Friendships age at a different pace to the people within them. The friends might be 50, but the friendship pubescent, still awkward around boys and cackling into chips. The friends might be 15, but the friendship greying, threadbare, worn. They age and change through distance and experience, gathering weight or falling away, bruising like fruit. Today, as lockdowns ease and “socialising” beckons, we must collectively assess the state of our friendships, rinse them off, see where we are.
The future of friendships is… uncertain. We have spent so much time over the past year alone that many of us have forgotten how to be with other people. We have crystallised, a brittle and sugary shell having grown around the limbs we once used for touching each other in playful pats. The long-cultivated skills, the asking after parents, the carrying on listening even when a story appears to have broken off and ambled down a muddy and quite dull path, the correct amount of time to hold eye contact, all these must be learned again. Even if we have not been alone, we have spent so much time with only the other half of our couple that we now only communicate in coded grunts. “Is the…?” “Yeah. Are you…?” “Mmm.”
We must learn to communicate again like humans. Having evolved to relate to our fellow animals through watching for facial signals that we can process as loving or dangerous – a violent flicker in their eye when they tell you it’ll be absolutely no problem for you to borrow their favourite pan, an epic novel in the quick look away when you ask if they like your new girlfriend – a year with only digital interactions has dulled our senses.
It’s no wonder so many previously stable people have found themselves wobbling after an inscrutable text exchange, or storming out of WhatsApp groups with all the swoosh of a velvet coat. How many of us have read between the lines of a message about what our friend is having for lunch and found evidence that they have never respected our life choices and indeed, as suspected, hate us, and then sat with that melancholy sense until it has thickened into a custard-like film that will forever coat this friendship? When, actually, the friend had just been distracted by their penne boiling over? If they take an hour to respond to a message they’re allowing just enough time for you to list every political disagreement between you, and then write a short play about the time you accidentally insulted their baby.
Another blow came with the concept of the “support bubble”. For the first time since we were five, we were forced to name our best friends. As well as being hideously embarrassing and opening schoolground wounds, those rankings have left scars. How to go forward from there? Or from the knowledge you were left out of a six-in-the-park meeting? Six-in-the-park-little-drink-nothing-fancy. Six-in-the-park-no-offence-just-a-last-minute-thing. Only-six-allowed-what-a-shame-hope-you’re-well. The organiser, scarred, the seventh friend, scarred, the person who hears about it later and is forced then to quickly perform their own friendship algebra, scarred.
We see what’s happening because we do it, too. Old friends have been packed away for winter, in favour of neighbours who take the same dog-walking route, or delivery men who compliment our window box. We prioritised kindness and community over people who could recite, on cue, the story about when you almost wet yourself in Ikea, or knew who you fancied when you were 12. But part of the pain of the last year has been in not being seen, and therefore not quite existing. Many of us learned we only became real when recognised by people who cared about us. It may not be healthy but it was true – we lost something then.
As our rusting friendships creaked on across the pandemic, we started to absorb new drips of knowledge about people we thought we knew well. We saw how each reacted to life in their particular cul-de-sac of trauma, their little griefs, their locked-down family, their lack of work or hacking cough and, sometimes, we learned things we didn’t like. They were not as resilient as we had imagined, as empathic, ambitious, or funny, or honest or odd. Great oceans appeared between us, whether through failures in communication or because of judgments on rule-breaking, or because the differences in our lives were suddenly exposed and raw. Do we unlearn them when things get better? Do we have time to analyse our responses to the knowledge and sand down our edges before we go outside?
Because soon we will be two dinners deep on an old friend’s sofa, and we will need to have shed the various meannesses we have collected in order to survive again here, in a joke about what dogs think and a conversation about hair. We will need to allow intimacy in, with all its unhygienic residue. Friendship will return, limping from war, and we must be prepared, with the kettle on.