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Navigating Female Friendship

Friendships are such an important part of our lives, aren’t they? They are a normal element of daily social interaction and having such bonds with others were, historically, essential for our survival. Being part of a group or tribe, being accepted, was vital. If we were on the periphery or ostracised by our group, we would be at greater risk of starvation or from predators. We needed to fit in and make friends.

I don’t know about you, but female friendship has always been tricky for me. From a young age up until fairly recently, I struggled with boundaries and wanting to do it “right”. I have found female friendships in the past to be almost toxic - bitchiness, back-stabbing, very competitive. It’s only in the last few years that I have found a group of women who have shown me that it can be different.

Growing up through school, I was bullied and picked on. I wasn’t one of the cool kids, but desperately wanted to fit in with others. I had a couple of “best friends” in secondary school, but could never cope in a big social circle. College brought new challenges; I found I felt more relaxed with male friends as there were no expectations or competition there. Going forward, most of my friends were work colleagues or friends of my partner at the time. I struggled to develop other friendships, and actually wondered whether there was something wrong with me. When I did establish relationships, I tended to morph into a version of myself that I thought the other person wanted, to “fit in” - adopting their interests, investing time (and money) into what they wanted to do. Sometimes this did coincide with what I enjoyed; other times, not so much.

Nearly ten years ago, I met an amazing woman who became my closest friend. I will be forever grateful to her and for the time we spent together as she introduced me to so many other avenues in life and opened many opportunities which I otherwise would not have accessed. The thing was, I had not developed any boundaries and it became unhealthy. When it became clear that she wasn’t feeling supported by me in the way that she needed, I had nothing left to give. I was a Mum, full-time nurse, wife, daughter, sister, step-mum, friend; I had prioritised my friendship with her over and above all other relationships. I felt anxious, guilty, that I had let everyone down, that I had been a bad friend. I hadn’t got it “right” again.

It took me a long time to trust "new friends'' after this particular long-term relationship ended. I mourned the loss of the relationship for many months. I was also afraid that I was going to be consumed again by another person’s world. I was worried that I would get it wrong again. It took many months for me to start trusting others around me, letting them in and spending time with them. I have (and sometimes still do) doubted myself, ruminated on interactions if I don't get an immediate reply from a friend, believing I have done something wrong rather than realising that they are probably just busy. It has taken me years to unlearn behaviours which seemed normal and expected in the relationship before it was lost. I had to repair the neglected relationships which already existed and had suffered due to my un-boundaried friendship.

I recently read this quote from Donna Ashworth:

“It's ok to feel sad about the friends you have "lost" along the way, but truly, they were never yours to keep. Real friends don't need to be earned, or appeased, or coaxed. They are in it for the long haul and for all the right reasons. And each of those friends is worth a dozen fair-weather, so count your lucky stars if you even have one. Keep your circle small but let its light be mighty. You can't lose real friends, they just won't go.”

And it stirred up all sorts of emotions in me. Who determines what a “real” friendship is, anyway?

There is a poem about people being in your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime, and I feel this is so true. I have had past friendships that have lasted a few months to a few years; friendships at school and college, they were real. Virtual friendships with people I haven't met (yet), or people I see only once or twice a year. Friends I have known for many years but see infrequently, and we fall back into our easy relationship instantly.

These friendships are real!

I know who I can call in a crisis or for support, and they know they can call me. Just because we don't speak or text daily doesn't mean we're not "real friends". The close friendship that lasted seven years - that was real. That relationship existed. Just because it ended doesn’t mean it wasn’t real.

Moving forward, friendships have evolved and taken on new meaning for me. I am surrounded now by a circle of women from different walks of life, who I have met through different experiences and events. Over the pandemic, I joined online events and connected with women from all over the world. These connections are very important to me - they feel supportive and encouraging, not critical or overwhelming or judgemental. They listen, without giving advice which is not sought. They understand, have walked similar paths. We talk about all sorts of things - hopes and dreams, family life, what we are struggling with. We often send each other brief voice-notes or texts just to say “hi”, with no expectation. And I think this is the difference in my newer relationships - expectations. We understand the craziness of life and what that can mean for each other.

What I have learnt is that friendships can be uplifting, whereas before some had been exhausting. By this, I mean I found it exhausting trying to meet assumed expectations, or standards set by others which determined whether I was worthy of being part of the group. I found it anxiety-provoking, always being on tenterhooks, waiting for the next thing where I may not measure up. Worrying about whether I was “good enough”. Friendships don’t have to be this way. They can be easier, “no nonsense” relationships. Whether these women are in my life for a reason, a season or for always, what I know is that they add value to my life, and they make me feel valued by them. Another aspect which has changed with age is me growing more comfortable in my own skin and not relying so heavily on others to be happy. Once I started accepting myself and enjoying my own company (again, this is a recent development as I have moved through my forties), I have lessened my grip on “being enough” for other people.

How have you learnt to navigate friendships? Have you struggled? What do you value most about the friends in your life?

Two of my dearest, Debbie & Amy

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