‘Boyfriends/And girlfriends/And enemies/Those upon which we rely’ – Low
When I was a child I treated friendship as sacred. If I were to attempt some clumsy psychoanalysis of myself, these many years later, I might begin to see why. My parents broke up when I was four years old, and my world collapsed. (Unconsciously then), I think I decided that in my own life people would not be so unstable, unreliable, so breakable as my parents. But of course they were.
I say ‘child’ but this dangerous belief has of course followed me round through adulthood, so that when friendships (and romantic relationships) have broken down, I have felt a loss, an inadequacy, an anger, a shame, akin to that first big break-up of my early life. It wasn’t my fault. But nobody told me that at the time. And, even today, in the complex world of adult relations, I tend to blame myself deep down, for most things that go wrong.
But there is in me, and it is getting stronger, (thanks in part to some recent and very helpful psychotherapy), an ability to step away from that ‘guilty’ child. To see life, and people (including me), as complex and unpredictable, and to accept that. Not all friendships (or romantic relationships) last forever. That doesn’t necessarily diminish them. I broke up with my ex partner over eight years ago now, but it is only very recently I have been able to feel happy and grateful that we knew each other, were very close, had some laughs, were best mates. A Buddhist might find my revelation amusing, for they know that if life itself is temporary, the things within it are hardly going to be permanent. I always was a slow learner.
I don’t think I am the only one afflicted with a perfectionist side when it comes to friendship. I can think of one or two people out there, who are probably even more ‘extremist’ (and less reflective?) than me. They hold onto this romantic notion that if someone is not utterly wonderful and nice and the kindest bestest friend in the world, they must be some kind of devil. Freud knew about this dichotomising amongst friends and even admitted to doing it himself:
‘An intimate friend and a hated enemy have always been indispensable requirements for my emotional life; I have always been able to create them anew, and not infrequently my childish ideal has been so closely approached that friend and enemy coincided in the same person.’
I think if we want to keep our friends, and to make new ones, to keep open to life and love’s possibilities, we have to acknowledge that negative aspect in people and relationships. In hindsight, I think my ex understood it better than I. After a row, or an affair, or a terrible sorrow-filled night, when I thought nothing could be salvaged from the wreckage, he would always treat me exactly as he had before the crisis. He didn’t seem fased by our ability to be ‘enemies’ at times, as well as lovers and friends. Maybe he had a bit of Nietzsche in him, and thought:
‘The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies but also to hate his friends.’
I’m not quite there yet. I still have a slightly rose-tinted view of friendship. And I still get crushed by messy imperfect reality on a regular basis. But I am learning to accept, much more than that heartbroken four year old could at least, that humans have frailties and that’s ok.