Tuesday 12 December 2017

Is the end of a friendship the worst pain of all?

No matter how old we are, do we ever really get over the loss of a best friend?

The female stars of Beaches
The female stars of Beaches
The female stars of Beaches

Louise McSharry

All youthful friendships, male or female, transition as we get older. But for women, these young relationships are often far more intense than those of the male variety.

Ladies, cast your mind back to the girls you were friends with as a teenager. The relationships start quickly, and move fast. Monday's BFF is not necessarily Friday's. You know this if you were ever ditched in secondary school, or indeed if you still feel guilty about ditching someone. That doesn't mean they're not meaningful though. Despite the disposable nature of some of these relationships, their impact can be immense. You always remember them, but do you ever get over them? And when it comes to female friendship, are we ever out of the woods when it comes to getting hurt by them?

Mary Bridgeman, Irish Research scholar at the Centre for Gender and Women's Studies at TCD, is reminded of this quote from Romeo and Juliet:

"These violent delights have violent ends

And in their triumph die, like fire and powder; Which, as they kiss, consume".

The female stars of Beaches

"Even though Shakespeare is referring to a male-female romance, I think the intensity is apt to describe those teenage female friendships which I think do more emotional work than actual teen romances do. It is a kind of romance really, isn't it? They tend to be intense while they last and end painfully."

The trouble with teenage friendships, is that they're often based on difference. There is often a pretty one, an outgoing one, a smart one – the individual identities of the young people mingle dangerously and one often does not know who they are or what they're like away from their counterpart. At a time when people are figuring out who they are, their identities are all wrapped up with someone else's. What happens though, when we grow older but still cling on to these relationships that may not have matured along with the rest of us? Holding on to long-term friendships is something we all want to do, especially when there's history and a sense of identity involved. However, the possibility of massive change from adolescence into adulthood often means these friendships can become obsolete, even bad for us, and when they end it can be far more painful and traumatic than ending a romantic relationship.

Karen is 32, and she's still holding on to some of that. "I have had several painful break-ups in my life, but only one of them was romantic. I still think about one girl who was like a sister to me when I was younger but is no longer in my life. Part of me would love to reach out to her, see if we could clear the air now, but then another part of me is afraid. What if they haven't changed? What if they're still angry? Or worse, what if they've forgotten me entirely?" She's not the only one. Lorna is 34 and a web designer, she says "My relationship with my teenage best friend ended 15 years ago, but I still hold a lot of the hurt over the break-up. Occasionally I see her name or a photo pop up on Facebook and I feel sad, which feels a little silly given that it was so long ago. I sometimes wonder if I will ever be able to let go of it."

The female stars of Beaches

Not that these friendships always end badly, journalist Jenn Gannon has managed to hold on to some, she says: "I am extremely lucky as I have two friends still in my life that I have known since childhood, so with these friendships we have actually grown up together."

It hasn't been easy for her, though. "They have only survived due to unrelenting persistence. We are still friends, not out of misplaced nostalgia and loyalty but because we are still an active part of each others lives." Gannon says the relationships have changed over the years.

"It isn't as intense as it was in the teenage years where you pore over every boring detail of every stupid thing that happened to you that day even if that same person was sitting beside you for most of it. It had to transform during college years as we all went to different colleges and made new friends which was at the point where the relationship between the three of us could have truly suffered but because we made an effort to see each other outside of those other friendships it managed to remain."

The benefits though are clear according to Gannon: "It's great because they have known me so long I can't get away with any shit, they've known me since I had a bowl haircut and no front teeth and have the pictures to prove it." Perhaps it's necessary to accept that for the most part, the end of youthful friendships is inevitable. After all, people go their different ways geographically and emotionally, and it would be silly to assume that the person who understood you at 13 would still be the person who understands you at 33. In some situations, distance is actually required, in order for the individual to move on.

Rachel (30) made a conscious decision to take a step back from her school friends when she got to college. "We drifted naturally, but I think I consciously stepped away in some way too. My friends knew everything about me and I had been through a big emotional ordeal in my last few years at school. It was a fairly traumatic time and all my mates went through that with me – they were massively supportive. After I'd recovered though, I felt they still saw me as that person who'd been hurt or who was weak and I didn't feel like that anymore. It was such a liberation to make friends with new people, who didn't know about my past and when I told them about it, it was just a story, not something they were part of. At that time, that was what I needed and so I gravitated to my new friends more."

She knows that it can't have been easy for her school friends though. "I had one or two friends who didn't form such close friendships in college and they felt really abandoned. I didn't realise it at the time – I thought they were just being a bit weird, but they were really upset. The thing is, I didn't drift because I didn't like them anymore, I just needed a bit of distance at that time. I know there have been times in my life where I've felt friends were being distant, and it does really hurt. But having also been the person who's hurt someone else, I can see that a lot of the time it's not intentional. Sometimes they're is just going through something and you're not the person who they want to talk to about it."

It's never nice to be rejected though, and even worse when the rejection comes from your closest ally. With that in mind, it's no wonder that those painful feelings stay with us into adulthood. Is it ever worth trying to get 'closure' on these matters? Can you heal the pain of youth by revisiting the issues with the maturity of adulthood? Well, Lorna is giving that a go.

"Last week my former best friend popped up on my Twitter feed and I decided to follow her – sort of a digital olive branch! We'll see if she follows back. It would be really nice to clear the air and let go of some of the hurt feelings I can't seem to let go of." What if she doesn't follow back? "Oh, she'll be dead to me. That'll be the end of it. For good."

It would seem the extreme emotions of the youthful friendship never leave, even if the individuals grow up - and protecting oneself is as important as it is with a romance.

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent

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