How to navigate the politics of friendship

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Moving on to your new life stage can cause an oddly primitive reaction among friends. Stylist investigates how to navigate the politics of friendship.

Words: Kate Faithfull-Williams. Photography: Armin Zogbaum

Deep breath. You’ve just been given the news that could change your life forever – you’re pregnant, have finally secured your dream house out of town, are being seconded to Australia – and the weight of keeping it to yourself is too much to bear. The one thing you really want to do is reveal all to your friends. So it can come as something of a surprise when the enthusiastic shriek-atthe- top-of-your-lungs reactions you expected from those closest to you are replaced with downcast expressions and disparaging questions: “Why?”, “Are you really ready?”, “Are you willing to give up everything else?” It’s the friendship equivalent of raining on your parade, and enough to turn an unmissable opportunity into a debacle worthy of tearing a friendship apart.

"We decided one winter night in 2008 that we’d move to California,” says Emma Jones, 31, a solicitor from west London. “Ed and I had just got married and we wanted an adventure so we applied for jobs out there and got lucky. If we didn’t move then, there would never have been a right time because life gets in the way. I knew our parents would be upset that we were leaving the country, but I didn’t anticipate that telling friends would be so hard. My best friend burst into tears and wailed, ‘But why?’” This reaction is by no means uncommon. We’ve all been that pioneer – the one who married first, or who left a great job to travel the world, or the one who actually planned to have a baby and move to the country while everyone else was at the bar downing Jägerbombs. But what we hadn’t expected was the fallout and obvious dismay from within our close friendship group.

Chances are that if you’re happily settled in your house in the suburbs or have left an old job to set up your own business, you’ve already heard the views of those friends who are feeling stung by your leaving. For Sally Hartfield, 29, her decision to quit her high-flying job as a city lawyer to start her own clothing label, Matilda & Quinn, was met with scepticism by friends.

“Lawyers tend to be risk-averse so people would say, ‘You’re really brave’ but it was a polite way of saying, ‘You’re insane’.” These unsettling reactions leave us worried that we’ve brought this all on ourselves. Being the first to ‘evolve’ past the particular life stage that we are currently settled into along with our core group of friends, leaves us open to the biting reaction from those left behind. It seems incongruous that the people we love the most can react so negatively to what is effectively a positive step forwards in the evolution of ourselves from teen, to 20-something, to fully fledged grown-up. Especially as we’ve spent the last decade relying on their validation and support. But negative energy when someone breaks away from the pack is actually a deep primitive reaction that is born from very obvious beginnings.


Friendships are crucial to our lives. Research shows we’d be fatter, sadder and more likely to smoke, get divorced and die younger without them. But there’s no getting away from the fact that navigating them is almost as difficult as Christmas holidays with the family. The history of friendship actually stretches back to the very beginnings of humanity. Darwin himself first alluded to what he called ‘aiding fellows’ in The Descent Of Man. He suggested that the need for making friends comes from the “low motive” of learning: that giving to others leads to receiving knowledge from them in return. So, in evolutionary terms, we all have the basic desire to learn, and we subconsciously congregate with those that might help us do that. Hence why your friendship group is likely to throw up people with similar interests and aspirations to you from which you can learn. In fact, they’re so important that without them our very survival would be threatened. “As a species we don’t survive as individuals or even as small families,” says Lisa Wood, co-author of paper Friendship: The Laws Of Attraction (published in November 2006 Psychology Today). “From caveman times where we needed groups for physical protection, right up to now where friendships play an important emotional role, interconnectedness is a vital part of human survival.”

In 1966, evolutionary biologist George Williams published Adaptation And Natural Selection. He went further than Darwin to suggest that friendship, or the propensity for altruism towards those not in our family, could be passed on genetically because it was favoured by natural selection: “Simply stated, an individual who maximises his friendships and minimises his antagonisms will have an evolutionary advantage.” So surrounding ourselves with friends rather than enemies avoids potentially lethal conflicts giving us an evolutionary edge that is still ingrained in us today. It’s no surprise then, that when one of our ‘pack’ abandons us by evolving to a new life stage, we suffer from a deep primal reaction as if our very safety has been compromised.

In fact, it’s not just humans who form close friendships in order to protect themselves and prolong their lives. Studies on chimps actually hold the clue as to why it affects us so much when a member of our group packs up their city flat, buys some Hunter wellies and heads to the country to start a family. According to scientists, chimps form bonds outside their family groups for the base needs of support in a fight, the borrowing of a valued tool, and the provision of food now and then. It seems as humans we are anthropologically programmed to do the same thing. When someone we’ve lived close to is no longer as accessible to us, we get scared our support system is diminishing, or when a colleague jumps ship we don’t have equal support if we’re ‘threatened’ at work.


Growing up, we mark every life landmark with our peers, from exams to our first (usually abortive) attempts to get served in a pub. We go to university around the same age, surviving on Sugar Puffs in tandem, and chances are get our first jobs at the same time, giving us all a couple of years to bemoan terrible wages and despotic bosses in unison. But that – right there – is where it ends. Because after that, friends couple up, move away, earn more or less, and increasingly as you get older you evolve into a single entity who has to make important life decisions without the comfort of friends who just happen to be facing up to the same challenges. And it happens to coincide with when we need them the most. Why? Because by our 30s an individual is likely to have naturally ‘shed’ most of their friends (losing an average of 24 a year) so that by their mid-30s onwards the average Briton has just three close friends.

“Because our families and our jobs absorb so much emotional energy at this stage of our lives, our friendships take on different meaning – having fewer friends creates a more enriching emotional environment,” says social psychologist Dr Arthur Cassidy, who practises in Portadown, Northern Ireland. That’s all very well if you are the protagonist; the first to shed the 20-something shackles and step out alone. For those left behind, it can be a more dismal prospect.

For the reams of research done into families and romantic relationships, the science of friendship is in its infancy. However, research by anthropologists shows we form friendships to validate various aspects of our personality, behaviour or view of the world.

“Bonds don’t begin as randomly might think,” says Wood. “We select people who mirror our lives back to us and validate what we’re doing. So when you break away from that mirror, your friends don’t just feel rejected personally. On a deeper level, your changing identity makes them question the values they hold dear.”

“When you come to an end of an era, it can often prompt you to think more deeply about your own life stages,” explains clinical psychologist Dr Richard Irwin. “If a couple in your friendship group has chosen to leave the city to have children, for instance, it can make you think about the time you have left before you choose to have a family. If you’re a single woman in your 30s, it could be even more acute – this sense of being under pressure to achieve certain things in a defined time frame.”

As friends move on, those left behind are left to think about the decisions they have or haven’t made. “The problem is that if you’re feeling sensitive about a particular issue – the absence of a partner for example,” says Dr Irwin, “you can move to a defensive style of reacting to news to protect yourself. Look at it in the guise of an unsuccessful job interview. You can internalise it and say, ‘I wasn’t good enough’ but that leaves you to deal with the fallout of having to admit that to yourself. Or you can externalise the problem – ‘The interviewer was incompetent’ for example – and this allows you to maintain your self-esteem.”


So while it’s challenging to be the one forging a new path, it can be equally tough on those we leave behind. “No matter how much Toni promised our friendship would stay the same, I knew it wouldn’t,” says Rachel Roberts, a 33-year-old doctor from Sheffield. “Toni and I survived medical training together and got posted to the same busy hospital. She was never the kind to vanish just because a new man was on the scene, but when she and her boyfriend decided to move in together, they wanted a proper garden. She’s now got a four-bedroom house in a village way up north, is a GP in a quiet practice and is delighted to be pregnant.

“Even though my job in A&E keeps me crazily busy and I have lots of other mates, I feel lonely without my best friend. We get together every few months but when you’re not rubbing alongside each other day in, day out, you don’t have the same connection.”

So, is heading in a different direction to your friends just a sign of growing up and moving on? “Lifestyle pioneers aren’t necessarily driven by ambition,” says Wood. “Issues like money, family and health all impact on people’s decisions. Moving on is a form of drive – to make the leap into a new chapter you have to be willing to tolerate the disapproval of loved ones. Creating that opportunity is easier if you have a committed partner to share it with.”

So, when the naysayers say you’re mad to move to another continent, it’s easier to make the break and start again as a couple. Likewise, having the support of a partner – financially or emotionally – when you ditch your job to start a business gives you the security needed to take the plunge.

Then there’s the other side of the coin – having nothing to lose. That was the case for 36-year-old Dee Nightingale. When she left Bristol for Australia five years ago, she couldn’t admit the real reason for emigrating to her friends. “It was the fear of being left behind that made me move away,” says Dee. “Every wedding and pregnancy became more upsetting until I felt socially paralysed. I’d been single since uni and I worried something was seriously wrong with me. Then I met Alex, an Australian holidaying over here, who asked me to live with him. In hindsight I can see why my friends were so against it – Alex was in a long-term relationship with someone else. I told them I was in love and refused to listen. I quit my job in publishing, rented out my flat and gave away my cat so I could join him in Sydney a month later. The relationship imploded within weeks. Friends begged me to come home, but I didn’t. Alex may have been Mr Wrong, but he forced me to reinvent myself. Now I’ve retrained as a yoga teacher, I sip my coffee looking over the beach every morning and I’m happy. I’m not in a relationship but I’m enjoying meeting new people. In Bristol I know I would have stayed in the same sad rut.”

In truth, it would be odd to experience everything in tandem. While it’s perfectly natural to want to share life experiences with old friends, you can’t manage your life to that extent. “The good news is, best friendships can last and they have the power to break through barriers in lifestyle and geography,” says Wood. Communication is key. You must be willing to share your life with friends and keep them up to speed with what’s going on. Likewise you need to listen to them and offer support. Physical proximity isn’t vital as long as you interact. Crucially, you have to be positive. “Friendships are built on rewarding intimacy – the more we feel good about having a friend in our lives, the more we make the effort it takes to keep that bond alive, however fast your life evolves.” So get ready to take the leap, and don’t let anyone make you feel bad for it. A friend may not be able to hold your hand, but it doesn’t mean she’s not there for you.


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