I have recently had the pleasure of watching a close friend of mine branch out and attempt to make more meaningful connections with new women in her life, after many discussions in which we each acknowledged what powerfully positive relationships female friendships actually are.
It has been a curious journey to document and I notice the main thing that prevents my friend from fully experiencing satisfaction from these new friendships is her expectations of what it means to be a friend. In reflection this has also significantly impacted my own friendships too, and I imagine many of you can relate. I mean, when the term friendship is so subjective, and each person’s definition varies so much, how can we effectively manage our expectations of others, and their expectations of us as friends?
Although there are many valid ways of making friends; in this instance my friend met this new person in her life online. The first thing that stood out to me, when viewing this from an outside perspective, is that my friend instantly referred to the new person in her life as a new friend. This was the definition – before they had even met…. It instantly made me wonder what possible value the word “friend” holds when we use it to describe someone instantly after only one online conversation. When we use the word friend – do we really just use it as a cover all catch phrase to emphasise the non-romantic and non-familial bond we are looking to explore? Perhaps we do… but should we?
If this was a romantic bond forming, would we label someone we had spoken to only once online as a boyfriend/girlfriend, partner, or lover? It seems unlikely. Why? Because when we are romantically interested in someone we realise that there is a period of spending time with that person for a while first to explore how well we fit into each other’s lives. To explore if our values are similar and to acknowledge that we don’t yet know that person well enough to say if we want them as permanent fixtures in our lives. It would usually be said in these circumstances that we are “seeing” someone, “dating” them or getting to know them more closely. Fair enough. Makes sense, right? (You see where I am going with this don’t you?!)
Why are there no such allowances and subcategories for friendships? Is it less important that we get to know them before we invest? Is it unnecessary that our values match? Do they not need to fit into our lives well? Why does the terminology matter? Expectation – that’s why. When we date someone, we are more open to exploring who a person is, and keep our expectations of them in check as a result. While you may expect a partner to collect you from the airport at 3am for example, you are unlikely to hold the same expectation of someone you are merely dating. Similarly, a person is less likely to expect an organ donation for example from a boyfriend or girlfriend however may hold higher expectations of a husband or wife. A romantic relationship progresses to signify the importance of the person and the relationship, and also to help everyone involved manage their expectations.
By calling this new person a “friend” so soon, my friend had unacknowledged expectations of friendship, before she had spent enough time with the woman in question to know if she was a good match. This is not my friend's fault, but rather the lack of language around friendship in general. You may refer to the lady at the bus stop as a friend because you discuss the weather twice a week while you wait for the bus, and you use the same term to describe someone so powerfully meaningful to your life that you are not sure how you coped without him or her for the last few years. Ok, you may call the latter a ‘best” friend, but my point is still valid. One person has earned the title and the other is just trying it on for size. If that.
My friend keeps contact with her friends daily, if only to briefly check in. It is one of the ways in which she expresses her friendship. It seems my friend’s “new friend” may find this contact unnecessary or overwhelming – although without addressing it with her directly we are only guessing. What is clear is that while she was engaging before, suddenly she has stopped or changed her level of engagement. My friend and I have discussed at length the possible reasons for this: Could it be exhaustion from working long hours as a manager at a department store near the festive season? Perhaps it had something to do with the Christmas Party they attended together – did my friend say or do something that upset or embarrassed this new person? Does this new person, who happens to be a lesbian woman, have romantic feelings for my friend? It’s speculation at best.
What we do know is that she was engaging before, then they attended a party together and this new person stopped engaging, and started being distant, then cancelled on pre-arranged plans leaving my friend with expensive tickets to a show and no plus one. (Which I very willingly and happily benefited from! Thanks!) It is important to note prior to this, although communication between the 2 women was frequent and engaging, both parties had cancelled at least once on the other, and my friend had seen this new person cancel plans on others too, but gave it little thought at the time.
My question is: if she had described this person by name, not as a friend or in any other way that implies ownership or references the relationship to self, (eg MY friend, MY ex, MY colleague etc…) would she have better been able to identify that this new person had flaky tendencies and accept that as part of her, or acknowledge she finds this behaviour unsettling and move on?
Why is it, when we make new friends anyway, that there is not a period where we consider leaving the relationship as we would in a romantic context? I suspect it is because most romantic relationships exist on a monogamous level and friendships do not. When we can only choose one person perhaps we are much more selective, but it stands to reason we should be equally selective with friends and acknowledge that not everyone we call a friend has earned the title, nor will they.
Should my friend forgive and forget? Should she have an open discussion about this change? Should she meet distance with distance? Should she end this friendship? All of that is up to her. What I hope she does is spends less time worrying about the disappointment and distance while spending more time cultivating existing relationships or trying more new ones because she is worth it. The most important thing my friend has learned (apart from being mindful to watch her own flaky tendencies) is that this is not a reflection of herself or her worthiness as a friend. It is simply a new person revealing more about who they are, which only happens in time, and any expectation was premature.
Maybe it’s fair to say we can’t really call someone a friend for at least a year; so we have had a chance to experience more of them under a range of different circumstances. Using the term prematurely can leave us feeling disappointed and also trapped in an unfulfilling relationship that perhaps never should have progressed to begin with? For the first year should we just call people by name instead? And let their behaviour dictate their title in relation to self rather than prematurely projecting our expectations and individual definitions of friendship onto them and then feeling let down?
Your Best Friend ForNever