‘The boundaries are quite fluid. It’s difficult to figure out when [friendship] begins and ends. We’re socialised to believe that friendships should last forever and women are often judged by their ability to keep and make friends.’
Remember how, as a child, you just could not possibly fathom why Geri would leave the Spice Girls?! Inevitably, it’s difficult when things change, when somebody moves on and, of course, nobody wants to be left behind.
It’s like the scene in Frances Ha when the main character Frances nearly moves in with a guy but says, loyally and defiantly, to him that she can’t do it to Sophie (her best friend and flatmate). Then, 10 minutes or so later, Sophie heartbreakingly drops a bombshell on Frances. She’s moving out, with more or less immediate effect, to an area of town that Frances definitely cannot afford.
I remember sitting in the hallway of my flat in 2012 sobbing madly as I shut the door on one of my best friends as she left with the last box of stuff
Frances Ha is moving because it touches on something I’d imagine many women can relate to: the feeling that intimacy between two female friends is something deeper than a romantic or family relationship, that these mystical yet platonic romances should be infinite, boundless and never ending.
Female relationships are depicted to us on big and small screens everywhere as love stories. A certain pressure is born out of this but there’s truth in it too; our friends might not be our physical lovers but the pleasure we get from them can be just as intense and when they crumble or collapse the pain is every bit as real as a break up.
It’s why we could all relate when Marnie moved out of the flat she shared with Hannah in GIRLS. I remember sitting in the hallway of my flat in 2012 sobbing madly as I shut the door on one of my best friends as she left with the last box of stuff. We hadn’t had a fight; we’re still friends now. It was just era-ending stuff.
Today, social media also makes us feel like everyone else is with their mates all-the-time, basking in perfect friendships, filtered and always fun. But, the truth is that our friendships can be as, if not more, difficult to navigate than romantic relationships at times.
An argument or a misunderstanding with a mate can’t be written off by a long Sunday morning session in bed. There’s not much you can say when your best friend moves out and moves on, even if you’re really hurting, because you know deep down that they’ve got to do what they’ve got to do. And, sometimes, you might be the ‘bad friend’. You might be tired, or have your own stuff going on. You might screen calls or go quiet on the group chat for a bit.
Your relationships with your friends will change. That’s inevitable, because life will change. It has to. And you will have to find a new way of being together, but that’s no bad thing.
As we get older, Dr Levine says, our friendships ‘require flexibility on the part of both friends and understanding that at different times in your life your relationship may not be the same. Just because you saw each other every day and lived in a flat together you might not be able to do that when you have a partner and a career’.
We want our friends to be superhuman superfriends, just like off the TV. We fetishise friendship. But, it’s really important to remember that your friends are only human. They have limits, they have needs too. Good friendships are the elastic ones, they’re strong but they’re flexible as hell. It’s important to look after these, to nurture them and take time for them because your friends are important. Really important.
Dr Levine says: ‘Friendships feel good. It’s really simple. It’s a way that people feel connected to other people. We look to them for nurturing and support, people who will be there when we have problems, to share our successes with also. Our friends are our role models – they help us find paths that we want to follow.’
Although the shared narrative you have with your friends is one of the key plot lines in your life, but the main story is your own and the only person who has any control over that is you
In the end, your friends become more than a mirror, reflecting your own life back at you. You all become people in your own right, doing, needing and wanting different things. And this is a great thing. With it comes a new level of respect and understanding, because you see your friends as whole people in their own right, not extensions of you or products of your shared experiences.
As with Frances Ha or GIRLS, in the end, you realise that while the shared narrative you have with your friends is one of the key plot lines in your life, the main story is your own and the only person who has any control over that is you. That’s a scary realisation because it means, as with watching any film or reading any book, you don’t know how it will end until the end.
You might not live in each other’s pockets but you’ll be there for each other, in different ways, ways you don’t even know yet. You might have to expect a little less and be prepared to give a little more. And, cheesy as it sounds, if (more like when) you get a bit lost, you can still look to your friends to show you the way.
They’ll be helping you keep a cool head about that thing at work, silently holding your hand and doing their very best not to slag off your ex while you cry your eyes out over him (again), doing readings at your wedding and knowing a simple text saying, ‘Here if you need me’ when your dad’s in hospital is enough, because you probably don’t actually want them to rush to be there, and you’re not ready to talk yet.
As I write this, having just got my head around a summer of weddings and my own break up, I get a text from one of my best mates. She’s got something to tell me, she’s going to have a baby! Everything’s going to change… again. It’s scary, but it’s also exciting. We’ll adapt and it will be OK. We’ve made it this far. We’ve got this.
And, as Dr Levine points out, things will never stop changing. ‘Later in life it will pick up with the same intensity again,’ she says, once you’ve had families and careers.
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