Among the conversations I’ve had one friendship in recent weeks was one with Curly on how much effort it takes to be a good friend.
The idea of friendship involving effort is one that I have become conscious of in my old age. Or maybe because I moved away and all my good friends turned out to be scattered around the world. One of the things I have realised is that while there are certain people you can pick up where you left off almost seamlessly when you are reunited with them, you need to be at least sporadically, if not frequently, in touch for someone to be considered a bestie.
One of the friends I was closest to moved to Australia after college. We fell out of touch almost immediately. The wonders of Facebook meant that we could see each other’s lives in photos, and there were the odd messages but these were few and far between over several years. The first year I moved to Hong Kong, V and I visited Australia as both of us have family there and I got in touch with this friend. Although we didn’t really have enough opportunity to bond, I was impressed by the amount of effort she made to meet me at my convenience. I realised I was special to her. A couple of years later, she chose to pass through Hong Kong on her way to India. I had just given birth and was anxious that she had no idea what spending time with a new mother and baby involved. It turned out to be fine. She was happy to explore Hong Kong entirely on her own during the afternoon, giving me the breathing time I needed. We stayed up an entire night talking, which wasn’t a stretch for me since I was waking up every two hours to breastfeed. We covered intensely personal topics. It was like back in the days. A year later, she passed through Hong Kong, again when I had just given birth (it is apparently her fate to see my children in their infancy though I have bucked the trend of being pregnant every year), this time with her husband. Again, we chatted up a storm. These two episodes were enough for me to feel confident that our friendship could survive time and distance. But I also know that I cannot consider her part of my inner circle because while we do eventually catch up, in the current account of our lives there are gaping holes.
Both this friend and I have a similar approach to friendship. We tend to be passive. We don’t naturally make an effort. Because I have come to realise that some contact needs to be made to sustain a friendship – even an email every few months – and because I am surrounded by friends who do make an effort, I have improved slightly in this regard. If the other person doesn’t make a move, I will. But if people don’t respond to my overtures, I back off. This has happened with another friend I was close to. During a turbulent time in her life, she fell off the radar. I was upset that she chose to distance herself from me but seemed to be in contact with others in our group. I sensed that I had offended her somewhat, but since we were in different countries I could do nothing except reach out. I would be touched and confused by very occasional contact from her. I found it hard to read where I stood with her, and finally concluded that I was probably part of the sentimental category but not close enough to be trusted with developments as they happened. Finally, I gave up. Ironically, when we met again in Sri Lanka, I felt distanced from her but she surprised me by not sticking to superficialities. Maybe she saw our relationship in the same pick-up-where-we-left-off category but that was not acceptable to me as the change in our status seemed abrupt to me.
I am now of the opinion that people need to make contact now and then to count themselves as close. This was one of the characteristics my brother-in-law had cited when questioning our avowed closeness to cousins, and it works just as well with friends.
The friends I count myself close to are the ones I’m in contact with almost daily, or at least weekly – Mincat and Curly. It may be no coincidence that we connect on chat which is a medium I am comfortable with. I have the wonders of instant messaging and free time at work to thank for sustaining these two friendships. But I like to think that had chat not been possible, we would have connected in some other way. Email, the ocassional phone call, whatsapp. I have had a friend who wasn’t on chat and we could email occasionally, and call sometimes. The calls were almost always initiated by her, the emails thread I kept going. In the end, our friendship has fizzled due to personality differences rather than lack of contact. I know that I made an effort when needed.
Curly and I differ on the amount of effort required to sustain a friendship. In Curly’s view, it’s a lot. I’m not capable of a lot. I never was. In my teens, I tried my hand at being part of a best-friend pair and realised I’m not cut out for it. I just don’t have the capacity to commit that much to a friendship. By which I mean always being on call for one person, no matter what, no excuses.
It’s ironic that I have found it in me to throw myself into my romantic relationships in a way that I was never able to in my friendships. Maybe my brain is wired with some regressive switch that says only a romantic partner is worthy of that much commitment. Maybe it’s because the emotional intensity, that sharing of and feeding off the recesses of each other’s minds, that comes with girlie friendships happens only in the beginning of romantic relationships with me. Within a year, I have fully acknowledged that my romantic partner is not my best friend nor do I want him to be and I revert to my girls for that kind of conversation and sustenance. In that sense, I diversify my assets. Even the closest people to me perform different, albeit essential, functions. Maybe even there, the resident cynic and self-defender acts unconsciously, refusing to let me throw all my chips in with one person or the resident perfectionist refuses to shop supermarket style for my emotional needs but tirelessly goes to speciality stores. Only I need my speciality stores to be relatively convenient. I’ll walk a block but not more to get what I need.
Mincat coined the term “backburner friendship” for those friends who one is not in contact with but who just have to send an email on an important life development for one to spring into action. I reviewed my friendships and I realised I probably don’t have a single backburner close friend. I know I would step up for the friends I am not regularly in contact with but who are of the pick-up-where-we-left-off variety if they reached out during a difficult time. But I know that I would not reach out to them in my difficult times. And therefore to me they are people I hold dear but not close. For me, it’s a crucial difference.
Maybe I need to make these distinctions because I don’t have place for clutter in my life. I have always been a messy person, but every now and then I take stock and declutter and organise. What I don’t need right away goes into boxes. I need to do that with friendships too. I need to know who I can reach for when I need them. I need to know to whom I will make myself available in easy reach.
One of my biggest rifts with my sister happened because she thought I never “told her” anything. She didn’t realise then that I shared more of my life with her than I did anyone else. I was deeply puzzled and then hurt by her rejection of me on those grounds. I pushed her away in turn.
Ironically, marriage has made me even more emotionally self-sufficient. It has reinforced to me that even in the closest of relationships, one is, in the end, alone. You can count on people but not always when you want and in the way you want. You have to be emotionally prepared to turn to someone else if option 1 doesn’t work out, and in the worst case, no one will be available and you can’t lose it at the world. Because it is not our divine right to have emotional solace every time we need it.
Or maybe it’s not my divine right. Because while I invested all my emotional resources I had in marriage, I was more parsimonious in friendships. And in friendship, I reaped as I sowed, maybe a little more. Right now, that’s okay with me. The close friendships I have are at the equilibrium I like them to be.
It’s been so long since I woke anyone up in the middle of the night for an emergency, physical or emotional, that I can’t even remember. But the besties are the ones I offload to relatively quickly. They are the ones I would inconvenience myself to be there for.
My besties are the ones I share the big secrets with right away. The ones who I told I was pregnant simultaneously with my immediate family. The ones who knew the darker parts sides to me. We know we are important to each other, sometimes we even tell each other so. I would like to have more of such deep friendships, but if I have two right now, I’m grateful.
Do you have a best friend? How much effort do you think sustaining a friendship involves? Do you consciously or unconsciously order the people in your lives in concentric circles?