Making friends has always come easily to me. In fact, I’d say it’s one of my superpowers. It’s keeping friends that has never been a great talent of mine.
Outside of the artificial friend-making structures of formal education, holding on to the bonds I’ve created has proven challenging. The first time I noticed this happening was during the transition between school and university. Suddenly, girls went from sisters to strangers as my lack of communication pushed us apart. After one too many unreturned phone calls or missed birthdays a couple of those relationships, to my shame, were reduced to the occasional Instagram like and guilty ‘we should catch up soon’ texts.
The proximity of a small university town fostered many close bonds and friendships were amplified by the camaraderie of sports teams and intense degrees. But once graduate life took hold, old patterns re-emerged, and I struggled in my friendships once again. Matters weren’t helped by my relocation from the UK to France then Belgium and back. This time, however, my disgruntled friends didn’t fade into the background like before. I was called out…. hard.
My friends were right for articulating the ways in which I was falling short of their expectations. But the thought of letting others down destroyed the innate people pleaserwithin me. Forced to confront my failures head-on as my friends presented itemised lists of the ways I’d hurt them; I concluded that my inadequacy as a friend also constituted some sort of great moral weakness. It was a problem I was determined to solve. I vowed to be better, which worked – until it didn’t.
After a few months of contorting myself into the perfect friend, militantly replying to messages when I received them and religiously trekking across London to spend time with friends every weekend, I relapsed. Exhausted, the unanswered messages and missed milestones stacked up as I became too anxious to address them. I was disappointed but there was also an element of relief. A few friends finally cut me off, deciding that I had missed the friendship bar for the last time.
It trigger sadness, but upon reflection I realised the relationships which I had lost had actually been mismatched for quite some time. My life had changed irretrievably since university, shattered by the unavoidable force of grief after losing my grandmother and re-shaped around a demanding career. I would have been barely recognisable as the girl who sat in her friends’ university dorm rooms for hours on end chatting and laughing without a care in the world. Yet, it felt as though the friends with whom I was struggling were searching for her, trying to hold on to the relationship dynamic we enjoyed years ago.
I think I always knew that nobody was truly at fault for those friendship break ups. We’d simply outgrown each other, falling victim to the sad but indiscriminate way that adult life shrinks your social circle.
In popular culture, however, dramatic friendship break-ups featuring a clear villain vs victim narrative are sensationalised and devoured by the media. But sometimes it really is as simple as no longer being as close as you once were. Selena Gomez and Francia Raisa, for example, were once inseparable. In friendship terms, it doesn’t get much deeper than donating your kidney, as Francia did for Selena in 2017. Nobody really knows what happened between them in the years following but after the two stopped being pictured together constantly, the internet invented a dramatic feud. Fast forward to 2023, and an Instagram grid post on Selena’s page celebrating Francia’s birthday made clear that any supposed feud was fictional, which Francia herself also clarified.
Even as these embellished feuds continue to be debunked, the world remains captivated by bizarre conspiracy theories about the demise of friendships between famous women. Tik Tok’s current obsession is the alleged ‘war’ between former besties Karlie Kloss and Taylor Swift, but before social media commentators were dissecting their relationship, gossip websites like TMZ obsessed over a fictional fall out between Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. Again, years later this was proven incorrect as Kim was there to support Paris at her 2021 wedding.
Thanks to the media's obsession with ‘saints and sinners’ in a friendship context, I became convinced that my ineptness at friendship was an indicator that something was deeply wrong with me. Social media was a window into large thriving friendship groups who frequently spent time together. I wasn’t yearning for the same but baffled as to how others had the mental capacity to nurture so many bonds. I thought I must be lacking in some way, not to want or be capable of the same level of friendship that I saw others demonstrate with ease. My search for answers even led me to explore a potential ADHD diagnosis (jury’s still out on that one), sure that there must be some logical explanation for my utter deficiency in such a core feature of the human experience.
As women, we’re socialised to place friendship on a pedestal. Cultural lynchpins like Sex and The City and ‘Girls’ depict pure female friendships which are the centre of the protagonists’ lives. We’re sold the dream that a large group of interdependent sister-friends is an integral part of womanhood and those that lack it are doing something wrong. I fell for this messaging, concluding that the dissolution of my friendships, especially with women, was evidence that I wasn’t a ‘girls’ girl’ or perhaps some internalised misogyny creeping to the surface. But it turns out that perfect friendship is just another entry on the long list of contradictory expectations imposed on women - best encapsulated in America Fererra’s Barbie monologue.
Ironically, it was my friends who eventually pulled me out of the spiral of self-loathing. They acknowledged that, yes, I was undeniably bad at many of the basic rituals that constitute a friendship but assured me that they loved me in spite of it. In the same way they overlook woeful timekeeping, my remaining core group of around 20 friends accept that my flaws make me who I am.
Being a bad friend doesn’t make you a bad person. We shouldn’t assume that everyone is at the same level when it comes to navigating interpersonal relationships. Friendship is a skill which requires effort and practice, but just because you aren’t naturally suited to it, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.
These days, I own my ‘bad friend’ title with confidence. That’s not to say that I don’t adore and value my friends. Acknowledging my shortcomings in friendship has actually led to more fulfilling relationships. Now that I know being a friend is something I have to work on, I am intentional in holding space for my relationships instead of expecting things to magically fall into place like before. I’m no longer searching for the broken piece inside of me, I’m practising small ways to show my friends how important they are in my life. Something that’s always been true.
As it stands, my ‘day 1’ friends are still around, just as they’ve always been, and I will be eternally grateful for the gracious and kind community around me. Some friendships have been recalibrated, featuring adjusted expectations and a more relaxed atmosphere, and others have been lost and I’m genuinely ok with that. As a particularly wise ‘day 1’ friend told me the other day ‘in life, self-forgiveness is key’.