As you grow up, People will tell you that girlfriends are important. You’ll watch movies which will be dedicated to this theme : girl power. You will dance to songs, sung by singers of all ages, about the wonderful bond between girls / women, a bond which will last a lifetime, outlasting even the bonds of marriage.
There is some truth to this, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, and it’s important that you learn this now.
You see, girlfriends can be your best friends, but they can also be your worst enemies. They’ll borrow your clothes, your makeup and your CDs. Sometimes (without asking) they’ll also borrow your boyfriends. They’ll come round at 3am when that same boyfriend dumps you, bearing wine / chocolate / ice cream, and tell you what a pig he is. They’ll carry you when you feel as if you just can’t go on anymore, but they’re just as likely to kick you when you’re down. And then steal your handbag.
This doesn’t make girlfriends bad people, it makes them human people. And it makes what I’m about to tell you very important. Right up there, in fact, with much of the other advice I’ve given you over the years (although less important than “Always have a good black dress”). Here is my advice on friendship, and particularly friendship with women
1. Accept that girlfriends and male friends are different. They just are. Not better, not worse, simply different.
2. Don’t worry about having a “best friend”. Have a best friend for particular occasions. Certain people are better at certain things. Don’t try to make one person fit every mould, it’s not fair on the friend, and it’s not fair on you, because the person is doomed to failure. Not everyone can keep a secret – so entrust your secrets to the one who can keep them, rather than the one who can’t, no matter how much you might love her and want to trust her. That same person who can’t keep a secret is probably the person you want to share your most hilarious anecdotes with, because that attribute of her personality which makes her unable to keep a secret is the one which makes her the wickedest story-teller, so she’ll take your hilarious story and make it even more hilarious in the retelling, and you’ll be an instant twelebrity.
Don’t lend your most precious things to the girl who can’t look after them. It’s not her fault if she loses them, it’s who she is. It’s your fault for lending them to her.
If you need someone to advise you on what to do about the “hands on” boss at work, speak to the girl who is going places in her career, not to the one who has moved from job to job, laterally. She may be great with men, but she’s not the one who can handle them in the office. That takes a particular gift, because being a woman in the workplace is hard. Need advice on your relationship with your boyfriend? Pick the friend who respects boundaries, and who respects men because she will be true to you and to him.
Choosing one friend over another for a particular need or occasion doesn’t mean that you like that person more, it just means that you have learned to read people, and to accept both their strengths and their weaknesses. We all have them – including you.
2. Be a friend to yourself first
You can’t have friends if you’re not prepared to be a friend, but that doesn’t mean that you should be endlessly self-sacrificing, in order to earn the friendship of other people. Learn to say “no” and don’t feel the need to justify why you are doing so, or to make excuses. Being unavailable now, doesn’t mean that you are unavailable always, and people will learn that. It is better to say no than to let people down. Don’t let your friends disrespect you, and don’t disrespect yourself in order to be a friend. Don’t lower your standards in order to be liked. If you have principles, stick to them. If something is wrong, it’s wrong, even when your friends do it.
We all want to unload on people, but sometimes you need to let them unload on you. Be honest with yourself about your ability to keep a secret and if you feel that what you’re about to hear might be too much to keep to yourself, rather find a reason not to hear it – even if it means just telling the person that your loyalty may be tested too much. People would rather hear that, than hear that you’ve broken a trust.
Don’t feel compelled to offer advice, or a solution to the problem. That’s not always why people are unburdening. Ask questions, but be gentle in your questioning, because not everyone is ready for self-reflection.
It’s always best to ask the person what they need, rather than guess. So ask if they would like a hug, or if there’s anything they’d like you to do, or how you can help. And then try to do it.
People won’t always remember what you say, but they will remember how you made them feel.
4. Never underestimate your strength.
The first time you stand up for a friend, against a crowd, or a bullying boyfriend, or even against herself (that happens, I promise) is very scary, but sometimes that’s what it takes to be a friend. Never let a friend suffer alone, if you have it in you to help. Never ignore the signs that something is wrong. Don’t ignore the bruises, don’t ignore the tears, don’t ignore the needle marks, or the signs of excessive drinking, or the cuts on her arm. If the person who is hurting your friend IS that same friend, then see what you can do to get her help. Don’t be afraid to talk to her parents. If you can’t talk to them, talk to me, and I will speak to them. Speak to a teacher.
This is the one time when it is okay to betray a confidence.
5. Know when you need to walk away.
Sometimes, a friendship just takes too much out of you. It is self-destructive, and it destroys you. There is no hard and fast rule for when it’s okay to walk away. It’s something you learn with time. When you need to do it, know that it’s okay. As with all things, friendship has a beginning, a middle and an end. Sometimes, friendships end in tears. Sometimes, it’s just a gradual slipping away. Whatever the end is, try to let it go with grace, and wish the person well.
Not all fights mean the end of a friendship. Perspective is sometimes best gained by a little distance, or even a good night’s sleep. Be careful not to cut the ties too easily.
6. Remember the important words.
“I’m sorry” is the most powerful thing you can say to a friend. Even when you are not sorry for what you did or said, you CAN be sorry for causing hurt, and it’s not a sign of weakness to apologise for that.
Compliments count. So many friendships flounder on the rocks of rivalry, but a true friend is always happy for her friend’s successes. Tell your friend she’s beautiful, clever, successful, strong, funny, that her dress is gorgeous, that you love her new hat, that her hair looks great in that colour. Women need compliments, because we are so often criticised. We learn to be self-critical at an early age, we need the compliments from people we love to balance the hurt life throws at us. Equally, be sparing in your criticism. Be careful how you criticise, make sure that it’s helpful, and not just a put-down.
7. Respect boundaries.
When you form a strong, lasting relationship with a man or a woman (because gay relationships need just as much respect), you will find out how important these are. When your children are born, your spouse and children become the most important part of your world. If you are the single one, watching as your married friend seems to drift away, try to recognise that these bonds are meant to be strong, because families need them. Without those strong bonds, marriages would flounder far too easily. Respect those boundaries. Don’t be resentful when you are excluded, and be happy when she finds time in her new schedule for you, because you are still important to her. You will either find common ground again or you will drift apart, but don’t be bitter. Be happy for her, and wish her well. Hey, maybe you can be the cool single friend who gets to take her daughter for her first tattoo and whom her son develops his first crush on (which, incidentally, you won’t act on because : boundaries).
Lastly, girl-child, remember that she’s a girl in a man’s world as well. She’s probably also struggling with this thing called friendship, those dastardly creatures called boys, parents who think they know everything, and school which is interfering horribly with her personal life. If this advice helps you, feel free to share it with her.
And remember that I love you.