Tag Archives: friendship

In the absence of friendship rituals

The only formal dedications we normally make to each other in rituals, are dedications of marriage. We have contracts to shape our working relationships, but we don’t celebrate those, and they can prove fleeting. We do not have rituals of friendship. We may welcome someone into a group by initiating them, but that doesn’t happen in most contexts.

Dedication between people in a non-romantic context is a vital thing, I think. Friendship that is invested in for the long term has a very different impact on your life from transient, superficial acquaintance. We may pick people up at need, put them down when they no longer have what we want. We move on, change jobs, take up a different hobby, and the friendly thing we had going on with a person around that does not endure, because we were never that invested in them anyway.

When is it the right time to say to someone ‘I intend on being your friend for as long as we both shall live’? In the absence of any kind of social framework supporting such a declaration, it can seem pretty weird. It may even feel creepy or threatening to the person on the receiving end, simply because it’s not what normally happens.

If all our dedication goes into our romantic relationships, that can leave us really vulnerable. It is harder to spot toxic relationships when you don’t have any others for comparison. It is harder to function socially and emotionally when you don’t have multiple people who you can count on to be in your life. Friendship is an intensely rewarding thing, and people who are only looking for romance miss out on a lot, and can feel incredibly alone when not in a romantic relationship. At the same time, if we make the romantic relationship the main goal, we can put a lot of pressure on our partners. If we only dedicate to this relationship, we require our partners to be all things in all ways for us, and that’s demanding and difficult to live up to.

There’s so much good that can come out of investing in each other for the long term. We have so much power to support each other and enrich each other’s lives.

Shapes of relationships

Some of our relationships are necessarily structured. When there’s a professional shape to a relationship, all kinds of rules and requirements are in place and this is good and necessary. Professional relationships create obligations, responsibilities and power imbalances that need managing. Some family relationships have some of the same issues. Even so, there are choices to be made about how we shape such involvement – how much power over? How many arbitrary rules? How much service? How much expectation?

As Druids, we may often take on informally the kinds of roles that can be held professionally. Priest, teacher, counsellor, life coach… If we stray too far from what’s professional, we can end up abusing power and mistreating people. If we over-invest in our semi-professional status we can end up arrogant, self important and doing ourselves no favours whatsoever. As in most things, there’s a fine balancing act to achieve. Unlike professionals, we aren’t automatically keyed into a system that has support networks, resources, information and reliable paychecks, and it’s worth thinking about how that impacts on our relationships, too.

We tell each other a lot of stories about relationships – in fact friendship and romance are often central to our stories. In all kinds of ways – including adverts and laws – we tell each other about the shapes we think those relationships could and should have. Over time, that changes. It used to be much more acceptable for a man to beat his wife. We used to see marriage as a well defined relationship with a definite power imbalance in it. We seem willing now to explore less authoritarian approaches to parenting while at the same time being far more controlling of our children’s time and activities.

It’s easy to default to a standard relationship shape, an off the peg, one size fits all, it was good enough for some other person so it’s good enough for me kind of approach. This can have us replaying dysfunctional family stories, acting out what we’ve seen on the telly, aspiring to advert-family lifestyles that could never suit us and all sorts of other self-defeating things.

We have a notion that friendship means people of the same gender and about the same age, but life, and communities are much richer when there’s inter-generational contact. There are no stories about the natural friendship patterns for queer and genderfluid people. We tend to move towards people of similar class and educational background, but again that’s really narrowing. Some of us need big networks of friends, some of us need to deeply invest in just a few people. Some of us need a mix of that. There are no right answers here, but there can be wrong ones. If you end up doing what you think you should do, not what’s right for you, then you suffocate yourself.

Every relationship should be unique, because it is a meeting of two people. Each relationship may be framed by a context, or multiple contexts. We may give each other roles even when they don’t formally exist. It takes a certain amount of deliberation to refuse standard-issue relationship shapes and let something find its own form. It takes a certain amount of confidence as well, to do something with a relationship that is not what others might expect. People can be unpleasantly judgemental about having their expectations denied. Coming out can be a case in point for denying your family’s expectations.

It may seem easier to have all our interactions neatly arranged and tidily categorised. It may be simpler that way. There are no doubt some people whose natures mean that tidiness and simplicity are in fact the best choices. But not for all of us. Not for all relationships. Putting down the assumptions and seeing what happens can let magic in.

Pondering Friendship

I remember going to playgroup as a three year old and having no real idea what to make of other children or how to connect with them. There seemed to be rules, codes, secret understandings that I knew nothing about. That feeling lingered all through primary school where I made few friends. At secondary school I managed to find my way into a couple of social groups, but it was still a bit of a mystery. At college I found myself feeling exactly the way I had as a three year old at playgroup as the people around me rapidly befriended each other.

I’m terrible at making friends with people. However it’s not simply that I’m an introvert. I like people. I’m just not very good at being around people.

During my twenties, I discovered social spaces where the rules are explicit. Folk clubs, jamming sessions, rituals, meditation sessions. Give me a structure I could easily see, tell me who I’m supposed to be, or a job around which the social contact revolves, and I do ok.  I feel more secure when I know who I am supposed to be and what I am supposed to be doing. I also feel more able to cope in social situations if I have a large piece of wood (aka a bouzouki) between me and everyone else.

When I landed in Stroud some years ago, there wasn’t a folk club I could get to and I didn’t really know anyone, and I had to build a social life from scratch. It was very slow, and I found it really hard. How do you ask people to make room for you? How do you tell where you fit? In the end, it wasn’t me, but Tom who made most of the key moves that got us into some kind of social relationship with others. That and a few people who made moves towards us.

I like people, and I like being in social spaces, but I find being sociable very hard work. Part of it is that I often don’t have much energy to start with. Part of it is because I dread being asked how I am – most days I’m not ok, I’m usually in pain and/or dealing with depression and anxiety. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to lie about it. I also hate being asked how the work is going – there’s one exception, one friend who I don’t mind asking, for all kinds of reasons, but generally it’s something I don’t want to talk about. Mostly I go out to get away from the work. Mostly my writing is slower and more sporadic than I want it to be.

I also dread being drawn into any kind of debate, or intellectual knock about. I’m often tired by the time I go out, and not at my sharpest, and deep discussion can be beyond me. I hate point scoring and one upmanship and people playing devil’s advocate. I don’t have the spoons for it.

I’m very lucky at the moment in that I have some people to spend time with who never ask me to be bright or clever, are never combative and don’t even seem to mind the fact that I’m not always very communicative. It is like being Eeyore in the hundred acre wood. No one seems to expect me to be anything other than Eeyore, but they still invite me to parties.

My friend has been accused of a terrible thing

If our friends are accused of bullying, assault or worse, our first instinct is of course to defend them. For a start, we’re emotionally invested in them. Our reputation may be linked to theirs. We don’t want our own judgement called into question if we have picked awful people as friends.  We don’t want to be guilty by association. They’ve never done anything to us. And on it goes.

If a person is abusive, the odds are they’ll do it more than once. There isn’t a true reversal of this. That you have never seen a person abuse someone doesn’t mean they don’t do it. They may be a pillar of the community – just like all those paedophile priests. They may do great work for charity, just like Jimmy Saville. Cast your mind back to any interview with the friends and neighbours of a killer and they will tell you how that person never seemed the type. Was always nice, quiet, polite. It’s a hard truth to face, but if your friend has been accused of a terrible thing, there may be good reason.

What to do? Well, if you want to support your friend, you can do so. You can give them private emotional support, and you can refuse to comment if pressed. Beyond that, tread carefully because any testimony you think you can give to the effect that your friend just isn’t like that, isn’t relevant, or helpful.

It’s different if you can provide the sort of evidence the police or a court might use. If you can say honestly that you were there and that the thing did not happen, that’s relevant. If you were with the accused when the events allegedly occurred, that matters, or if you can demonstrate any other facts that cast things in a different light. If you’re dealing with a police situation, you need to go to the police with this rather than putting it in the public domain.

It is incredibly unsettling to find that someone you trusted has done a terrible thing. I’ve been through this. It punches holes in your reality, makes you question everything and everyone, leaves your trust in tatters. The fallout for people who are the family of, or have been friends with an abuser, a rapist, or (I imagine, not having been there) a killer is vast and can take a long time to work through. Reluctance to face this may have us inclined to protect people who do not deserve protecting. If we protect them to protect ourselves, we become complicit.

Of course we want to think the best of our friends. It’s natural. Loyalty is a good thing, and a friendship should be based on trust. The trouble is that people who offend also lie. They present themselves to us as good people. They may even believe that their offences are somehow ok, or not that big a deal. Of course if we’d do the same thing given half a chance, we might be inclined to agree with them, which is one of the reasons I don’t always trust the words of people who rush in to say that of course their good friend would never do something like that…

Relationship stories and questions of self

For most of my life, relationships of all shapes have been difficult for me. It started at fourteen with the boyfriend who found me too serious, and that refrain has carried on through friendships and love affairs alike. Too intense. Too much. Too difficult. From teenage onwards I had the keen sense that most of my interactions with people would depend on my ability to fake it. If I failed to be comfortable and convenient to them, there would be no one. I developed a story that I am no good at relationships.

There have been people ready to play this story out with me at regular intervals. I doubt they will ever cease to show up and expect me to be exactly what they want, when they want it, and to turn it off like a tap when that’s not convenient. They want the work I can do because I care passionately about things. They want the raw creativity and sometimes they want the ego boost of being the focus of my intensity, but they want to be in control, un-obliged and easy about not bothering with me when it does not suit them.

So, I learned to hide. I learned to mask intense attachments and passionately falling in love with people. I learned to mask hunger for specific company, and wild delight in being around others. I learned not to say things like I miss you, I love you, I wish I could have more time with you. Every so often I’d take a risk on someone and let them see something a bit more authentic, and nine times out of ten they would turn out to prefer the carefully faked me. The one in ten folk have been precious beyond all words, and are not, it turns out, afraid to be that valuable.

What makes it tricky is that there are people who play at being serious, intense, wholehearted and authentic. They wear it as a costume, because they like how it looks on them. They often enjoy drama, which I don’t. It’s all too easy to get drama and intensity muddled up. But, after the arm flapping and the big words, there’s nothing to back it up, and they move on to their next little game.

I’ve found along the way that other intense, deeply feeling, passionate people don’t do this. They aren’t quick to self announce, often having been through the grinder themselves. They don’t want drama. I discover that my longstanding story is wrong. I can do relationships, but only interact well with certain kinds of people. Give me people who feel keenly and think deeply, and good things will tend to follow. I can’t deal with superficial folk, drama queens, or the ones who are there for cheap kicks and inclined to move on when they’ve taken what they wanted. People who feel threatened by the idea of love, who are panicked by the suggestion of being needed, and who can’t bear to let anything mean too much.

When you think no one can accept you as you are, it is easy to get locked into trying to appease people who are never going to be ok with you. It’s not a good way to live, it sucks the joy and colour out of life. If you are a passionate, wholehearted, intensely feeling sort of creature, then only people of the same ilk can and will answer the yearnings of your soul.

Running forward with alarming enthusiasm

Not so long ago, I saw someone in the street to whom I have not spoken in a few years now. A reminder of the things I do not do well around people and relationships. None of it is easy to think about, or to look at, but I promised myself honesty this year, and that means not dodging the things that are profoundly uncomfortable.

Based on observation, I’m a good person to have as an acquaintance. I can show up and be helpful as required, I’m not too intense, passably entertaining and so forth. I do fairly well with acquaintances, and there are a lot of people in my life who I know a little bit, have small amounts of contact with and who do not seem to find me especially problematic.

Generally where it goes wrong is where there’s any move to make that more involved. The people who move closer most usually move away again – and the faster they moved in, the faster they leave. A few years ago, in the space of a few months one round of this went from ‘we should be the new Inklings*’ to ‘our lives should never cross again’ and the extremity of it, both ways, still troubles me. I did not utter either line. This year has brought other rounds of people who moved forward and then away.

Mostly I stay still. I worry about being excessive and difficult to deal with, and increasingly I don’t share any of the more awkward bits of me. I am, if anything getting worse at putting a hand up to express fragility, or need, especially if I’m depressed. I know this would trouble me if I was watching someone else do it.  But what I do best (in terms of how I impact on other people) largely, are the less involved, less emotionally intimate connections with people. The exceptions to this are few and only one of them spends significant amounts of time with me in person.

It’s not lack of care or open heartedness on my part, I realise. There are a lot of people I care for deeply, a fair few people I would go so far as to say I love. Any move forward suggests the possibility for a balancing retreat a little way into the future. It’s a dance that has badly damaged my confidence, and I just don’t have the energy for it anymore. I think if anyone else ran at me, suggesting we could be some kind of fabulous thing, I would simply run away and spare myself the inevitable consequences.

What I have always wanted, were deep, enduring, open hearted friendships that were based on honesty, and trust. What I can do well are fairly superficial, open hearted, lightly available but be careful at all times kinds of friendships. Those of you who will respond to this with warmth and encouragement are people who are only slightly involved with my life, internet people, or people I see occasionally. Lovely people who I value, but who I increasingly believe are only ever going to be in my life as distant and occasional features. What I get alongside this are odd people running at me proclaiming that they will be all the things, and then running away again, and I do not know why. Why this is what I attract, and why I can’t deal with it better.

There was a brief moment of eye contact in the street, with the person who would have been the new Inklings with me. I looked down, and I kept moving. ‘Our lives should never cross again’ except of course that they do because it’s a small town and we have people in common. A final request that I do my best to honour, and which haunts me nonetheless. I’ve spent years not knowing what to do with any of this. I think the answer is to accept where my strengths are – being a certain kind of friend at a certain kind of distance, and to let go of the idea of having really close friends who would choose to be involved in my life in more than a brief run forwards and run away kind of style.


*Literary group involving Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Forever People

If you’d asked me twenty years ago who I thought would always be in my life, I’d have got it very wrong. It was the sort of thing I used to think about as a teenager, although from a position of inexperience and not much insight. The three people I might have hoped would be around, and had grounds to think might stay part of my life, didn’t. Others did, and some of that’s been very surprising, in awesome ways.

At any point in your life, all you have for reference is what you’ve experienced. The most in love you have ever been is your measure of what’s possible on that score. Twenty years hence, will the people I thought were forever still be in touch? Some of them may not live that long. We never know. I’ve lost several people to death who I did not at all expect to lose, but their impact on me and my memory of them binds them into the continuing fabric of my life. There have been people I’ve spent little or no time with in person whose legacy will stay. Some of them died long before I was born and are only available to me through their work.

As a teen I would have thought about my forever people in terms of actual people I spent time with. The internet was not a feature of my life then, and even though I was besotted with Beethoven and George Eliot, I would not at that point have considered them part of my emotional tribe. It’s taken me a while to figure out that I am much more shaped and defined by who I continue to love than by who I necessarily continue to interact with. In that context, death and absence are no real barrier at all. It is enough sometimes to love the work, the ideas, the legacy or the memory. It’s about what we choose to let in.

There are people who have affected me so deeply that who I have become is in part consequence of connecting with them. I cannot know if I am always fully conscious of that process, and sometimes an influence is slow to show itself. There are also people who have caused me to grow in order to move away from them, and while I do not want to honour them as people who are part of my heart tribe – as they have been far short of honourable – that refusal to be as they are or to co-operate has also become part of me. In choosing who to honour, and who to forget, I am engaged in a curious process that shapes how I feel about my life and myself.

Very few of them have any idea of how important they are to me, of the ones I know, or suspect are forever people. It is often unsettling enough to a person to say ‘I love you’ when that isn’t an amorous proposition. Perhaps being this intrinsic to another person is too disorientating, too strange a thing to know and carry. Somehow, when I was a teen it was easier to talk about these things. I have become more careful with age, and also more aware that ‘forever’ is something I might be able to say truthfully, and not as a moment of misguided hyperbole.


Once upon a time if you fell out with someone, there was no simple mechanism for expressing this to your wider community. No symbolic divorcing was available, and either you avoided them in person, or you couldn’t and life went on. The word ‘unfriend’ did not exist, nor did the concept. I am fascinated by the way facebook has changed things for those of us who frequent it – and those other social media sites as well.

There have been seven people in my life who were known to me personally and whom it became, at various times over the last five years or so, necessary to unfriend. We’ll leave aside the spammers and the random internet connections that didn’t work because those would never have existed pre-internet anyway. Seven people I just didn’t want to interact with any more. There were reasons, some more serious than others, but it boils down to a quality of life thing and not wanting to be messed about or made needlessly miserable. In many ways the whys are irrelevant, and also too personal to share. The mechanics of it are the more interesting bit, along with the emotional impact.

Unfriending is in many ways a ritual and symbolic action of rejection. If we have friends in common and do not go so far as to block, there will remain a degree of mutual visibility. Even a blocked person in touch with mutual friends does not disappear entirely, sometimes. So the tools of the internet do not deliver total separation and freedom from the person who was driving you nuts, if they are part of your wider network.

Phrases like ‘you’re not my friend any more’ have echoes of the school playground to them. The youthful ease of acquiring and rejecting people perhaps has online parallels. Perhaps the ‘adult’ version is to be more tactful, less honest, more passive-aggressive in our dealings with people who are physically present but no longer liked or valued. Perhaps there was more honesty, integrity and utility in the childhood drawing of lines, the willingness to be affronted and the aptitude for walking away. Perhaps being socialised into tolerating what drives us mad, accepting what wounds us and putting up with those we find offensive is not as wise and mature as it’s presented.

I’ve tried it both ways, online and offline, and I am increasingly a fan of deliberate, considered unfriending where appropriate. The world is a big place and there are more people in the small town I inhabit than I could ever meaningfully interact with. Why not walk away when people do things I am really uncomfortable with, hurt by or unhappy about? We are not such a small tribe that we must of necessity work together.

The counter arguments are many. The challenge is supposedly good for me, they’re doing me a favour really. Well, I’ve come to the conclusion this is for me to decide and not for anyone else to tell me. I’ve run into the ‘this is a good person so you shouldn’t be hurt by what they do’ line a few times. That’s bullshit. If it’s necessary to defend someone as ‘a good person’ I think there’s very good odds they’re a lousy person who makes a lot of noise about how good they are. I get plenty of helpful, meaningful, growth-inducing challenges from people who do not make me miserable, so I’ll be sticking with those. I’m very suspicious now of anyone who thinks I’m so crap as to need taking apart and knocking down, but who still wants to be around me. That’s a combination I now run away from as soon as I spot it.

The other argument is that maybe these people need me in their tribe, to challenge and help them. I’ve had it suggested to me, and I’ve given it some thought. I just don’t have enough of a Jesus complex to hang around martyring myself for people who don’t seem to like me much, or value me, or have any actual use for me. There are plenty of other people, why expend all my energy on the high-maintenance few who don’t even like what I do? That’s just silly.

The ritual of unfriending has a lot of symbolic and magical power. It is a strong statement, not to be used lightly and better not deployed in haste or in anger. But sometimes, drawing a line and saying ‘enough, thank you,’ is a powerful and liberating thing to do. Now, onto the good things with the lovely people…

Knocked down, getting up

I start today tired, and wondering how on earth I’m going to manage the things that need doing – some of which are large and hard to make sense of. Some of which have floored me. Life is full of knock downs and we all get them. The rotten luck, the tragedies, the being crapped on from a great height. So here are the things I’ve learned.

Good friends are precious beyond words, and when you’re on your knees and life threatens to break you, friends are everything. Sometimes there’s insight, experience and perspective that can help turn a problem around. Sometimes it’s the sheer power of having people who believe in you and won’t give up and will sit with you and hold your hand and help you try to get up again, and support you when you wobble a bit. Friends who cheerlead. Friends who refuse to let you quit even when you’re so beaten it seems the only option. Friends who carry hope for you when you have none of your own.

Often what will keep me down once I’m knocked is the belief there is no point getting up again. That’s not always a depression issue. That’s for the days when three toxic things rolled in one after another and I can’t face another panic attack and there doesn’t seem to be any way of fixing things. There is no getting up unless you can work up some faith and hope things might get better. Belief like this can be wholly irrational – I’ve been through enough things I was told could not be done. Sometimes what it takes to get up is the skill to magic up irrational belief that it can get better.

I have to believe that I do not deserve the knock down. I do not belong on the floor. That’s been hard to get to grips with, and is not an easy thought to hold when things are bad.

Then there’s the decision about what sort of person I want to be. I don’t want to lie on the floor in a snotty heap, whimpering. I would rather die fighting. While there is breath, while I can act in any way, it is better to have the metaphorical sword or the actual pen in hand and to wield them. Thus far, every time I’ve thought I could not possibly bear any more, I have eventually managed to drag myself up for another round. I have taken beatings, emotional, psychological. I’ve been pasted physically by illness. I get up and I do it again. I won’t sit down, shut up and consent to being a victim. Never again.

Second Chances

I don’t tend to assume that life will deliver second chances. Some opportunities repeat, but many do not. I’m all too aware that sometimes you say goodbye to a person, and you never get to see them again, and you do not know at the time that this will happen. Chances to experience things, to connect with people, to fix problems, to learn… anything that turns up can be a one shot deal. There isn’t time always to follow every lead, but making those choices conscious that there may be no second chances, helps focus the mind rather.

I tend to give second chances where I can. I’m acutely aware that people mess up, and mess up for good and honourable reasons and the best possible intentions. If there’s anything to suggest that might have been the case, I’ll cut a lot of slack. People who mess up in that way are usually keen to fix things and get them right, which makes it well worth having the conversation. However, people who are sure they know better than me how I feel and what I need may have convinced themselves of their noble intentions, but do not get to pull that stunt repeatedly.

The majority of my closest friendships have, at some point been tested to breaking point, through challenges, things I’ve done, things they have done. The determination to come back and fix is key here. The person who says ‘how do we put this right?’ and who takes the time with me to do that, or to listen to my request to do that if I’m the one who messed up… these are the people I keep. The measure of a person is not their capacity for perfection, but what they do when things go wrong. Where we own mistakes, there’s scope to work with it and move forwards. Where there is genuine remorse, there’s every opportunity to sort things out.

However, where the desire is to blame, to score points, to ‘win’ I quit, as fast as I can these days. I’ve tried reconciliation with folks who like to score points, and sooner or later they do it all again. If the appearance of being right is more important than the actuality, I walk away. If the other person’s aim is to blame, or duck responsibility, to never admit to being wrong, I walk away. If I think for a moment that someone enjoys inflicting pain, I am out of there, fast. If there are double standards, and someone excuses in themselves something they find unacceptable in me, that’s another sign to leave. I do not stick around for ego trips, melodrama, scapegoating and people who like having a whipping post. Since I’ve adopted a low tolerance to this kind of behaviour, my life has improved considerably.

Not all of the losses of people and opportunity are about conscious choice, or mistakes made. Sometimes life draws people in different directions, and the slipping away is a slow, accidental process. Sometimes other factors change what’s available. Sometimes we don’t realise the value of the person we lost until there is no way back. Often there are no second chances with these, once contact is lost, there’s no scope for rebuilding it. And yet… the last week or so has raised the possibility of reconnecting with two people who were hugely important to me in my teens.

Second chances are precious things, rare, and worth being wide –eyed with awe and a little bit daunted over. Not something to take for granted.