The first pictures of me on Facebook are from 2007. I'm 13 years old. My hair is meticulously straightened. My eyes are raccoon-like, coated in layers of black eyeliner. I'm sitting in front of a row of lockers with a group of six other girls, each with her own straight hair and blackened eyes.
Their names are burned into my memory as a kind of tuneful list: Sarah-Annie-Ellie-Amanda-Maggie-Sophie – and me. Even now I can recite it with the same ease as the alphabet or the national anthem. In those days, that group of friends was as fundamental to my sense of self as anything else in my life.
I assumed that tight-knit groups would always shape the foundations of my friendships. But that structure has all but vanished. Where I once had a reliable, stalwart group, I now have a series of one-off, satellite friendships branching out in different directions. At 28, the shape of my friendships has shifted into something I had never expected.
Katie, a 31-year-old managing director from York, was part of a close-knit group as a teenager. "There was a group of about 10 of us, give or take," she recalls. "We were kind of misfits – often wrongly deemed 'goths'." Even though they were 'different', together they felt a sense of belonging. They became inseparable, going on shopping trips in Camden, going to house parties and finding ways to sneak beer out of the house to drink in the park.
Feeling that we belong is important when we're young – so much so that being part of a tight friendship group can be vital to our development into fully formed people. "If we have missed out on belonging to a friendship group while growing up then we may have developed certain beliefs about ourselves and others," says clinical psychologist Dr Clair Burley. "For example, we may question our ability to 'fit in' or be liked in a group setting."
We grew up on shows like Friends and Sex and the City, where we're told friend groups in your 20s and 30s are your best friends for life. That's not true.
"When we are younger, group friendships meet this need to belong, to be accepted by a community, to have fun and share experiences in a group," Burley explains.
Of course, being part of a tightly knit group as a teen does come with its downsides.
Their fierce bond felt unbreakable at the time but, as with any extreme, this wasn't always healthy. "My friendships then felt indestructible and fearlessly loyal," Emma says, "which meant you ended up going along with trends that you didn't really identify with – and you were open to a lot of heartache."
While our first group of friends gives us the confidence that comes from a sense of belonging, it can also encourage a certain amount of groupthink. In a unit of friends, it can be hard to establish our own unique interests and grow as a real individual.
The pandemic has played a part in the dissolution of my own friendship group. I left behind the girl gang of my schooldays years ago but after finishing my master's degree I had a new and reliable set of friends, complete with a WhatsApp group chat and frequent group plans.
When COVID-19 struck the UK, our group dynamic quickly fell apart. After a few hopeful Zoom parties and attempted group walks, we soon split off into one-on-one friendships.
Although the pandemic helped to speed up the disbanding of my own friendship group, the shift was probably inevitable. Pandemic or no pandemic, maintaining a friendship group becomes harder and harder as we age.
"When we are younger we have more availability and less responsibility," Burley says. "As we age we have other priorities and additional demands on our time – work, partner, children, family members and so on. This means that our ability to meet in groups is hampered – it's hard enough to find time to schedule in one or two friends let alone a whole group."
As Katie grew up, she realised that her preconceptions about the normal shape of a friendship had to change. "We grew up on shows like Friends and Sex and the City, where we’re told friend groups in your 20s and 30s are your best friends for life," she says. "That’s not true. People grow up, go to uni, move away. Some different friendships serve different purposes."
Katie's right. Not only do the practicalities of adulthood put demands on our friendship groups, so too do our own personal needs. Often we find ourselves craving something new from our adult friendships – something we never got from the herd of friends we surrounded ourselves with at school.
When Emma was in her 20s, she began to find her old group of school friends restrictive. "A lot of my friends were married with children and were still needing me to make them my priority. I found it quite exhausting," she says. Their mutual love of the Spice Girls and cheap cider was no longer enough to hold them together – especially faced with the pressures that come with adulthood. So Emma sought out new friendships that were built on individual connections rather than the power of a group bond.
"I loved finding someone who enjoyed writing and buddying up with them for writing days in a local cafe, or someone who enjoyed cycling and going with them for long Sunday bike rides," she says. "I've also worked really hard to set boundaries, previously having always been the one that is leaned on for support and it never being reciprocated when I needed support."
Skye, a PR coach from London, also loved having a group of friends at school. But after going to university, travelling around the world and going through the pandemic, she found herself left with a series of much stronger, one-off friendships.
"I have different friends from different times in my life and that’s really important to me. I think one-on-one you have more of a chance to really talk and catch up on everything that’s going on in your lives, so I do feel really close to each one of them," she says. "In a way, it also takes more effort to keep in touch with individual friends and make plans to see each other because you’re not just thrown into a group setting together and I think that means the important friendships survive," she adds.
We are drawn to individual friendships as we get older, Burley explains, because our needs shift and a group dynamic is no longer enough. "Our need for a deeper connection within a friendship grows. We seek someone we can talk to, who understands us, shares the same values as us and offers their presence," she says. "This is usually easier to create and nurture one-to-one than in a group dynamic."
My group of friends is not what it once was. I was sad to see it slowly dissipate during the pandemic. Some of the people from that group have drifted out of my life almost entirely. But I've also come out with a few firm friendships that are stronger than they ever could have been within the group.
By letting the group go, I've fostered one-on-one bonds that far surpass those I'd formed in the past. I've discovered friendship's full potential. I once saw friendship as a ready-made machine that I could join, slotting myself seamlessly into its moving cogs. Now, I see it more as a series of growing branches, each following its own path and offering its own qualities.
Now, my friendships exist in their own, special little universes. With one friend, I get wine drunk and discuss the complexities of Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal. With another, I go for long strolls and poke around fancy food shops while she offers endlessly sage words of wisdom. With another, I lament the state of British politics in long, rambling voice notes.
Yes, part of me misses the ease and reliability of my high school girl group. But then again, I've moved on from lockers and straight hair and black eyeliner – and my friendships have, too.