Are friendships rated by how long they’ve endured?
It’s not really fair to have more than one partner at a time, but it’s acceptable to have many friends. Different friends fulfil different needs and as our ‘requirements’ change, so do our friendships. Some blossom; some wither. If we’re lucky, new friendships form. But do you rate these newer friends lower than your old chums?
The writer and politician Horace Walpole (1717 – 1797), viewed old friends as “the blessing of one’s later years” and noticed “half a word” could convey meaning between friends who have a history of shared experiences and conversations. I don’t disagree with Horace – it’s bliss to be in the presence of someone who knows you enough to detect your meaning from half a word, but is it necessary to be old friends to reach this standard? How old is old anyway?
In my experience, there’s also joy in finding a connection with someone new.
For a period, my friendships were largely conducted chatting in the aisles of supermarkets while my toddler in the trolley scooped out the soft innards of the crusty bread baton up to the length of her arm. Later I became pals with other mums who had children in the same classes as mine at school. Not all of those friendships survived my transition from mother of young children to the person I am now. I don’t feel they were less meaningful or important at the time though and I’m wise enough to know some friendships simply run their natural course.
I suppose my friendships were evaluated when I was in my forties – not particularly consciously. I was single again after a long marriage, my ex-husband got custody of many of our joint friends and as my closest girlfriends all seemed to be in stable marriages, I felt as though I was pitied and didn’t quite belong. Sometimes I felt let down by those who were around for the good fun times, but not during my struggles because they found it difficult or upsetting. So rather than roll my eyes at that, I began to socialise more with workmates and people I’d known growing up. My autumn friends didn’t refer to me as someone’s wife or mum and I felt I was reclaiming my identity. When one remarked how pleased he was to see the new version of the old me, I felt empowered by the reconnection and safe in the familiarity of the past we had shared. I am lucky to have some old friends, newer friends and some new-old friends too – I haven’t even used them all yet.
I wasn’t welcomed everywhere however. Bouncing up to the first face I recognised at a school reunion, manically grinning to hide my nerves, I was dismissed with the words: “I never liked you.” Apparently a grudge against me had been borne since I was chosen to take the class hamster home for the holidays – in the seventies! Some friendships are just not worth pursuing. Horace also said: “Nine-tenths of the people were created so you would want to be with the other tenth.” He was choosy was Horace.
How do you measure the calibre of your friends?
I recently went for cocktails with a close friend, made in mid-life, who told me she wanted to talk about our relationship. Almost choking on my cosmopolitan, I suddenly felt cornered, you know the way a man does when a woman starts a conversation about commitment. Surely she didn’t think I fancied her when I joked I’d never snogged a woman. Then I thought: What did I do? Is she breaking up with me?
Over the past few years, we’ve studied together, worked together, survived divorce together, both suffered losses and become grandparents. I’ve known other friends a lot longer, but not many have I correlated with as much.
Now neither of us feel the need to study for more qualifications; I still work as a teacher, but she has moved on in her career; she lives alone while I live further away from her with my partner, Drew. We no longer find ourselves in the same place unless it’s arranged. And that’s what she wanted to remind me of. All our shared experiences and our relatable ones helped to form the bond we have, (them and the cocktails) but unless we pay attention, we risk losing it and that’s unacceptable to her. She told me: “There are some people you can say anything to.” And rather than test my calibre in relation to her theory, she wanted to explain how that rare person is a true friend and should be cherished.
For Horace a friend needs only half a word. I’d add that good friends can tolerate hearing any words you need to say.