You choose your friends, not your family - and for many today, the former have become the most important people in their lives. But are you sure your friends really like you as much as you like them? And how do you know they will still be around in five years' time? In the first of a highly personal three-part investigation into modern relationships, Jenni Russell looks at friendship
Monday January 24, 2005
Earlier this year, I rang my friend Jo and found her in a state of stunned misery. The week before, her best and oldest friend had sent her an email to say that she thought the friendship was over, that she wouldn't be in touch for a while, and that she sent Jo all her best wishes.
Jo is a witty, sexy, single, childless woman in her 40s. She's a talented artist, but earns very little. Without a career, money, husband or family to bolster her confidence, a small group of friends have been a key part of her identity. Genevieve, an ambitious, glamorous woman whom she met at university, has been her constant confidante for almost a quarter of a century. But in the past three or four years, Genevieve has become increasingly unreliable: making dates she later cancels; slow to return calls or emails.
Last winter, Jo arranged for them to go to a film together, only for Genevieve to ring at 6pm to say she was awfully sorry, but she had to spend the evening with some dreary Burmese refugees, friends of her father's. Fortunately for Jo, 20 minutes later she was rung and asked to make up the numbers for a formal dinner party. When she walked into the room, she felt as if she had been punched in the stomach. Genevieve was sitting on the sofa, flirting with the men on either side of her. There were no refugees.
"The next day I sent her an email saying: 'Why did you lie to me? Why not just say: I want to go to a dinner party? I can take that. I can't take being lied to. This is a friendship. We're supposed to trust one another.' She emailed back immediately saying she didn't have to explain herself to me. And then a month later she said our friendship had run its course, and she wouldn't be seeing me any more. It's one of the worst things that's ever happened to me. And I haven't just lost her; I've lost all our history, all that shared experience. The truth is I think I wasn't an asset to her any more. But I can't understand why we can't talk about it. Why it's just over."
Friendship has been given a special status in our society. It is contrasted with all those relationships over which we have so little control; the families we can't change, the neighbours who irritate us, the colleagues we have to put up with. Friends are thought of as the joyous, freely chosen part of our lives, and it's assumed that those relationships are always pleasurable. If asked how you're spending the weekend and you say staying in or seeing your family or your colleagues, people may think you're a little sad. Say you're seeing friends and there's an assumption that you too are desirable, connected.
On one level, friendships are very simple. They are the bonds between people who enjoy one another's company. But probe deeper and it's evident that there is no consensus about what it means. Start talking to people about friendship and it becomes clear that while people value it and seek it, there is also much confusion, hesitancy and disappointment about friends in many people's lives. Friendship is one of those areas full of hidden assumptions and unspoken rules. We only discover that our friendship doesn't mean what we think it does when those assumptions clash.
There is no agreement about what friendship involves, or what to do if it goes sour. No one would dream of suggesting to a friend that they start seeing a friends' guidance counsellor to talk about the dynamics of their failing relationship. When things go wrong, we very rarely challenge our friends. That's because friendship is often a delicate affair and we don't want to tax it with too many demands. It's more common to absorb the hurt, and retreat. After all, there is no contract. The terms are unwritten, and nobody ever makes them explicit.
Ask people about friendship and what's startling is that they hold such a wide range of views, often accompanied by an absolute conviction that they are expressing an obvious truth. Some think it demands total loyalty; others that it carries no obligations at all. One man says long friendships have transformed his life, and been in some ways more important than his marriage; another thinks the great thing about friends is that you can always drop the old ones, because there are new ones around every corner. One woman says she would die for her friends; a younger woman says that all her friendships are ruthlessly practical, and designed to make her life easier in the here and now.
And what's intriguing about those attitudes is that they aren't obvious from the way people lead their lives. Everyone I talked to above has a large number of acquaintances and a social life. All but one assumes that most people think as they do.
Most of us feel a certain pride about our friends, pleased that they have chosen us, and that we have chosen them. We tend to believe that they reflect some important truths about who we are. Yet making friends isn't an exercise in free choice, any more than buying a house is. We buy houses according to what we can afford, what happens to be on the market when we're looking, and whether a capricious owner decides to accept our offer. Friendship is rather similar. We can only choose our friends from among the people we meet, in circumstances where making a friendly overture would be appropriate, and who show a reciprocal interest in knowing us.
Recent research concluded that at any time we have around 30 friends, six of whom we think of as close. Over a lifetime we will make almost 400 friends, but we will keep in touch with fewer than 10% of them. Almost 60% of us claim that our friendships are more important to us than career, money or family. Other studies show that men have, on average, one fewer close friends than women do, that middle-class men have more friends than working-class men, and that both men and women find their friendships with women more emotionally satisfying than those with men. Those findings are fascinating, but they mask huge variations. When I asked people how many close friends they had, the answers ranged from none to almost 100.
Joanna, a radio producer in her 30s, thinks anyone she likes, trusts and finds interesting, male or female, is a potential friend. She meets them frequently. Her oldest ones date from when she was six, and because she has never lost a friend, she says she has more than 80 of them.
Rosie, a writer, also makes new friends easily, but drops her old ones with equal ease. At the same time, she believes that one ought to be loyal to one's friends. She is perfectly consistent, because she believes that friendships are automatically dissolved as soon as one participant finds the other one boring. She is exasperated by some people's tendency to keep pursuing her when it's clear that the whole thing is over. On the other hand she's always thrilled by invitations from new people, because she never knows who she might meet.
It's very different for George, an old Etonian in his 50s, with a fat address book and enormous charm. As far as he is concerned, friendship is a club of seven men which was full by the time he was 23. They all share the same interests, they don't make emotional demands, and that's just the way he wants it. Tell George that other people think him a friend, and he'll think them fools.
George doesn't need new friends because he grew up in the same social, professional and geographical worlds that he now occupies as an adult, and his group offers as much security and intimacy as he requires. It's more complicated for the increasing numbers of us who are socially, professionally or geographically mobile. We all look for friends with whom we share some common ground, so that as our circumstances change, we're likely to meet new people we want to know. But it can be very difficult to tell, particularly if we live outside a small community, whether anyone is really interested in us or whether we matter to them at all.
Often, we don't know where we fit into friends' lives. We may like them enormously, but not know whether they'd like us to get any closer. Are we in the first dozen, or the remotest 90 in their circle? If they ask us to dinner once a year, is that an honour because they only entertain twice, or a sign of our unimportance, because they hold dinners every week?
This degree of uncertainty exists partly because many of us now lead lives in which we are the only connecting thread. It is perfectly possible for much of our lives to be opaque to anyone who knows us. They may only ever encounter one particular facet of our existence, because we can, if we choose, keep parents, past acquaintances, old partners, colleagues, friends, and neighbours in totally separate boxes. Many people value the anonymity and freedom that gives them. The flip side is that just as we are not known, so we cannot really know others.
In the absence of certainty, we live by assumptions, and we can be horribly surprised. Edward is an author who says he was unprepared for the explosion of interest in him when he wrote a successful book. For a couple of years he was a sought-after guest, moving in the company of people he had always wanted to meet. He thought he had joined a new circle, and it made him very happy. Then his book ceased to be the issue of the moment, and he was comprehensively dropped. Not only did the invitations cease; so did the Christmas cards. He was profoundly shocked. After all, his character and his intelligence hadn't changed. He had just ceased to be of interest.
Clare would have thought she was insulated from such shocks, because she has been part of a group of friends for more than 20 years, and their social lives have been intertwined. The group is made up of ambitious and competitive people, and her membership of it has been a source of greater pride and meaning to her than her career, even though the dynamics of it have always made her anxious: "You worry about who's becoming closer, and whether you're being left out. It's a constant source of tension. You hear that A and B have been asked to M's house in Cornwall and you feel sick - you wonder, well why didn't they ask me? And there's a continual struggle over who's the top dog - who's the most desirable person."
Last year, Clare fell out with the group's most successful couple. Gradually, to her anguish and incredulity, she realised that she and her family were being excluded from all the group's joint activities. Parties and dinners were happening without her being told. Then she discovered, from an unguarded remark, that the traditional annual holiday was going ahead without her. She climbed into bed and cried for three hours. What hurts most deeply is her realisation that, even within the group she had thought of as a refuge, status is ultimately all that counts. No one within it wants to alienate the pair who are, in practice, the leaders of the pack.
She says now that she realises that the bonds she thought the group had established were only superficial. They met only for enjoyment. They didn't look to one another for support. No one in the group ever made any demands on anyone else; no one made any sacrifices.
From the outside, Clare's blind faith in her friendships looks naive. If your friends are hugely competitive, and driven by the desire for power, wealth and proximity to it, then those values are likely to drive their private lives too.
But Clare is not alone. Many of us are childish in our expectations of friendship. Even though we may only present our most sparkling, desirable selves to our friends, and even though there may be nothing more to the relationship than five years of occasional lively evenings together, we still nurture the illusion that the friends who enjoy our wine or our wit are somehow very attached to the real us, the vulnerable or dull or anxious one they may never have seen. Which is why we are so astonished when friends melt away at a time of trouble.
Sasha is an academic in her 50s who had always assumed that her friends were utterly trustworthy, until she had a real crisis a few years go. "My husband was rushed to a hospital in another city for a transplant, and the hospital said to me; you're going to support your husband, but who's going to support you? Well, I used up my best friend because she just agreed instantly to look after my son, who was only 10, whenever I was away. And then I asked my other friends whether they'd be on standby to come with me. And they all said, 'Yes, but ...' Yes, I'll come, but only if it doesn't clash with Zoe's piano, or Max's football, or working late. In the end, not a single one ever came with me, and it was a real shock. I felt so lonely.
"I look upon friendships very differently now. I'm much more cynical. I don't think most people are really prepared to make an effort for anyone else. They're prepared to enjoy your company, and that's all. It was funny, but the people I almost admired in that situation were the ones who were just honest about the fact that they couldn't help. One couple wrote to me and said they were so sorry, but since they lived 50 miles away it was just too far, and they weren't going to be able to offer me any support. Well, I admired it until he got ill a couple of years later. And then she wrote me a really abusive letter, accusing me of not caring about them. I couldn't believe it."
Anna, a full-time mother of three, is equally disillusioned. She thought she had a rich network of friends until her youngest child was born disabled. She says now that she can't really call any of them friends, since they've all been so useless. "If you become a needy person, if you say, 'My child's never going to walk,' friends find it very difficult to give. I assumed that when something went wrong, people would offer practical support, ask you out, arrive with meals. But they're embarrassed. If they ring, it's just to make a practical arrangement, like, 'When is the eldest coming to tea?' They ask if you're fine, and that's where it stops."
She thinks that friendships may have been different in the past. "People are so busy they don't really have time for it now. It's my parents' friends, people in their 70s, who are friends of the old school. They visit, they ask questions, they bring things. I think now I only ever had loads of acquaintances. Possibly that's what everyone has now. If you can join in on a Friday down the pub - of course you're great mates."
It's noticeable that the people who are least disappointed with their friendships are either those who have never tested them, or those with the clearest understanding of what they are about. Sometimes that's because the friendships are rooted in the realities of their lives. Like Jill, a mother of three children and a part-time teacher. "My friends make my life possible," she says. "We care for one another's children, look after pets, do one another's shopping, counsel each other on our marriages. From all the mothers at the school gate, you pick the ones you really like, and then they become your support network. People are very practical about it. You'll hear them saying things like, 'I need to find a friend with a five-year-old son.' Or they'll say: 'I liked X very much, but I don't need another friend like that.' I know I can rely on my friends, because I do that every day."
Others who are contented are those who expect nothing more of friends than that they share pleasurable activities. Like Bill, who has friends he drinks with, workmates he gossips with, and men he plays football with, and wouldn't dream of demanding anything else. Or Jeanette, a care worker in her 20s, who wants only to have a good time with her mates when they go out. She'd never ask them to help her with her housebound mother.
What do these experiences, as disparate as they are connected, tell us about the notion that has gained currency in the past few years that friends are the new family? In one sense it's clearly true. Each generation is spending more and more time as independent adults before committing themselves to having dependents of their own. But we are so enamoured of the idea that we can be part of a freely chosen community that we haven't stopped to consider what it really involves. We celebrate the idea that people are no longer restricted to the bonds of kinship and obligation, and replace it with an idealised vision of people brought together by genuine affection and respect.
But just how realistic is that vision? What can we expect from our friends? Families exist because their members accept that a degree of selflessness is necessary to sustain them, and to ensure the survival of the next generation. There is no similar drive behind friendship .
Perhaps we need to think a little harder, and be rather more perceptive, about what sustains our relationships. We could start by being more honest with ourselves about what we like about our friends, what needs they fulfil, and what we would be prepared to do for them. We may feel truly generous to some of our friends, and resentful of others. Some we love, some flatter us, some we tolerate while they serve a purpose, and some we might despise. One woman, a charming, hospitable, gentle person, said to me: "It's very important to have some friends you dislike. It's so lovely afterwards, tearing them apart." Another man, generous in his behaviour, says nevertheless that he has few pleasures greater than watching the setbacks and disasters of his friends.
This would help us to be more realistic about which friends we might expect to see by our hospital beds, and which ones we think we would visit. It doesn't mean we can't value the ones who won't be there. Often we can be drawn to others for exactly the characteristics that would make them unlikely to be helpful in a crisis. One man says that he values his friends just because they are iconoclastic, reckless, exciting, arrogant and clever. And a woman who has endured two bereavements and a serious illness in the past few years says she is grateful that her friends remain distant from her grief: "When I'm with them, I always feel slightly as if I'm on stage - and I feel much better for it." We can recognise people's charm as entertainers and companions without expecting emotional support from them as well.
Does it matter that we can distinguish between deep friendships and transient or superficial ones? Talking to a wide range of people, it was clear that few of them are really happy with the friendships they have. Many of them feel privately wistful about the lack of depth, or in tensity, or number of their relationships. People with consuming jobs are sad that they haven't had the time to build stronger bonds, and wonder whether it's too late to develop them; mothers with time to spare want to find new friends but don't know how. Many people would like to have more friends, or deeper, warmer, more reliable relationships than the ones they have now, but don't know how to go about it.
This sense was particularly strong among the men I talked to. Men have been thought of as less in need of intimate friendship. Perhaps that's changing, and just as more men are becoming closely involved with their children, so there's a similar desire for the ease of close friendship. A man in his 60s, with a wife and children, told me that he is absolutely distraught because his one friend, a man he has known for 40 years, is seriously ill. "I cannot imagine my life without him," he said, "It's been the most important relationship of my life." Another man in his late 40s, whose children have almost left home, said that he feels now that the absence of close friendship is a huge gap in his life. Career and family have consumed his time for 20 years, and now he feels oddly lonely. A third man, a very successful manager, says he wishes he could establish male friendships, but he finds it hard to reveal anything important to other men. They block intimate conversation, rather then opening it up. A fourth man says simply that he wishes his friends would make more demands on him. He would like to be more involved in their lives.
There are powerful reasons why we should create these bonds, even if we only start when we are older. The phenomenon of later births means families take up a smaller percentage of our lives. We wait years to have children, and we could be 70 before we become grandparents for the first time. We have more time available, and fewer familial responsibilities, than the generations before us. We all want to feel needed and valued by others. It is possible for friends to fill that need, but only if we work at it.
It isn't easy, because friendship is a subtle dance, and no one wants to be explicitly pursued when it's unwelcome, or explicitly dropped when they are not wanted. Nor does it come with any guarantees. People are unpredictable. But we need to play the game of friendship. Evidence shows that people with close friends live longer and are happier than those without. And friendship defines what it means to be human. As the Greek philosopher Epicurus observed: "Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one's life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship. Eating or drinking without a friend is the life of a lion or a wolf."