by Sarah Hughes
The search for love: It’s the plot of just about every chick-flick movie ever made. It’s the storyline in the majority of romcom novels and the basis for fairytales that are read to children the world over.
Before we are even old enough to tie our shoelaces we’re sold the dream of being somebody’s soulmate, of the importance of belonging to someone, of having an all-consuming romantic love. It’s implied that we are merely half of a whole; and until we find that other half, we won’t be living our fullest lives.
But hear me out. What if, in our quest to find the one, we overlook some of the greatest loves of our lives, standing right there in front of us? Or more likely beside us, through thick and thin, rough and smooth.
In case you haven’t guessed; I’m talking about our friends. Our real, true, rock-solid friendships. The ones that are almost as rare as the elusive Prince the Disney films tell us we should be looking for.
I imagined that this year would go down in history for me as ‘The year of the split’ after ending my 15-year marriage. I thought it would be my annus horribilis. And of course, in some ways, it has been. It’s been 12 months of sadness, overwhelming stress and anxiety. But that is not how I’ll remember the year.
Because it’s also been a year of personal rediscovery, laughter, adventure and so much fun. More important than any of that stuff though; 2022 has been the year of the true friend. I’m ashamed to say that during the time I was with my ex-husband, I had no idea of the friendship gold mine I was sitting on. It wasn’t that I didn’t love them or appreciate them or spend time with my pals. I’ve always been a very present friend and prioritised keeping those relationships going across long distances and having kids and life just becoming increasingly hectic, as it tends to do in our thirties. But I never knew just what my friendships could do for me. What vast reserves of love, kindness and fierce loyalty were residing within them. I thought they were a lovely addition to my family set-up, an addition that I was very lucky to have. I had no idea they were actually the foundation everything else was laid on. I, like many fools before me, had assumed from the age of about 11 that to be complete, to be whole, I had to be part of a couple. It’s a pervasive cultural norm, and it seeps into your psyche no matter how much Spice Girls you listened to in your bedroom as a teenager. I had looked to one person to meet all of my needs, overlooking the fact that there were approximately ten other people in my life ready and willing to hold my hand through the tough stuff.
Perhaps there would be way fewer pressures on the modern marriage if we realised that we don’t have to get everything from one person. Or perhaps we need to reframe altogether this notion that romantic love is the be-all and end-all.
Why don’t we prize strong friendships in the same way we prize strong marriages or partnerships? What is it both biologically and culturally which makes us so inclined to think we need a partner?
A 2018 study by scientists at University College London states that although monogamy and being part of a pair is very much a societal norm now, it has only been that way for about the last 1000 years. Before this time humans would live together in large groups, with everybody playing different roles within the ‘team’. Professor Kit Opie, an evolutionary anthropologist from the study talks about a very dark reason why human beings may have moved towards being paired rather than grouped.
“As primates developed and became more social, their brain size grew to accommodate this increased complexity over time. This in turn meant the brains of infants were larger than previous generations and required more attention – and lactation – from their mothers, resulting in females being less readily available to mate again after giving birth. “Males [in the group] are basically sitting around waiting to mate with the female. It would therefore pay for the man to kill the infant, so he can mate with the female. As the fathers would want their offspring to survive, they would nurture – and protect – them as necessary by pairing up.”
Hmm… suddenly the need to be paired off doesn’t sound so romantic does it? Granted, that’s not the reason people pair up today… and of course, there are lots of lovely benefits to being in a relationship. But the status society affords couples, the security being part of a pair provides, means lots of people remain in relationships where they feel insecure, uninspired and bored. I haven’t carried out my own UCL-accredited study to tell you that by the way, but I know enough married people to say it with certainty. I watched Bridget Jones’s Diary recently, with fresh eyes. Oh Bridget, Bridget, Bridget what are you thinking!? Allowing yourself to be messed around by Daniel Cleaver, mooning hopelessly over Mark Darcy, all while your Mother tells you you’re creeping ever closer to being left ‘on the shelf’.
Why couldn’t Bridget see that she had all she could ever need in life in the form of her incredible mates Tom, Shazzer and Jude (owner of the squeakiest voice in film, remember her?)? Always there, always constant, always telling her how fabulous she was… and meaning it. Bridget is, as many women have been since time immemorial, looking for commitment. But really what greater commitment is there than a lifelong friendship? Someone who stays not because they’ve got kids or a mortgage or shared finances with you… someone who stays just because they love you. Plain and simple.
It’s something that’s really hit home to me this year. How committed some of my friends are to me, and I to them. We’ve put in the groundwork over years and sometimes decades and without needing to spend tens of thousands on a wedding ceremony to prove our commitment, we’ve made silent pledges to each other. I will keep showing up. I will keep a watchful eye. I will know you and accept you exactly as you are, even though sometimes you really pee me off. I will keep up those daily acts of love and care that sustain the friendship.
And each other.