The Friends Forever formula – “Someone to talk to, someone to count on, and someone to enjoy”

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Since we’ve been friends for almost 50 years, her comment came as a shock. “You know,” she said as we sat together enjoying a glass of wine when she arrived for a recent sleepover, “if we met now we wouldn’t be friends.” A pretty blatant statement, perhaps, but really and truly in terms of my friend’s personality, an absolutely honest one. Because she’s right, fortunately I can count this woman among my closest friends; If we met now, we wouldn’t be friends. I’ll go even further – if we had met 20 or even 30 years ago, we wouldn’t have clicked then either.

The friendship we forged in our teenage years remains strong, in part because of where we started so long ago – shared hometown, shared school, shared family intimacy.

We are miles apart in our adult political beliefs and in many aspects of our general outlook on life, and yet we persevere.

Why? Because despite our differences, when it comes to “the big stuff,” there are significant similarities; we are both givers, not takers; we both believe in the importance of family, each of us has only one child, both boys born six months apart; and we both understand that life is for living, which gives us both a knee-jerk, uncompromising “can do” attitude.

Then there’s our common ground, our love of art, especially books and theater (although we often disagree on the details). And let’s not forget our admiration for each other’s resilience in the face of personal difficulties.

How we have matured and grown in different directions we gave each other the space to just be ourselves; we do not try to “convert” one another in any way. However, if we were to meet now with our opposing and fully formed views, that would not be the case; Our differences, quite honestly, didn’t let our friendship breathe.

There are certain bonds that cannot be broken, and I’ve come to realize that this special friendship in my life is one of them. I almost threw it all away when, in the deepest sorrow after the death of my husband, I pushed everyone as far away from me as I could and left them, I know now, right out there on the precipice and on the verge of giving up on me.

But not Margaret (let’s call her that in honor of one of her heroes, Margaret Thatcher. And no, don’t get me started on that particular difference in our political views!). Margaret confronted me—gently at first, then more forcefully—about what I was doing, with the fact that those closest to me were actually getting fired faster than anyone else, being pushed to the breaking point by me.

The result of these confrontations, interventions, call them what you will, was that Margaret saved our friendship.

Friendship – it’s as complex as it is sometimes simple, and it also has its own ebb and flow that changes with age. Having walked with the crowd as children and young adults, I am now at a much older age bracket grateful for the small number of people in my life that I can count on as true friends.

However, it’s also interesting to look back and remember those who were once friends – true friends – who have now completely disappeared from my life, or whose friendship has shifted down a gear or two.

Does that mean they were never real friends? No, it doesn’t mean that; Not all friendships last forever and some thrive because of certain shared circumstances at a given point in time. When the hour comes, friendship comes, but if that friendship turns black, as many do, that doesn’t mean that at the height of its entanglement it was a lesser bond than those enjoyed by friends who form lifelong bonds. It simply means that for a limited time — although you didn’t know it would be the case — you were an important part of each other’s lives.

I’ve also had a few complicated friendships throughout my life. One in particular I didn’t acknowledge for what it was because at the time I was too young and too afraid of challenges to see it for what it was. While the friend in question was undeniably good to me for a number of years, it wasn’t until the third decade dawned that I confessed to my more mature self that this was indeed a friendship that for her only thrived on her sense of self; that it was about her cycle of trauma, needs and opinions. And it got me down.

In my 20s and 30s I didn’t know how to deal with it. But in my 50s the penny dropped and I decided I wasn’t ready to invest any further in this friendship. I started challenging her; I could no longer give them the validation they craved and which I felt was neither justified nor helpful to them. So I started distancing myself and just slowly letting the relationship fade away. It took a row to finish, but the ending did. Do I regret that? No not at all. I was occasionally saddened by this loss, but not enough to get involved again. What’s done is done.

So what exactly makes a good friend?

“I was listening to someone as young as 14 and someone as old as 100 talk about their close friends and [there are] three expectations of a close friend that I’ve heard people describe and appreciate throughout life,” says William Rawlins, professor emeritus of interpersonal communication at Ohio University. “Someone you can talk to, who you can rely on and who is fun. Those expectations remain the same, but the circumstances under which they are met are changing.”

Of course, as we age, priorities shift, and in that movement there are inevitable knock-on effects when it comes to existing friendships. For example, how does someone who is not a grandparent really understand the attraction that relationship now has on their close friend?

Disney World with your little grandson instead of the hiking holiday in Greece that you two usually enjoy together every summer? Yes, this is the new reality for many people, and it’s all about finding ways to cope with such changes and shifts in overall friendship dynamics as we age.

Much becomes clearer with age; As the clock speeds up, you begin to look at life like an egg timer, and so the inexorable passage of time tends to focus the mind. It makes you appreciate what you have left in terms of health, wealth, and family. And also in terms of friendships. It’s about narrowing down your true friends, devoting more time to them when you can, and appreciating what you have.

“I don’t want any more friends,” a colleague announced to me a few years ago, then still in his forties. I have to admit, now in my 60’s I know where he’s from.

And yet sometimes I look at the contacts in my phone, particularly three or four of the ones I speak to regularly, and I realize that my late husband – now almost seven years old – knew none of them. Not only were they not part of his life, they were not part of mine at the time.

So, are these newfound friends really friends, or are these relationships somewhere between close acquaintance and friendship? I don’t know the answer to that. Will they pass? I don’t know the answer to that either. For now, however, they contribute positively to my life, as I hope I do to theirs. We’re certainly not linked at the hip, but for someone who thought she didn’t want friends anymore, well I’m grateful to have her in my life.

As am I grateful to have kept old friends – not many, but certainly enough. The geographic distance between us means nothing; all it takes is the voice at the end of the line and I feel my spirits lift and that comfort blanket of friendship immediately wrap around me; no need to explain anything, no need to dress things up, no need to ever pretend.

Honesty, humor, humility – the essence of friendship at any age, but all the more precious the faster the sands of time run through the hourglass of life.

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