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24 June 2023

The uncomfortable secret of adulthood: friendship takes work

Once jobs and serious relationships are thrown into the mix, friendships stop being things that just happen to you.

By Marie Le Conte

There is a popular myth that states that, once you meet the love of your life, you will never have to talk about a thing ever again. You will be so in tune, the two of you, that your partner will sate your every need before you even realise you had it.

It’s bollocks, of course. Wonderful, healthy, long-lasting relationships need communication. Talking through dreams and hopes, frustrations and problems doesn’t cheapen love – it supports and enhances it.

Over the past few years, our culture has begun coming to terms with this. Gone are the days of dating advice informed by syrupy rom-coms; in their place are entreaties to be honest about what you want, and how you hope to get it. It is a welcome development: when it comes to human relationships, few things are more corrosive than unrealistic expectations.

This is why the conversation should now turn to friendships. Much has been written, filmed and sung about the highs and lows of teenage bonds. They can be heart-wrenching and life-affirming, and often end up being both. They’re exhausting and exhilarating, and how young people learn about who they are and how they wish to interact with the world.

Crucially, these relationships tend to develop without much thought. Even relative social outcasts – this columnist included – fell in and out of groups without really meaning to. You sat next to someone in class or realised you shared a bus route home and, suddenly, a bond was formed.

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It is both a beautiful stage of life and a dangerous one, because it fails to prepare you for what comes next. Once full-time jobs and serious adult relationships are thrown into the mix, friendships stop being things that just happen to you. The change doesn’t come all at once, meaning that most people probably don’t even see it happening. There will just come a point when you notice that there is a friend you haven’t seen in three months, despite feeling certain that you caught up with them only the other week.

[See also: It’s time to accept it: there’s no easy, painless way to break up with a friend]

What could have possibly happened? Well, now you think about it, you do remember that you were meant to go for a drink that one time but they cancelled, because they were too busy with work. You managed to reschedule but this time you were the one to flake, because you just felt too knackered and it was raining too hard. And now here you are.

Soon enough, you’ll end up with a number of Schrodinger friends who are, in theory, still people in your life, even though you haven’t really had them in said life for some time. A phone call and an invite to the pub would get the proverbial cat out of the box but will you do it? Eh, maybe next week, when you’ve finished watching that TV series you’re really enjoying.

If this sounds shamefully familiar to you, you shouldn’t be surprised. According to a YouGov study published in 2021, 37 per cent of Britons have friends they like but “don’t really bother to see”. Again, the phrasing here is beautifully knotty: what is a friendship if it doesn’t involve human contact? Is “friendship” a mere state of being? Isn’t it something you do?

It’s the question I’ve been thinking about for the past few days, since learning that one of my closest friends had suddenly and unexpectedly died. I found out and it killed me in a thousand ways, big and small, and it made me sad that she wouldn’t get to read the last column I’d written for this magazine, on second hand clothing.

[See also: To catch a catfish]

She always read my New Statesman pieces and offered thoughts and comments afterwards, in person and on WhatsApp. I’d never asked her to do it; it was just something she’d taken to doing. I struggled to reciprocate her kindness but did usually meet her for drinks in her neighbourhood, despite the fact that we didn’t live close by.

Some days it really annoyed me, just as I’m sure that some weeks she just didn’t care about what I wrote. We were different people with different needs and often frustrated each other. Sometimes we tried to hash it out; more often than not, we just kept going, seething for a while then getting over it.

It wasn’t always straightforward, and reading about the easy delights of female friendships often left me feeling inadequate, as it so blatantly wasn’t what we had. It was a relationship that required effort, maintenance and deft diplomacy. Did it mean we should call it a day? I did wonder, once or twice. Then I realised I was being an idiot.

Popular culture tells us that friendships should be effortless, and our own complicated adult lives never stop nudging us towards entropy. Friendships end every day for no good reason, because drinks that should have happened didn’t and reality didn’t come close to expectations.

The friendship we had ended in the most final way there is, but it had kept going for so long because, despite our differences, we both knew one thing to be true. Friendship is something that you do and keep doing, again and again, even if you’re tired or busy or cross or all of them at the same time. It’s something you do because what you get in return is priceless. It’s a continuous act, and it is entirely worth it.

[See also: The cost of living crisis has changed friendship]

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