Maintaining friendships takes the same energy as nurturing a marriage, says writer Dolly Alderton, and we all need to invest
There are many well-documented schools of thought on how to keep your long-term relationship alive. Going on dates, even when you live together, is cited as a way of tricking your mind into the heady days of early courtship. Separate bedrooms or flats can be said to do the same. But very little is written about how to maintain the proverbial spark in long-term friendships. As I’ve grown older, and carried the bulk of my closest friendships from my teens to my twenties, I’ve realised that making those relationships shift seamlessly through all the various phases of our lives is quite a task.
Because, here’s the thing no one tells you: intimacy is what elevates a mate into a sister. It’s what makes someone more than a person you meet up with from time to time to drink mojitos with. Closeness, familiarity and trust are what digs deeper into a connection. Intimacy is the thing that means you feel seen and loved for all you are; it makes you feel safe and understood. Intimacy takes work. In those early days of friendship, when you’re sharing a slug-infested student flat or a desk in an office, emotional closeness is an easy by-product of physical closeness. You know the exact trajectory of your friends’ thoughts and the decibel of every laugh – and, just like those first stages of a relationship, it’s magic. But, what I hadn’t anticipated until I entered my twenties, is just how many women see this period as the warm-up act for the main event of a relationship.
The last decade of my life has been freckled with a handful of men who broke my heart – and women, which was harder. One by one, friends would partner up and I suddenly felt defunct. I saw it happen repeatedly – this sense that to be in love, you have to shrink your world; that a partner should be a best friend, housemate and holiday buddy all rolled into one person in a 45 sq m flat with a Le Creuset set and a rescue cat. Everyone else gets crowded out.
Sometimes, I’ve felt as if my state of singledom may have caused the gap. Perhaps I represented a mess, a half-finished story. But, of course, to pack away your friendships from your single days when you’re no longer single is to assume that a journey can only be measured in relationships. Two people can grow in opposite directions and still be entwined in each other’s lives, but it requires commitment from both parties.
For someone who has always been scared of romantic commitment, I’ve found the promise of friendship a joy. I like the incentive of a long future together, an unspoken vow to keep each other close, no matter how different our lives become. Most couples know the big secret of everlasting love – it’s not with clever tricks, but with compromise, respect, honesty, time, attention and interest. Here’s an even bigger secret: your friends need exactly the same.
Dolly Alderton’s book, Everything I Know About Love (£7.99, Penguin) is out now