When it comes to modern day friendships, there is a Dickensian echo in the realisation that we have the best of friendships, we have the worst of friendships. We have more friends than ever before; we have fewer friends than ever before. We're drowning in wave after wave of social media, gathering 'mate momentum' with each new platform to which we subscribe.
But the same psychological rules apply today as did when the Mark Zuckerberg of Mesopotamia burst into the forum of his local hamlet, shouting about his nifty new idea called the abacus and how it would quicken the pace of daily life. The human brain's ability to process multiple relationships remains consistent and this results in a natural saturation point when it comes to friendships.
And so it renders the characteristics of many of our friendships similar to that of candyfloss - sweet, a little transparent, a little unfulfilling and with an undeniable 'this belongs in a circus' undertone to them. This is something that especially true of those friendships that exist predominantly, or wholly, on social platforms.
Professor Robin Dunbar of the Department of Experimental Psychology of Oxford University recently published a study that investigated whether there was a 'cognitive constraint on the size of social networks that even the communication advantages of online media are unable to overcome'.
In essence, his question was this: while we are interacting with each other more than ever before, does that actually translate into us having more friendships? If it is not a face-to-face friendship, is it any kind of a friendship at all?
His study focused specifically on Facebook and the results, published in the journal of Royal Society Open Science, showed that while the average Facebook user has 155 friends, they would only trust between four to fourteen of them.
Kids, that's your #squad saturation point right there.
Fragility of friendship
There is a quote oft attributed to Albert Camus, 'Don’t walk in front of me — I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me — I may not lead; Walk beside me — And just be my friend' that speaks to the idea of friendship being a journey. If we only have a limited amount of brain space, time and effort to invest in people, how then, out of the plethora of people that cross our paths, do we choose those that we want to walk beside us? Because God knows, it could be a long road and you don't want to be stuck with some halfwit for the duration.
What draws us to some but puts a buffer between us and others?
I am a cautious soul. I don't believe in love at first sight when it comes to relationships, friendships or even choosing your favourite pizza from a menu. All of these need time to breathe, time to consider if this is something that you truly value or if you were just momentarily seduced by the idea of the, eh, spicy sausage.
People move in and out of your life in a fluid motion and that's exactly how it should be. Some old friendships should be kept in a sealed box, snapshots of your life from way-back-when; trying to breathe life back into them would only serve to dilute the magic of an earlier time. They should exist only in that moment where you left them. But if I was to graph those friendships that are built to last, they'd look like a fancy parabola, a beautiful inverted bell curve.
When a new friendship is formed, it's full of new, shared experiences, a honeymoon period of fresh energy, stories and perhaps the magnification of some your own lesser-visited personality traits. But when circumstances shift, the compelling reason for you to have spent so much time together is removed or your lives simply move in different tangents, they can become pale polaroids in the friendship gallery of your memory.
Because unlike family, or relationships to a degree, friendships have no defined script. There is an utter fragility to them. The completely voluntary nature of these interactions means that either person can walk away at any moment without the need to proffer any explanation whatsoever.
But there are some friendships that are built to last and you'll know those when you find them. The path of those that shine the brightest will pass through the vertex of time spent apart, seismic changes to circumstance and geographic distance, and then, in time, go on to regain their momentum, ballast and line of symmetry.
You don't have to speak to these people every week, you don't even have to speak to them every six months. As odd it sounds, some of my favourite people are those that I rarely see.
And in my mind's eye, I see these friendships like a small bag of glinting, glittering marbles. They are all different sizes, shades and colours. I don't play with them every day but I regularly pat my pocket to make sure that they're still there. And I'd be heartbroken if I lost them.
How to lose a friend in ten days
But the trajectory of those North Star friendships is rarely a simple one. I know because I almost ruined the majority of mine.
I'll start by saying that one of my family's nicknames for me is The Clam. If you trust me with a secret about yourself, I will never betray you. If you whisper something to me, I will never repeat it. But that becomes a problem when that secret is about myself.
Through a series of questionable and uncharacteristically impulsive decisions, I found myself living overseas and away from my close support network of friends and family. I slipped and slithered into a deep sea of anxiety in which I found myself fighting and floundering for about two years, where a rip current of irrational anxiety would drag me back under every time I thought I could feel the sand beneath my feet again.
I threw up almost every day for two years out of sheer panic. I judged myself harshly and was ashamed that I had gone from being someone who burned brightly to being just a flicker of who I used to be and so I cut off all contact with those close to me. I avoided phone calls, I was never available for Skype, I'd occasionally send an email to those who were most persistent because while my voice would give me away on the phone, my tone never would. Writers can be crafty like that.
And yet my social media profile was packed full of pictures of days at the beach, drinks at sunset and toothy smiles for the camera. I thought I was maintaining these virtual friendships pretty well until my silence and my bullshit caught up with me and the house of cards came clattering down. A close friend who came to visit told me later that she was worried to leave this one-dimensional version of Andrea Lite behind. It was like I was systematically cutting every tie that I had because anxiety can be a self-destructive little fucker. I'm still not sure if I consciously made the decision to move away from my close friendships or if I simply wasn't there anymore to hold up my end of the friendship deal. In any case, it didn't matter. I cut everyone out until there was no one left and all my friendships entered that vertex vortex where it looked like those graphs would simply taper off at their lowest points.
But when I eventually reawoke to life after the long, numb slumber of generalised anxiety, I knew there were relationships and friendships that I needed to repair, people to whom I needed to provide context about my behaviour. Some I had pushed so far away that the friendship had become sealed in the past and now belonged there. But those who were in a closer orbit understood in a heartbeat and allayed my fears with a hug and the reassurance that it didn't matter because I had 'capital in the bank'. My bank manager never does that and maybe that's why I don't love him as much.
I've learned that there are three keys to repairing or maintaining real friendships:
- Friendships need to be nurtured, friendships involve work
Professor Robin Dunbar concluded his Oxford study saying that 'seeing the white of their eyes from time to time seems to be crucial to the way we maintain friendships.’ That does not mean you have to block off eyeball-staring timeslots. It does mean that you have to make the effort to check in with them regularly, to stay interested in the small things in the lives of the people you love. But remember that people perceive this in different ways. In my experience, women tend to be better at this smoothing, soothing and nurturing lark. That doesn't mean my male friends don't craft our friendships in the same way but they tend to do it in smaller ways; a slight shrug of their shoulders can carry the same weight or meaning as a two-hour conversation with a close female friend.
- Share your own secrets
This may be second nature to some and not at all in the nature of others. For those of us who have a tendency to keep ourselves to ourselves, sharing emotionally can feel like swimming without armbands after three swimming lessons - it'll probably be fine and it's a necessary step, but dammit it feels uncomfortable and a bit weird at first. But whether you dive straight in or just dip your toes in the water, the sharing effect is what binds us to those that we value the most.
Traded tales, softly-voiced hopes and fears are the building blocks of friendships that you can call at 4am and tell them you need their car and all the cash they have and that they are not permitted to ask you any questions. And those are the kinds of friendships that I strive for (again my bank manager does not feature in this tableau and I think less of him for it).
- Leave your pride and ego at the door
You can play games with people you date if you are so inclined. You can big up your work achievements to your boss if you are so inclined. You can fight with your family because they take for granted that you'll change your plans to suit their needs if you are so inclined. But leave all your pride and ego at the door when it comes to real friendships; petty arguments don't matter, honesty and card games do.
And if you break this rule you know that they'll set up a Whatsapp group to put you back in your box and to teach you a lesson.
But you wouldn't have it any other way.
If our friends are the modern family that we choose for ourselves, then dear God, the versions of the Pritchetts and the Dunphys that I have chosen for myself are the most glorious bag of marbles that I ever did see. And I hope I never lose them.
I'll leave you with a final echo from Charles Dickens who appeared to actually know quite a lot about having the craic on a good night out and the importance of real and perfectly flawed friendships, 'fan the sinking flame of hilarity with the wing of friendship, and pass the rosy wine.'
Now go organise a catch-up and a glass of wine with your marbles.