Recently one of my friends on twitter, Jayne, (who is now a friend IRL) asked a simple question: What is friendship?
This set me off on a train of thought involving the nature of friendship. I found it hard to distill my answer into 140 characters, so I cheated a little by fitting my answer into two tweets. But still, it's not a lot of space to define something so complex. But due to the nature of twitter - its immediacy and its compactness - I knew that if I didn't offer up some kind of answer soon, I will have missed the boat with this particular discussion. It's not the kind of medium that you can ponder something for days and come back a week later with the perfect response. Well, you can, but chances are your words will not be as relevant as the conversation will have moved on to myriad other interesting topics.
The answer I gave her was prompted by a few minutes thought about what friendship is not. The immediate thought that came to mind when asked what is friendship, was a recent friendship of mine that has withered away. Call me pessimistic, but I'm not alone. Brene Brown has said that in her research into connection, most people responded at length with stories about what makes them feel disconnected. When researching love, she heard about what made them feel unloved. It seems to be part of human nature.
Some friendships can trundle along nicely until a particular hot-button issue stops it in its tracks and you suddenly realise, this is a deal-breaker. Not necessarily the issue itself but perhaps the way you both handle the issue. I had this light-bulb moment when I experienced a level of conflict with two friends within a relatively short space of time, and due to our different conflict resolution styles, with one friend it ultimately meant the end of the friendship, and with the other we were able to work through it and resolve it to get the friendship back on track.
As much as I value my friendships, the disintegration of this particular friendship has been valuable to me in showing me what friendship is and what it is not. I told Jayne that to me, friendship is about both parties being able to get what they need from the relationship, but not necessarily at the same time, and also 'what you need' may not be what you expect. I could have gone on about love, compassion, generosity, etc. But lots of people have this within them and yet not all friendships are compatible. It's not even about shared interests or values, because people can still be friends without these things. Even if both people come to the relationship with good intentions, it can still fail. I came to realise all this with the recent collapse of this friendship. It was a gift of sorts.
I realise now that it's important that you are able to give your friend what they need, when they need it, and for them to do the same at any given point. You have to find a wavelength you can share with that person. It doesn't have to be a close friendship. I have friends that I see once or twice a year who live in the next suburb, but I would still consider them friends. It's just that we both silently agree on where the boundaries of our friendship are. We are friendly, but not really in each other's lives. We are able to give each other just what we need from the relationship, which may be nothing more than a coffee every 6 months or even a quick stop and chat on the street when we run into each other, with no awkwardness or expectation on either side.
Other friends who I am much closer to, I may see once or twice a week - or not 'see' at all but talk to most days online (more on that in Part 2!) - and there are times when they are feeling low and I support them, and vice versa. At certain points in the friendship, they need more tolerance and care than I do, and at other times, it comes back to me. The friendship is elastic. I think when the expectations on either side about what the friendship entails are regularly out of whack, or when the boundaries are unclear or unbalanced, the friendship is in jeopardy.
Another reason for friendships not working is simply having such differing ways of handling disagreements that it is difficult, if not impossible, to fathom where the other person is coming from. Even with the best of intentions and care, if there's no way in to the other person's perspective (you don't have to agree, just understand), especially where the issue is important, it's hard to maintain a friendship. You can care about the person, want to be friends, have things in common, but still, if the wires are crossed again and again when conflicts arise, it's hard to continue. In my case I spent so much time worrying and trying to guess what was going through my friend's mind, and even after we tried to talk it through, I was not much clearer, and I don't think she was either.
I think it helped me to realise that every friendship doesn't have to go out in a blaze of glory, teenage-style, where you have a big falling out and never speak again, or die an agonisingly slow death that results in awkward crossing of the street when you spot the other person.
It's possible to recognise, respect and acknowledge that there is no middle ground when it comes to this friendship, we can't give each other what we both need, and it's time to stop flogging a dead horse. In some ways it's harder to do this with friendship than with a romantic relationship. People don't feel obliged to stay in contact with all their exes, even if they were close to that person for a long time, but there is no similar 'out' with friendship break-ups. You don't tend to have 'the talk'. My friend and I left things on ok terms, with vague expressions of catching up again, but we haven't. We didn't actually verbalise the idea that the friendship was over, but I think the fact that neither of us have made concerted efforts to stay in touch says as much.
Being able to give each other what you need is really what it boils down to for me. Some people are just able to give me what I need, when I need it, and vice versa. Whether it's intuition or a natural connection, a gravitation of souls, I'm not sure. It doesn't necessarily equate to number of hours spent together either (you know those friends you can not see for years, and then when they're there, it's like no time has passed? I love that.) There are millions of good people, we don't all click. Even when we once felt that connection, it doesn't always remain. This is ok. This is life, this is growth.
This might seem obvious to some enlightened souls, but to me, as a lifelong people-pleaser who at times struggles with assertiveness, it has been quite a revelation. You don't have to be friends with every one, and it's ok to speak your mind, stand your ground, respectfully disagree, and let a friendship go. Which leaves more room in your life for the people who really can give you what you need, and you them, effortlessly.