Sunday 17 December 2017

Learn to walk away when friendship dies

We are most discerning in the quest for romance, yet friendships often play a much more important part in our lives . . . as in love, it's only fair the undeserving go

Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow famously fell out in 2011
Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow famously fell out in 2011


BETTY* agreed to marry Paddy* on two conditions. One, there would be "no hanky-panky" and, two, if he got ill she wasn't going to look after him, he'd have to go into a nursing home.

Paddy agreed willingly and they married, she was 72 and had been widowed for over a decade, he was 76 and had been widowed for seven months.

Statistics vary according to generation, age, nationality and religion, but overall men are two to three times more likely to remarry after the end of a first marriage than women. Over the age of 60, women who do not remarry are more likely to have actively decided against it whilst men in the same category very often remain open to the idea.

The haste with which some older men remarry after the death of a wife of many years often attracts comment. But frequently the very reasons why men remarry are the same reasons that women do not.

After a long marriage, women often report that they enjoy not having someone to take care of, they enjoy the independence and freedom.

And they tend to have a greater social network with whom to enjoy this freedom. Time and again statistics prove that men thrive in marriage because in a wife they find all kinds of solutions, but as Betty and Paddy prove, the companionship, for many, is paramount.

Despite our obsession with romantic love, some of the most important relationships any of us will ever have are entirely platonic.

Even in cinema and literature the greatest onscreen chemistry and partnerships are not romances at all: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Holmes and Watson, Thelma and Louise, Jane and Elizabeth Bennett, Batman and Robin . . .

Friends can know us longer and better than even family do, they populate our memories and our opinions, they help us become who we are and, in our times of greatest need, friends are invaluable. Friendship is an important key to mental health and stability.

However, just as a good friendship can be a lifeline, a toxic one can be very damaging. Just because a friendship is old, doesn't necessarily mean it's good. Just because it was once good, doesn't mean it always is.

Just as every romance requires an occasional audit of what's working and what isn't, so too do friendships, and, just as toxic romances have to be jettisoned, so too do toxic friendships.

We all change over time, our essence remains the same, but we grow into quite different people. Siofra and Olive met when they were 12 and 14 respectively. "The age difference was a bit odd at that age," Siofra says now.

"But in hindsight loads about that relationship was a bit odd, and I know my mother was never happy about it. Olive used to always say that she was very competitive. I thought she was so cool and I fairly unashamedly copied whatever she did.

"She was funny and clever and I didn't notice, or didn't mind, that the butt of her jokes was usually me."

Siofra is at pains to stress that their friendship was great in many ways, she learned a lot from Olive, who was loyal and protective, despite the jokes.

As they got older, the axis in the relationship shifted. "I grew up, I suppose, and I did different things with other friends and as I found my feet, so to speak, she wasn't so much the star of the show anymore," says Siofra.

She is very good looking, perhaps that was a factor? "God, I looked like a little boy when we met!" She doesn't look like a little boy now, however, but is loathed to attribute appearances to their fallout.

Either way, life conspired to even the two women up in terms of jobs, income and homes. Olive seemed to struggle with the changed dynamic and simply stopped talking to Siofra.

Ten years on, Siofra is still sad at the loss.

"But I understand now, that what Olive said was competitiveness, was really a need to feel better than other people. I stopped wanting to hero worship her, but she didn't stop needing to be hero worshipped, so we grew apart."

Subtler versions of Siofra and Olive's dynamic can be hard to identify and as such are more likely to rumble on. Whilst one of the lovely things about old friendships is how well you know each other, one of the difficulties is how hard it can be to shake old labels.

The gift of a necklace that reflects what you liked 20 years ago, as opposed to your current taste, is one thing, but sometimes it extends much more broadly.

The joker is not allowed to be sad, the quiet one is not allowed to become extrovert -- it's nice when people know you so well you don't always have to explain -- but it can be annoying and limiting if familiar people don't notice or refuse to accept the new you.

In any long relationship there is arguably never a single incident, there's an accumulation of events and words and feelings that create the emotional tone.

However, into this accumulation can tumble one single event or sentence that decides the fate of a relationship.

Peter and Seamus were friends for 30 years before a complete fall out last summer. "Shay said something about my personality that I thought was both mean and completely inaccurate.

I thought he really should know me better and then, to rub it in, when I told him that I wasn't happy, he basically said it was my own fault he had to insult me!"

Peter asked other friends for some perspective, because he was uncharacteristically insulted and angry. "When I asked, more than one person said that I'd been letting him away with saying nasty s**t for years.

"I always just thought it was a slaggy relationship, taking the p**s out of each other all the time.

"I was used to it, and he could, of course, be very nice as well. But although I was mad at him for getting my personality so wrong I didn't know him as well as I should have, either.

"What I thought was jokey was really more angry. "

Peter seems slightly baffled, he says, "The weirdest thing is that where I would always have said he was one of my closest friends, I feel a huge sense of relief to have him out of my life."

Over the last few years I've found myself doing an inventory of relationships. I'm lucky to have some really great friends, some have lasted decades, but some were a bit crap, so I had a cull.

And at the risk of sounding like an annoying life affirming e-card, dumping people whose company was wrecking my head has opened the door to all kinds of new and interesting people.

The culled fell into two categories.

The selfish people who have no interest in anyone and merely want someone to whom to perform their monologue.

And, my all time run-a-mile pet bug bear -- the professional victim, the person who is so defined by their problems that blow them out of all proportion to create dramas in which they are the fabulously stalwart hero.

Not, I stress, someone who has a problem and needs help, no, someone who only ever has a bloody problem. Friendships can grow from many things; a sport, a hobby, work, kids, a shared need to have someone to party with.

A bit like romances they can be of a moment rather than for a lifetime, they can cool off and rekindle, there are many variations, but the one deciding factor should be that they make you feel good.

The ideal friendship is where no-one is too slaggy, too "honest", too self-centred, too much of a victim, it just has to end up emotionally fair and balanced over time.

And it's elastic, it moves to accommodate changes and allow growth.

If your brain can list a million good reasons why someone is a friend but you come away feeling low or tense or like your head is going to burst, that person is not a friend.

They might be a cause or a duty, they might just be boring or an energy vampire, but they're not a friend.

A friend is someone whose company makes you feel good, happy, positive.

Misery breeds misery and vice versa, it's a service to youself and the world.

True friendship is too important a thing to be squandered on the undeserving.`Falling out: Left, Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox have been firm pals ever since their days on Friends. Inset left, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have worked and played together for years.

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