We have this idea that friendship should last forever. That we should be BFFs, Best Friends Forever, buddies for eternity. That we should cherish a person for all our breathing days. That we should somehow still be doing bottomless brunch and discussing the latest Love Island when we’re wrinkled beyond recognition. We are, as a society, woefully preoccupied with the concept of forever (we can blame Hugh Grant’s rom com career and our infinite optimism as a species for that). There are, of course, friendships that last as long as hope.
But here’s the thing: Sometimes friendships end and that’s okay.
We are fallible, we make mistakes, we hurt people, we change, we evolve, we grow out of friendships that once made sense. As we get older, we might learn to have better quality control of the relationships in our lives and even do an audit of who belongs by our side. We get married, get divorced and fall in and out of love with our romantic partners – apart from the legal paperwork and the white dress, why should it be any different for our friendships? Compatibility can be ephemeral, and it is freeing to acknowledge that.
You learn a few things about humanity when you write 83,339 words about friendship. I’ve spent the past few years talking to evolutionary psychologists, strangers and friends about loneliness, friendship and love for my book, The Friendship Cure. Having done that, I can truly say that people’s friendships are falling apart all over the place.
I am alarmed and distressed that we are allowing some of that to happen by neglect; I believe we have forgotten something of how to connect with one another and that friendship requires a hefty investment of time, loyalty and vulnerability. We are ghosting each other and vanishing from lives without explanation, which I find reprehensible but inevitable. We are not talking about how much friendship break-ups hurt or how often they’re happening. For many of the people who spoke to me about theirs, it was the first and only time they gave themselves permission to speak aloud the hurt they felt when a friend became an acquaintance, or worse, just a memory. Today, on International Friendship Day, please know that you are not alone if you’ve grieved the end of a friendship and that it is entirely possible to recover from that uniquely private ache.
I am more acutely aware than ever that relationships of all kinds have natural expiry dates, and there is little point cleaving to a friendship that ought to be over. Since writing an entire manifesto on the importance of friendship, I have been ghosted by a dear friend. She still watches my Instagram stories, which is baffling, but she has otherwise disappeared from my WhatsApp messages, my life and finally, if I’m truthful, my heart. It’s been nine months since I’ve heard from her and the silence was mercilessly abrupt, but I’ve thought a lot about it and found comfort in that refrain: Sometimes friendships end and that’s okay. Obviously this person no longer wanted to be in my life and though I’ve racked my brain to figure out why, I can’t think of a plausible reason. I have done her no wrong and so I can peacefully, though painfully, accept the rejection now. Over the past three decades of my life, I have ended friendships and watched them vanish, as I know so many of us have. I think of those past friends with a wistful sort of melancholy, knowing that for a multitude of reasons they no longer belonged in my life.
It makes sense that we should lose some friends over a lifetime. In fact, it’s necessary and it can be ultimately positive. We make friends so often, particularly growing up, for social survival and convenience more than anything else. At school, we grab whoever is closest, whoever most closely resembles ourselves, whoever was sat next to us alphabetically on the first day. We assess our worth in a complex system of gossip, vivacity and extroversion and gravitate towards the friendships we can make work. We make nemeses, too, and fight our way through the ferocious fragility of adolescence. Some people are lucky and make meaningful friends then – but a lot of us don’t and it makes sense that so many of our high school friends drop out of our lives. At least by university, we can make friendship choices using our fully developed frontal lobes and hopefully slightly less restless senses of self, but even then we are building our identities and our networks from youth, naivety and hope. The friends we make as adults – at work, by chance, through our children, online, at our boyfriend’s sister’s house party – have the greatest chance at longevity but even then, they disintegrate and they fail.
We are destined, though it may sound brutal, to watch friendships shrink, morph into something foreign, disappear, fade, break down and end. Sometimes it’s a violent end; a fight that becomes insurmountable or a difference in disposition that you simply cannot reconcile.
Sometimes, though, it’s a quieter vanishing; a gradual fracture in intimacy that continues until you can no longer recognise the person you once called friend. All of this is okay; all of this will be okay. When we break up with a friend – suddenly, stealthily, loudly or slowly – we should mourn like we do when a romantic relationship ends. Eat a tub of Ben & Jerry’s in the dark listening to Coldplay on repeat, sob in your therapist’s office, regale your mother with stories of little joys gone by, yell, write, run, watch reruns of Friends – do whatever it is that helps you cope and then move on. Friends go, friends leave us, friends lose their right to belong in our lives – but there is more love to feel, more friendships to make, more loyalty to stoke, more delight to be had. Forget about an unconditional forever, hold onto the friends you have and let go of the ones that don’t last. It’s going to be okay.