The Naked Friendship

“Edit your life frequently and ruthlessly – it’s your masterpiece, after all” is a great quote from author Nathan W. Morris. I wonder, should we include friends in this ritual cull? It seems like a harsh sentiment but if we grow out of an outfit or a hairdo then surely we also grow out of friendships.

To be fair, Nathan W. Morris seems like a bit of a douche. He’s one of those people that writes books about how to get rich and has other quotables, including this gem: “Every time you borrow money, you are robbing your future self”. This is clearly true, but please! Who worries about their future self when Paris flights are on sale with Qantas?!

Over the years, my experiences with friendship have varied so vastly that it’s really difficult to draw comparison between one or another. I drove to my best friend’s house in my early twenties and put my head on her lap as I cried and cried over a boyfriend. I thought the world would never be the same. I forgave every fault of another best friend as he behaved outrageously and gave terrible advice, but I couldn’t forgive him when he let me down in a time of need. I danced until the sunrise with another friend on the other side of the world and watched as another friend lost her mother and kept secrets from one more. I’ve been spiteful and cruel and kind, I’ve been jealous and have offered support, I’ve been honest and I’ve lied. Friendship knows no bounds, has no common rules and I think it is completely under-thought and understudied as a relationship.

I spent much of my life feeling as if I trusted and loved my friends even more than my family. They seemed to love me regardless of my flaws, maybe even because of them; there was a nakedness in our communication and relationship that allowed me to work through and grow myself like I needed to, especially during the impressionable years of my early twenties. Friendships, unlike family, allow you to push boundaries and break the moulds of self, to test ideas and throw them away, to be this rapidly iterating, mutating entity that can say or do something completely outrageous and unacceptable without second thought or reproach.

But one day, life caught up with me and I saw some of those friends fall away, and let me down, and commit outright betrayals. Those throwaway actions and lack of consequence suddenly had significance. It’s so obvious when some friendships should end. The complexity is in the endings that aren’t so obvious.

The thing is, people are not perfect, and I don’t expect them to be. God knows, I’m not easy to be around. But friends are different to every other person, they are closer and more special and we have a different set of expectations around them. We hope that there are some aspects of friendship that we can all agree are non-negotiable, like a reasonable degree of loyalty. I’m not the sort of person that expects my friends to curse my enemies, but it’s nice to know that your friend values you over someone that has done you wrong, or that you can trust your best friend never to flirt with your boyfriend. Then there are other things that people are less inclined to agree on, like honesty…not everyone wants honesty! Some people want blind faith and encouragement, and frankly, I think that’s a-ok. Life gives you so much to think about – family are brutally truthful and work is one constant struggle – so I can understand that some people just want their friends to say yes.

According to a podcast on the social psychology of a “like” the reason that young women liked one another’s’ selfies so voraciously is because they want to support each other. I found this really easy to relate to as I regularly like something based on my understanding of the poster and how much I feel that he or she needs my social media support. Liking a post about a job promotion, or a selfie, or a relationship status; these are all little ways to say I support this / I care / good for you! But it’s this idea of support that I suspect might be the most controversial element of friendship. It’s where the waters get murky. Obviously if your best friend is Adolf Hitler there’s a clear yes or no answer to the question of whether you should support them in their endeavours, but what about your good friends who are branching into a new industry, or getting married, or going paleo? What if their choices frustrate or confuse you, or if they’re outright dangerous or wrong? How much are we supposed to bluff? And when a friend doesn’t even realise how much something means to you, that seems to be even more of a failure in the friendship….surely hopes and dreams are the single most important element to share? I want my friends to know what my dreams are, because my dreams and ambitions are such a huge influence on who I am and the way I live my life. For me to maintain a friendship without that shared understanding feels shallow to me. This is something I know now.

Seven or eight years ago, I had to reassess what was important to me in a friendship, what I needed to feel comfortable with someone, how willing I was to let people in and tell them my secrets. It turns out, I needed much more than I thought. I needed their loyalty, I needed their support. I needed them to know what is important to me and what isn’t. Most of all, I needed a level of prioritisation in their lives. If I get the same treatment as Jane Doe, then what’s the point of the friendship? I don’t want to be just another person is my friends’ lives, I want to be one of the people. I want to feel special, and loved, and appreciated for all of my strengths and weaknesses. This is something I know now.

Consider this: Gemma wants her best friend Lucy to be more supportive of her career ambitions, and because of Lucy’s lack of support, Gemma believes that Lucy thinks she’s stupid and incapable. Lucy, on the other hand, is still subconsciously upset about something Gemma said about Lucy’s boyfriend, Fred, six months ago. She feels that Gemma was patronising and dismissive and is now starting to pick these traits up in everything Gemma says. Meanwhile, Fred is sick of hearing about Gemma and their mutual friend Pablo is frustrated by their inability to reconcile so that he can make plans for New Year’s Eve. There’s a common thread here and I hope you can see it as clearly as I do.

We all have different needs and priorities as people. We also engage with people differently in relationships. And finally, we all have different backgrounds in terms of self-awareness, maturity, trauma, experience, communication and commitment to growing and flourishing in ourselves and our relationships. While the default option for most friendships in trouble is the silent treatment or a huge, raging argument, what I’ve realised whilst writing this article is that there is a painfully simple solution. Honest, respectful and sometime vulnerable communication. Simply saying “I am upset that you are not supporting my career ambitions. Is there a reason that you’re not engaging with this process?” could open Gemma up to some very real talk about her behaviour towards Lucy’s boyfriend. It could also open Lucy up to the realisation that she is not supporting Gemma because she’s envious of her success. Yes, our relationships with our friends are incredibly complex, but you have to be the one to decide whether you want to punish your friend, or be right, or be a good friend who is willing to accept that they might not be right.

Friends can love you and hurt you more than almost anyone else because they know you and care about you,  yet they still let you down. But if you become more open about your needs then you are giving your friend a better chance at being not just a friend, but your friend. It’s not easy to understand when a friendship is toxic enough to let go of but you’ll always know when it’s good enough to keep. Being naked in your friendships gives everyone the opportunity to be their best selves, which sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

by Penny

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