How do you know if your friendship is real?
For the majority of my teenage to adult life, I have been building and maintaining friendships on a foundation of three characteristics. The first, as it so often is, was alcohol.
I found myself surrounded by people who sought to find a direct correlation between friendship and the amount of drinking that we did together. If somebody rarely wanted to drink, we wouldn’t be as good friends with them; if they drank with us a lot, we were close. That was the basic formula, and I’m sure it’s one that is familiar to a lot of, if not even most, young people.
We used to talk a lot about how peer pressure isn’t a real thing, but I’m thinking now that we had that wrong. It is real, but it’s a lot more surreptitious and even subconscious than it’s portrayed in media. No, you probably won’t get the cool kids telling you that they’ll be friends with you only if you drink a bottle of vodka with them behind the bike shed. No, nobody is going to pressure you into taking drugs in the bathrooms. However, you may find yourself worrying that, because you didn’t go to the last drinking session and can’t make it out tonight, you might not be invited when your friends go out next Friday. You may even find that you aren’t invited after all, and have to work your way back onto the list of regulars.
I used to think that I was just slightly outside the inner circle of my group. They must all talk to each other all the time, and do things together that I just don’t know about, I thought. And as baffling as this is to me even now, I thought that I just needed to be ever-present at drinking sessions to get into this circle. If I was there all the time and was fun and wild, we’d be the close friends that I imagined they all already were.
It took me longer than I am proud of to see that there was no inner circle. It was just a bizarre social contract. If you’re there, you’re friends. If you’re not, you’re not. Nobody cares why you’re not there, or if or when you’re coming back. And if you ever messed up, made a mistake in any aspect of your life, you’d better hope you have other people to help you through it, as it’s not really considered banter to talk about real feelings now, is it?
Let’s talk about that for a minute.
If the only thing you and your friends ever do together is drink, this is a problem.
I’m not talking about the early stages of friendships here. Parties, pub visits and the like are extremely effective social lubricants, and a very easy setting in which to get to know new people. They’re also great fun with old friends, friends you see all the time, and family. I myself love a pint or four (or more). That’s not the problem. The problem is when you’ve known people for years and still rarely speak to each other, other than at or arranging drinks.
Go for lunch together. Drag your friend with you to a film you want to see, and let them drag you to show you something they’re considering buying. Take your friend to an exhibition, and let them bring you on a hike. Enjoy and cherish each other’s company, not just the camaraderie felt around a table of drinks.
I could talk about this forever. I won’t. I’ll move on now.
The second characteristic that formed my understanding of friendship was time.
This is something that may be slightly less prevalent than the previous point, but I think it can be a harder one to let go.
I thought of my friends as a sort of family. Indeed we would call ourselves such, and although the implication was closeness, it was something else that made it that way. There’s a saying of course, that you can’t choose your family but you can choose your friends. I went to a very – and I mean unusually – close-knit school, where everybody knew everybody, the classes were small, and the bond was seen as unbreakable. People, myself included, held onto the same friends from primary school or even kindergarten, picked up more through the secondary school, and clung to them thereafter. It was kind of abnormal to spend time with your “own” friends, unusual to introduce new people into the group, and perfectly common to end up dating somebody you went to school with.
We’ve known each other forever. That’s a sweet thing objectively, but it’s damaging when it’s all you know. If you think about a couple you might know, who started dating young and now firmly believe – regardless of what age they may be – that it is now too late to back out, or find anybody else… the same thing can happen with friends, and often does. I’ve been friends with this person forever, it’s too late for me to find new friends. Or I can’t leave them without friends. Or everybody else in the world already has friends, and so there’s no room for me now in another group.
These thoughts are scary, yes, but they're also self-fulfilling. The more you think about it the scarier it becomes, and so you eventually resign yourself to thinking that maybe nobody is really all that close with their friends. Maybe your feelings and issues should only ever be talked through with your family or your romantic partner. Maybe you're expecting too much from your friends. In the end, you choose to stay with your group, because you believe that they are all that you have.
The thing is though, that other people feel this way. Other people think they’re stuck with their friends. Other people are looking for other people, but we’re all too scared to put ourselves out there.
The third thing I want to talk about was the easiest to let go, but perhaps the hardest to spot.
I had one best friend from the time we were eleven up until a few months ago. We’re twenty-two now, so that’s another eleven years. Now, anybody who ever spoke about her to me knew that I loved her more than anything. I thought she deserved the world, and I was going to do anything I could to help her get it. I loved her, and she told me that she loved me, too.
My family, my other friends, more than one boyfriend all noticed that she wasn’t very good to me. She was inconsistent, she was rarely there when I wanted her, and never there when I needed her. If things didn’t suit her she wouldn’t do them, regardless of whether I was left waiting, or left to do things alone. I was told that she wasn’t very good to me. But she told me she loved me, so I resolved to try harder with her. I mustn’t have been trying hard enough, giving enough.
I don’t know how long it might have taken me to figure out that she didn’t feel the way she said she did. I needed things to fall apart before I ever saw it.
Here’s the thing; all the many hundreds or thousands of times a person may tell you that they love you, will never mean anything if they don’t treat you like they love you.
If somebody cares about you, they will want to be there for you. They will want to make you happy when you’re sad, they will want to be by your side when you’re facing an obstacle, they’ll want the world for you. I’m not saying they’ll always succeed in these endeavours; that’s not a realistic expectation. But they will want to.
The toughest thing here is when you feel this way towards someone, but it’s unrequited. It’s hard. It’s really hard. You feel like you’re not doing your job well enough, and if you can make yourself do it better, they’ll finally reciprocate. But friendship has to be equal from the very start. If it isn’t at that point, it never will be. It’s hard to see, but it’s important. If the people in your life love you, you will feel it.
So where does all this leave us? And why did I write any of this down?
I feel like the topic of toxicity is one that we’re very familiar with when it involves romantic relationships, but isn’t talked about enough in the context of friendships. Even when you do read about toxic friendships, it’s more often a situation that involves cutting one bad person out of your life. This is not the experience that I have had, and my experience is not unique to me.
Sometimes you find that you’re living a life with people who are not good for you, who don’t care about you. Sometimes it is yourself that you need to remove from the situation. If this is something that you believe to be happening to you, if you are defining your friendships by proximity, familiarity and a lack of others to fill the positions, you need to know that you are worth more than that.
Trust yourself to know that people who you can’t text at three in the afternoon for something as inane as to tell them that you’re considering maybe going shopping, are not really your friends.
Trust yourself to see that no matter your age, your interests, or anything else, there are people out there that you will want to share your everyday life with, and who will want to share theirs with you too. They aren’t all fully booked.
Trust yourself to recognise what love feels like in somebody’s actions and intentions, and stop taking anybody’s word for it.
And finally, trust yourself to keep trying. Keep giving all the love that you have.
After all, it’s an infinite resource, and one that only refills faster the more you use it.