Most of your friendships won’t last
According to Dr Robin Dunbar, evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University you need 3 to 5 ‘vital’ friends for optimal happiness. The truth is each of us will have many friends over our lifetimes, but very few of them will be a ‘vital’ friend. That is a friend who will laugh and cry with us, and stick around when everyone else runs.
When we first start making friends, the act is simple. If you have ever watched a 3-year-old at a playground you will understand what I mean. We identify a possible playmate and go and play with them. Usually we have a lot of fun with this previous stranger, simply because we want to. And if that stranger falls over, we go over and ask if they are okay, give them a hug, and get on with enjoying their company.
Another example of how we don’t always get smarter as we get older.
As adults we can make friendships ridiculously complicated. We pick our friends based on our ideal selves. We pick friends who are popular and make us look good, and we pick friends who will laugh with us in good times but walk away when our world is falling apart. We don’t pick friends based on our real needs or our real selves.
This is not a bad thing. We need to make friendships based on fleeting needs. This is how we learn to unlearn. This is how we find our way back to the simplicity that is at the core of a true friendship.
We need to unlearn all of the things our teens and formative 20s led us to believe mattered. We slowly begin to realise a popular friend does not always equate to a good friend. A clever friend does not always equate to a good friend. Even a friend with shared values does not always equate to a good friend. A good friend is very simply the one who turns up when everyone else turns away. They are the ones who never really leave you. All they ask is your friendship in return.
We also need to unlearn what we think makes us a good friend. We need to recognise the times we were far from the person our friend needed and grow from them. We need to understand that sometimes it was our behaviour that ended a friendship, or that it at least played a part and stop pretending that we are always the perfect friend. With each of these moments we develop deeper empathy for those who we have had in our lives, those we are lucky enough to still have in our lives, and a deeper understanding of the core of who we are.
The friendships of my tumultuous teens taught me much. They meant the world to me then but thinking back I do not miss them. The girls were interesting and spirited. I struggled with significant anxiety and around them I felt protected. Their energy was intoxicating.
But as we moved into our 20s the dynamic shifted. My self-confidence improved and this altered each relationship. I began to feel the role I was expected to play and to experience a distancing when I didn’t. I also began to over assert myself. As I learned to use my voice I developed a tendency to overstep boundaries. With the end of my first serious relationship came the fading out of these friendships.
The group of friends I found in the aftermath met my mid-20 needs. Increased variety but with a sensible edge. We all began single and over a short period found long-term partners and the years that followed were filled with weddings and child birth. We grew together in our experiences and then apart in our needs.
They are still my friends but we don’t see each other often. We have each developed very separate friendship groups so that our old group is no longer the primary for any of us. I love and respect them all, but I am also aware that if it transpired that we never found time to see each other again I would not be devastated. They helped me navigate the tricky waters of change, but slowly over time the connection has faded naturally and without animosity.
Now my friendships are much more individual. They feed the many elements of me. My social side. My introvert side. My activist side. My philosophical side. My crazy side. My childish side. My intellectual side. My emotional side. I can name a friend ideal for each. I no longer think of friendship as lifelong. It is an essential, non-negotiable need, but often held only for that period of our lives. These friendships will teach you who you are with each coming and going. They will show you what you believe, and what you don’t. They will make you face yourself with honesty. The friendships we lose are lessons we needed to learn.
Professor Dunbar is right. I can name 3 friends I feel this ‘vital’ friendship with. These friendships have spanned decades. We don’t see each other every week or even every month, and there was even a time with the first of these friends that 2 years passed without talking. The true test was that I knew, instinctively knew, that if I needed he would be there in a second. He always has been. When we do catch up we fall into our shared dark humour and intense conversations with such ease it truly is like no time has passed.
The second of these vital friends is my oldest friend. We couldn’t be more different. Our core belief system is profoundly different. Our lives look different, our interests are different, even our parenting style is different. We laugh so easily, me swearing like a sailor and her using words like ‘frig’ and ‘darn’. I love that about her. I am proud of how strongly she holds to who she is. We have been through much in our 25 years of friendship. She manages such kindness even in her moments of brutal honesty. I know the love that the words come from.
The third is my balance. Kind and gentle. Someone who gives easily of themselves, but often at his own expense. He recently found love after intense heartbreak and self-doubt. The warmth that went through my body at seeing his joy stayed with me the whole day. We see less of each other now but when we do it’s always time well spent. I know that if I message or call him now he will respond just as I would if he messaged or called me. 20 years of knowing him leave me in no doubt of this.
They have been there for every major moment in my world with love and acceptance to offer, even when they didn’t agree with my opinions or actions. They never shied from telling me the truth of their opinions, but unlike with others I never feared losing them. The strength of each of these friendships comes from the simplicity of them. All I need is for them to be themselves, and it is all they ask of me in return. The other changes we have all undergone in our lives, and the vast differences in our life paths have not altered our connection simply because who they are matters more.
All we actually need is someone who will play with us, laugh with us, accept us as they find us, and hold us when we fall over. Just as we did when we were three.