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Lucy Mangan talks friendships: "We can’t be all things to all people"

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A friend of mine – we’ll call her Henrietta, as that’s not her name but it would amuse me greatly if it was – is distraught. Someone she was great friends with when they worked together has gone to a new job and their friendship hasn’t survived. Numerous plans to meet for drinks have never quite translated into action. A last-ditch email vanished, it seems, into the ether.

‘So what?’ I said, as I poured her a bottle of wine, because I myself am an excellent friend.

‘It means,’ said Henrietta, ‘that our whole relationship was sort of a lie.’

‘No it doesn’t,’ I said, because I know things. ‘It just means you made a category error.’

Looking back, she didn’t ask me to explain. Nevertheless, I did and I shall do so again for you now, in the hope of saving you too unnecessary anguish and allowing you to navigate your way a little more surely as we sail the stormy seas of life.

So. She has mistaken a work friendship for a real friendship. Which is not to say that the work friendship isn’t meaningful – it makes work bearable, for a start – just that work is the main thing you have in common.

This isn’t failure – this is success on its own terms. A similar thing happens during any major life event. When you go to school or university, your first friendships are usually among those who just happen to be in your class or halls of residence. Sometimes they deepen into lasting friendship, more often they prove to be just stepping stones towards the people with whom you have genuine affinities.

When you first get married, you often find yourself gravitating towards your married friends. Only they can truly assure you that it’s OK not to be experiencing wall-to-wall marital bliss and quite normal to feel like you’ve shut your leg in a metaphorical man-trap and want to chew it off to escape, instead of the soaring joy you were promised. Or was that just me?

And, of course, if you have a baby, you will accrue a number of friends with whom you bond over infant-related tears and fears. Once the initial horrors of motherhood have faded and your baby-wrangling confidence increases, you are free to re-jig your acquaintanceship according to your more normal needs – though, of course, you may have developed ‘proper’, enduring friendships in the process. THIS IS OK. THIS IS ALLOWED. ALL OF THIS IS PERFECTLY FINE.

Still from Sex and the City 2

Sorry. I’d reached the end of a bottle myself by this point and think I shouted it at Henrietta too. Point is: we can’t all be all things to all people and each one of them can’t be all things to us. But we’re bad at remembering this.

Most of us have one or two or a tiny core of best friends. Lasting friends. Through thick and thin, Shirley-Conran’s-Lacetype friends, with whom we can share everything, on whom we can count for support in our sorrows and delight in our happiness and everything in between. And, of course, who can rely on us to provide the same things in full measure.

This is a beautiful thing, BUT it is also quite a commitment. Real and proper friendship is a big thing. At its apex, it’s a form of love. We would put the needs of those few others often before our own. We would do things for them that we would only do for the partners, parents and children who are usually classed as ‘loved ones’.

Yet you couldn’t, you can’t do that for everyone. Especially not at work. You’d be an emotionally desiccated husk by Tuesday. And you’d never get any filing done. Which is a flippant way of saying: at work, you’re primarily there to, you know, work.

Anything more, friendship-wise, than an agreeable atmosphere among co-workers that lubricates daily interaction and maximises everyone’s efficiency is a welcome bonus but it is easy to forget that it has been forged in very specific circumstances. Don’t be hurt if it doesn’t survive outside them. Think of it as a rare orchid that can’t be moved outside its own particular habitat without dying. Enjoy it while it lasts and in its proper context.

This is hard to do if, again like Henrietta, you are just one of those warm, kind, good people who cannot help but give up half her heart to everyone she meets. Henrietta does it so I don’t have to. That’s why I’m friends with her. She keeps me around for – I dunno. Clinical, bloodless analyses of the ensuing problems? Hey, don’t mention it. That’s what friends are for.”

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