‘Friendship never ends!’ might be the most scarily prescient Spice Girls lyric of all time. Years ago, we’d lose touch with our school friends, our uni friends, our mates from our very first jobs, as our lives evolved and we’d find the friends that fitted. We might stay close to a cherry-picked selection, but there were many people we’d think of fondly while reflecting on how we’d moved on, and they probably had too.
However, in 2017, you make a friend and you’re friends to the end. Geography and schedules don’t mean anything, friends pile up and our guilt, anxiety and busyness levels compound. Thanks to Facebook, it’s possible to stay friends with your entire GCSE English class, everyone you’ve ever worked with, dated, and some of their family members. We’re making new friends all the time, and it seems mean to be fussy - you can’t get a friend request and say ‘No thanks, I’m full up.’
We fetishise old friendships especially, and talk about them as though they are the most precious, valuable relationships of all. So what do you do - what should I do - about the friend who sat next to me in French, half my lifetime ago, who keeps inviting me to parties and suggesting that we go for drinks? How can I say ‘I’m sorry, I am busy and exhausted and absolutely confident we have nothing in common any more,’ without sounding crushingly rude? But then, I know where this ends - with me spending the rest of my life having monthly catch ups in Wetherspoons with someone I find boring and slightly exasperating.
At least my friendship dilemma is more about social anxiety than true emotional heartache. Gina*, a 30-year-old film editor tells me that she ‘broke up’ with her best friend of more than a decade’s standing, and still feels horrible about it. ‘We got engaged around the same time, and she just changed overnight - she was wedding obsessed, I told her she needed to calm down and she was furious with me. It started with a stupid argument about how her sister had dyed her hair and it wouldn’t go with the dress any more. I thought she was overreacting. She ignored me at her own wedding, and didn’t even attend mine. This has hurt me harder than any break up. I’ve tried reaching out to her, and she won’t reply. And part of me is furious with her for this. I feel as though she owes me an apology.’
I consult relationship behavioural coach Anna Carr who says, ‘we have a whole vocabulary to deal with the breakdown of romantic relationships, but nothing for friendships, when it can be equally devastating. Any relationship can trigger feelings of fear, anxiety and hurt. In a way, a marriage or relationship with a partner is much easier to manage, because both parties are much clearer about what’s expected of them and where the boundaries are.’
So what should Gina do? ‘Try to give yourself time to grieve the friendship,’ explains Anna. ‘It’s natural to obsessively go back over what went wrong and how you can fix it, but it’s sometimes more helpful to try to accept that the friendship as you knew it is over. It’s devastating, but when you’ve acknowledged it, you can start to heal.’
Other people have discovered that dumping a friend doesn’t necessarily have to be permanent. I talk to Marie, who, at 47, has just reconnected with a friend she hadn’t spoken to for ten years. ‘Lorna and I became best friends in the sixth form, and stayed best friends until our thirties, when we started having babies. We both really struggled, mainly because it was so hard to make time for each other, but also because we’d squabble about our parenting styles. There was one awful holiday where we came to blows, and I decided I was never going to speak to her again. But she sent me a Facebook message a few months ago saying that she missed me. I was furious for about ten minutes, and then I remembered how much I missed her too. We’ve been cautiously reconnecting, but I love feeling close with her again. I think there was a period of our lives when our chemistry just wasn’t right, but now we’re at different stages we’re ready to reconnect.’
Marie’s approach makes the most sense to me. At the moment, our lives feel fuller than ever. Friendship can be overwhelming. We live at a time when most of us will change our jobs, partners and homes more than once. While our friends are the people who are supposed to support us and help us to survive these changes, maybe it’s OK to admit that we’ll grow apart from some of them in the process. Sometimes friendship does end, but most of the time it evolves. If a friendship has changed, and you’re hurting each other, it might be worth taking some time apart to heal before the relationship becomes damaged beyond repair. You might come together again, or you might have to acknowledge that something that worked when you were 20 doesn’t make sense at 30. Perhaps this is the key to dealing with my persistent schoolfriend. I’m no longer a nerdy, nervous 16-year-old any more, and I’m capable of taking a deep breath and saying a grown up ‘no thank you’.