'Befriending your unrequited love is like an exercise in psychological self-harm' - Comedian Joanne McNally looks at the evolution of her attitude to male friendship, and asks is love really just the FTSE 100 for humans?
Something has happened to me since I tripped into my mid-30s. I say tripped, because the last time I checked I was 29, drinking alcopops at a festival, as I watched a man sell narcotics out of a baguette. So I'm really not sure how the situation escalated to this, now 36, eating collagen alone in my bedroom. My only assumption is that I skidded on something that catapulted me forward seven years. Maybe it was one of my own unfertilised eggs?
I'm maturing. There are the physical effects, of course, the new lines and folds in my face that look like an arts-and-crafts enthusiast broke into my home overnight and tinkered away at me for hours, trying to mould my head into an accordion.
Maturing means I'm losing things I'd rather keep, like facial elasticity, child-bearing years and the mental pluck to wear a scrunchie. But I'm also gaining things like sanity and perspective. Physically, I'm curdling, but mentally, I'm ripening.
Take, for example, my attitude towards male friendships. Excuse the exclusively hetero-woman angle, but it's all I know (though, let's face it, no orientation is safe from the economics of attraction; we're all in this warzone together).
As a teenage girl, boys were only good for the following: attention, a swell in my own self-esteem and social kudos. My teenage years were spent needing to be fancied. At that stage I knew nothing about myself, only that I loved coleslaw, puffer jackets and was mortified by my body, so if a boy considered me important enough to fancy, then that meant something.
To be fancied was to be seen; it made you feel important. I couldn't see anything in myself other than unwanted bulk, hidden under layers of Umbro, so male attention was like an emotional ring light - validation, the modern-day equivalent of a blue tick - that gave me something to work with. Nothing was more thrilling than being approached by a chain-smoking 16-year-old called Deco who told you that his mate Damo requested your puffed-up, overly lip-lined presence in the bike shed, where he was waiting to put his tongue in your mouth for as long as you both could bear it. Magic.
I'm sure there were other girls more sophisticated than me who got their teenage thrills from highbrow pursuits like writing novellas in their bedroom or gorging on the historical achievements of Emmeline Pankhurst, but my main concern was tongue: seeking it, winning it, binging it.
My 20s brought with them a slightly more mature attitude to men. I had guy friends who I got on with but we kept each other on the outer circle, never on the inner. We'd go out in gangs but I would never in my wildest dreams have rung them in broad daylight and suggested we nip down the town for coffee and a quiche. They were too 'other'; I felt sure they couldn't give me the all-consuming affinity I felt from my female friendships.
I adore women. Not all women, of course - I'm not going to pretend there aren't some I wouldn't like to put in a barrel and drop off the side of a boat, and I know there are women who would happily barrel me into the ocean also, that's an unfortunate fact of life, but even those women, I still think about them. They affect me. Those situations gnaw away at me, because our perceived betrayals of each other are more painful than if done by a man.
Women begin from a position of unspoken, understood solidarity; a shared experience that is so strong that when crossed, it feels like more than just rude disregard - it feels like treason.
I used to go to house parties and come home with the phone numbers of women. I've made life-long female friends in the toilets of nightclubs. Nothing thrills me more than a stranger asking an entire bathroom for a tampon and me proudly passing one over like a baton of female fortitude. That connection is so gratifying, knowing that this woman can carry on her evening in comfort, without a cinderblock of toilet paper stuffed into her knickers. We are one.
The few male friendships I had that progressed from outer circle to inner were always riddled with holes: disguised desire, secret obsessions, drunken declarations, disastrous hook-ups and eventual implosion. By the time we eventually crossed the line, the blur was so bad I couldn't tell if we were sexually compatible or riddled with cataracts. All friendships need a chemistry to exist and survive, a mutual magnetic draw that pulls you together - so when that chemistry is between two people who traditionally like to sex that sex, the lines can wobble and blur. That has always been my experience, anyway. Some of my female friends grew up with great male mates and no lines were ever crossed and I just looked on with a tilted head, impressed but confused.
Movies have a lot to answer for. The idea that men and women can't be best mates without someone wanting to secretly wiggle their way into the other's knickers is a favourite story (note: the wiggler always wins). Take the movie Just Friends, for example, a personal favourite of mine because Anna Faris's character, pop star Samantha James, basically steals the show for being bonkers.
Anyway, Ryan Reynolds has a lifelong obsession with his childhood bestie, Amy Smart, whom he eventually wins over by morphing from obese, badly-braced nerd to incredibly hot, successful music producer. Oh and I'm 70pc confident that almost every Sandra Bullock movie circles around this idea also, but in reverse - Sandra starts out ugly (which in movie terms means she wears glasses), Sandra gets hot (which in movie terms means she takes off her glasses and exposes a kneecap), and she ends up in bed with Hugh Grant or some other character who never wore glasses. We're fed this type of stuff all the time, and I gobbled it all up like a hungry, emotionally-stunted pig.
One of my own secret-obsession-man-friend situations took up most of my 20s. It was exhausting, heartbreaking but also intoxicating. Let's face it, the human condition loves a bit of 'will they, won't they'. It gives us life; it's up there with blood transfusions and antibiotics and that scene in Real Housewives where someone accused Aviva of faking her asthma diagnosis, so she ripped off her prosthetic leg and threw it across the dinner table.
Being secretly in love with your fake best friend is akin to getting waterboarded by an adorable puppy. At times, it's complete torture, but you need to be around the puppy so you can absorb its very being, which you've decided is celestial, so you carry on, in the hope that the puppy has an epiphany and realises it should not be drowning you in a trough of Pedigree Chum, but instead should be drowning you in a trough of Pedigree soulmate.
I would hang around my man-friend-obsession at all times, negging him with OTT reminders that he was definitely not my type, trying to throw him off my scent, like I hadn't tried to swipe a lock of his baby hair from his mother's side cabinet. And then I'd bid him an overly casual good-night in a way that suggested he physically repulsed me, and spend the evening listening to My Heart Will Go On, smelling the bobble hat he'd once left in my house and trying to wear the face off his Facebook page. Sleep, eat, obsess, repeat.
Befriending your unrequited love should be considered a mental-health issue; it's like an exercise in psychological self-harm.
Sometimes it's just a physical thing - a chemical thing, unrequited lust; whatever hormone they're leaking, you're buying. Their very presence makes your entire body fizz up with adrenaline and excitement and longing. You crave them; it's like they're heroin and your genitals are the syringe.
But then there are the other friend-obsessions where you think you're actually in love with them and the 'love' is unrequited. That's a one-way street and there's nothing coming your way but tumbleweed and torment, because that's when the voice starts, that debilitating hum in your head, the little bastard lounging in the back of your mind on a beanbag, smoking a cigar, and whispering: 'If they don't want you, it's because you're not good enough for them. You're not quite sure about yourself yet, are you Joanne? No, so you should see yourself how they see you. That's exactly what you should do - allow them to determine your worth. Yes, him, that man who lives in his mother's basement, is a suspected gambling addict and thinks walnuts can cure cancer. Yes him, he is perfection. How he sees you is how you must see yourself. The only way to fix this internal rejection-fuelled turmoil is to win him over. Win his attention. Win this gift to womankind. Change his mind. Only then can you achieve inner peace.'
I didn't have the emotional skill-set to validate myself, so I would try to outsource that side of things to men. When it didn't work, all hell broke loose. It's all classic human behavior - I want them, so they increase in value, but they don't want me, so I decrease in value. Love is basically the FTSE 100 for humans. I don't wish to be challenged on this analogy.
Sometimes you pine for so long, you lose focus; you pursue an imagined relationship that you've invented. Who can ever live up to that? I've been the secret fancier and the secretly fancied. In my 20s, a particular man pursued me for years, years! I finally succumbed to his charming flirtations and three months in, he dumped me. Basically, he achieved his mission, so I lost value, and then he got to know me, so my FTSE plummeted through the floor, down through the Earth's crust and into the bowels of hell. What can I say? I'm an acquired taste.
Obsession is obvious. It always is. You think you've got a hold on things, you think your 'friend' doesn't know, but they always know. Your body will betray you: small signs like a flushed cheek, a diluted pupil, an ill-timed erection. I'll never forget seeing a photo of Brad Pitt staring at Angelina Jolie at some press junket for that movie they basically agreed to make so they could rub up against each other for 12 months and eventually leg it off together. He was entranced; his eyes were twirling in his head and pulsing like a heartbeat. It was incredible to watch. Like I said, obsession is never subtle.
Previous relationships have done nothing to change my mind. Like the boyfriend who has a particular female friend whom you've never met, but he assures you they're 'just good friends'. Your gut is squealing at you because you know it's more; you just know. But you want to believe him because love loves a lie; it means you can stay.
The whole situation stirs up your waters of intuition so violently that you're practically vomiting silt on a daily basis, and when you eventually find her sexy selfies in his phone, and his love-eye replies, it echoes what you've always believed - agenda. There is always an agenda. It also confirms that you want your next boyfriend to be a eunuch with no Wi-Fi and a Nokia 500.
My mid-30s have come with changes; I'm evolving. Yes, I still occasionally come in pissed and eat my housemate's hummus, but now I'll admit to it rather than blame the wind. Growth. And during this spurt of personal development, I've acquired these wonderfully sound man friends. Real ones, no agenda, no sexual motivation, no stolen glances, no dilated pupils, no smelling bobble hats. We are legitimately 'just friends', and it's brilliant. They bring new angles to old problems, and I'm always surprised by how similar we actually are. As the weirdly accurate Thai saying goes: 'same, same, but different'.
Obviously, everyone's experiences are different and everyone gets different things from different friendships, but just out of interest, I asked one of my new man friends why he likes having female friends. "Because you actually listen. Men don't want to hear my problems; men are just waiting to talk again."
I asked a female friend is there anything she gets from her male mates that she doesn't get from her female mates, and she took a long, superior, woke breath and said: "Joanne, I collect personalities. Not genders." And then I regretted asking her because I remembered that she matured way faster than me (but she also thought Indiana Jones was based on a true story, so no-one's perfect).
Men have always felt different to me, because, well basically, I'm not one. I had the whole thing worked out: gay man equals friend; straight man equals agenda (mine or theirs). Outside of that incredibly reductive equation, I distrusted everyone's motivations, including my own, but now that's changed, and I think I know why.
Part of my mental ripening is I now know my sole purpose in life is not to try and be considered 'attractive'. I've moved on. Now I don't care if lads fancy me or not - it's nice and all that, but growing up, I thought it was all I was good for: try to be pretty, if they don't think you're pretty, you've got nothing; none of your other accomplishments mean anything unless you're fanciable.
I've finally shed all that. I now know I've more to offer the world. Listen, I'm not suggesting I live my life in a muumuu dress and a moustache, far from it. I lash money into my face and I've had so much laser I could be used as an Olympic beam, and I enjoy all that - actually, I love it - but now I've stopped waiting for men to tell me who I am, which is handy, because they really didn't. It's a lot to ask of someone, especially when they're just trying figure out their own shit.
Shaking off all that male validation stuff has freed me up to have male mates. I don't need or want anything from them except normal friend stuff like chats and drinks, and potentially their sperm if the fear of dying alone means I decide to grow my own baby for company. Like I say, normal stuff! I'm late to the male-mate game, but I'm here now. Yes, maturing can turn a breast into a forward-falling flesh-slinky, and it will widen a gut, but it will also widen an outlook, and for that, I am glad.
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Photography by Kip Carroll