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Sociability • Friendship

On ‘Complicated’ Friendships

One of the saving graces of relationships is that they are broadly understood to be very complicated things indeed. People appreciate that couples will end up locked in disputes and tensions over apparently innocuous things – and may then need to spend an inordinate amount of time working their way through their differences, perhaps with the help of a therapist or a mediator. It doesn’t surprise anyone when a couple has a major stand off because of the way one of them does (or doesn’t do) the washing up or says the word ‘please’ or behaved around their aunt at supper. Wearily, we understand that living together with a partner is an awesomely intricate business and – on a good day – we are willing to give this intricacy the respect and the time it requires.

Friendship on the other hand can find us more optimistic, less guarded – and more blithe. We assume that here, things will at last be relatively easy, largely on the basis that – quite often, for a while – they indeed are. Friendships are meant to be the generous, kind and fun part of life. Here we come with an expectation of ease and emotionally unburdened interactions. Not for friends the ponderous self-absorption and obsessiveness that we know from couples. 

Photograph taken of a Polish production of Waiting for Godot, showing Vladimir and Estragon stranded together in darkness.

Except – of course – that it rarely works out entirely this way, paradoxically, especially in those friendships that are particularly valuable and worth preserving. The more a friendship deepens, the more likely we are to stumble upon many of the same issues that complicate relationships. Except that here, unlike in love, we are bereft of an ideology that can render us appropriately patient and respectful of the shoals we’ve hit upon. We’re fatefully convinced that we need to be breezy and light precisely where – now – we should allow ourselves to be cautious, compassionate and committed to painstaking exploration. We wind up torn between an impulse to have our case heard and an impression that we surely shouldn’t be so ‘heavy’ in this arena.

We should not make our lives more complicated than they need to be by insisting on an illusory simplicity. The human mind is one of the most sensitive – and easily bruised – organs in the cosmos. In the course of our social lives, however serious and apparently dignified we are, we are likely to be impacted by some of the following: 

— A friend who, at the end of messages, is uninclined to end matters with the ‘xxxx’ we privately expect and always give them.

— A friend who never asks about our health, though we always remember to address the kidney issue or back ache they mentioned to us last year

— A friend who insists on meeting on Tuesdays though they know that Thursdays are marginally easier for us. 

— A friend who keeps alluding – in a quiet but significant way – to the wealth differential between us. 

Our belief in the ‘ease’ of friendship contains a hidden fragility: unlike in love, we feel we are not allowed to scream across the room and tell a friend they’ve betrayed us, we can’t, like an ardent partner, say that we hate them right now and want out. We can’t – most significantly of all – dissolve our frustrations in a generous and passionate act of love making. 

In the worst case, we end up having to walk away from someone we are fond of because we’re unable to tell them that – for a time at least, in order subsequently to recover sincere affection – we need to hate them quite a lot. The alluring idea that friends should never criticise one another ends up undermining the very friends we most adore. 

We need to make life easier for ourselves by removing the pressure on individual friendships to be devoid of tensions. We should conduct all our friendships under a general, socially-endorsed notion that – naturally – the more we get to know someone, the more issues will crop up, the more there will be resentments and points of contention – and the more we will  need to rely on safe resolution mechanisms to dispel grievances without either side being made to feel that something has gone irrevocably wrong because certain slightly ponderous and artificial devices have been called upon.

One suggestion is that – without anything significant being understood by this – good friends should regularly air between themselves the question: ‘Tell me what I’ve recently done to annoy you?’ Significantly, the enquiry wouldn’t be probing as to whether one had annoyed the friend or not, the starting assumption would be – far less pejoratively – that naturally had one had done so (because every good friend does) and one simply needed to know the details, not establish if there were any.

With good cheer and an absence of paranoia or despair, one person might point out that they were a little irked by a recent email; the other would respond by a recounting a sensitivity raised by the other’s attitude to time-keeping or to quietly boasting about their promotion. Each person would welcome a complaint as evidence that their friend was taking their connection seriously; an inability to come up with any offences might seem like a sign that one was either being dishonestly sentimental or didn’t like one’s friend enough to acknowledge their power to perturb one.

We start to properly value our friendships when we grant that they are often every bit as tricky – and every bit as worthy of being rescued through analysis and discussion – as our most meaningful love stories.

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