Best friends forever?

WHO is your best friend?

Best friends forever?

Tough question, isn’t it?

If you are married, maybe it is your husband or wife? Maybe it’s a sibling, or a childhood friend. If you had asked me that question when I was 12, I would have answered without hesitation — Jenny.

From the first nervous day of secondary school, right through till our college graduation, Jenny and I were joined at the hip. We were there for each other in good times (exams passed with flying colours, parties, endless new crushes) and the bad times (family drama, cheating boyfriends, financial strife). We loved the same music, shared the same clothes, laughed at the same jokes and never fought. Back then, I thought we would be friends forever, but then again, I also thought I was going to marry Damon from Blur.

So is it inevitable that we outgrow our best friends? Irene S Levine, professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and the creator of The Friendship Blog, an agony aunt column for friendship dilemmas, seems to think so.

“Most friendships, even very good ones, fall apart over time because people change and follow different trajectories. This is especially true for children who are continually growing and changing, as they discover their own interests and preferences.”

Jenny and I remained close through college, despite doing different subjects and hanging out with new groups of friends. It was only after she moved to London that we began to drift apart. When I went to visit, she had a new life in a new city, a new job, new flatmates, new expressions, new clothes… and a new best friend. I think at the time it hurt a little to meet my replacement in the flesh, but ultimately I was going in my own direction too, forging the adult friendships that I still have. I’m not sentimental about it — our friendship was important at the time.

At a particular low, I remember Jenny hugging me and telling me I could go and live at her house. That reassurance and unquestioned loyalty is what you need to get you through the hormonal tailspin, the stress, the bitchiness and bullying that goes on in school. But we don’t stay in school forever. Despite the fact that we haven’t spoken in years, we have shared memories that will never be replaced. Our friendship taught me vital lessons about selflessness and trust, but nothing that intense can last.

Still, sometimes I wonder if it’s wise to have one best friend. For me, I tend to believe there is safety in numbers — I call my financially savvy banker friend when I have a situation I can’t handle at work… but I call my American college buddy if I had the blues or a broken heart. Levine says, whether we want one, or several best friends is simply a matter of preference: “Some people desire one or two close, tight-knit monogamous friendships; others prefer a greater number of casual relationships. But it is vitally important to have at least one best friend, with whom someone can share and confide.”

The downside, she admits, of putting all your eggs in one basket is “that you may expect too much from that one individual. Also, if the friendship falls apart, it can be very lonely”.

To prevent any such trauma from an early age, some schools in both the US and the UK are trying to discourage best friend culture, arguing that it can become obsessive, and exclusive to the children who are left out. While teaching kids to be kind and inclusive is vital, trying to stop them from naturally being drawn to a best friend in school seems about as futile as trying to ban office romances.

“It’s almost instinctive for a child to have the desire to pair up with another person… These relationships are the basic building blocks of adult friendships. They help to develop self-confidence, and to hone the social and communication skills he/she will need to navigate both platonic and romantic relationships in adulthood,” explains Levine.

Her advice to parents and teachers who are worried is to monitor and gently guide children when best friendships become problematic. For instance, if a shy child is totally overshadowed by an outgoing friend. Yet, even that scenario may become more positive than negative: “When a shy child is paired with a more outgoing one, the second child may become a role model, helping the shy child to learn the skills of making and keeping friends.”

But back to adults, what should be done when a best friendship hits the rocks? If it is simply a misunderstanding or disagreement, Levine’s advice is to try to communicate to see if it can be rectified. “You may want to be the first to offer the olive branch and apologise. If the other individual was in the wrong, you may want to forgive,” she says.

If it is simply a case of growing apart, there is a choice to be made. You can decide to make more of an effort to stay friends, or to dilute the friendship, so that you remain in touch but not at the same level of intensity. According to Levine: “It’s always better to stay in touch even if the relationship becomes more casual than close.”

If a friendship ends acrimoniously, it may be time for a post-mortem. “Many friendships simply have expiration dates and no one is right or wrong. However, If you find that none of your relationships seem to last, you might want to examine whether certain patterns of behaviour are undermining your friendships.”

Adult friendships have to be flexible to survive, there’s no way you could devote the attention you gave to your best friends in school when there are jobs, babies, husbands and shower repair men to contend with. Nowadays, I have a handful of close male and female friends. Keeping in touch with all of them, and staying on top of who is having a hard time with a rancid boss, or overbearing mother-in-law, while making sure you are there for the serious stuff — illness, heartbreak, and loss — is a juggling act, but a hugely rewarding one. Having to single just one friend out as ‘best’ would be the worst.

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