The Genteel
May 26, 2020


Growing Pains

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Orestes and Pylades in Tauris. Detail from a Campanian red-figure krater, ca. 330 BC–320 BC. From Italy. (Source: Wikipedia)

I've almost broken up with my best friend three times. The first time, we were fifteen and shopping for shoes. The second time, we were twenty and I was drunk off infatuation and forgot about the rest of my world, and he retaliated by forgetting about me. The third time, we were twenty-four and, well, woke up realizing we had become completely unrecognizable to one another; after a decade, it was almost like we were strangers.

August 25 has become the day when we reminisce and celebrate the good things about each other and the good times in our lives together so far. This year, our tenth, has proven to be excruciatingly exhausting - or excruciating and exhausting, rather. We met in high school, even though we didn't go to the same school, and sustained a bond built on weekend mall rat adventures, nightly phone calls (texting wasn't a thing yet), and birthday parties of friends of friends without alcohol. Every new thing in our lives, from drugs to driving, we did together. It was so easy back then to have someone who wanted nothing more from you than your company. Before bosses, before boyfriends, before bills. We walked around, like most kids do, with that "us against the world" vibe, and being different from everyone else only made us hold on tighter.

I tried not to think too much about our friendship as a young adult, let alone what it could one day become as a teenager. Should good friendships really be something you dwell on? No, good friendships should be easy and sustain themselves, right? If they take too much work, well then it's probably not working, eh? I guess it really used to be or feel that easy, so cut and dry: We would be platonically together forever because it was written in the stars. That was enough for me at 16, and again at 21. But now, in the face of quarter life and its apparent crisis, we - my friend and I - find it harder to accept and adapt to the inevitable changes that continue to find us deep in the night, and emerge as if they'd been there all along. Well, I'm sure they have, but all the situations we encounter now, whether we've faced them before or not, feel as insurmountable as ever.

Is adulthood the fork in the road for childhood friends who feel like they've morphed into The Odd Couple?

In 10 years, we've graduated from simple arguments about what movie to see or why the other always has to drive to doozy throwdowns about alleged unsupportive behaviour, you're-not-happy-for-me rants, and incessant miscommunication because we just stopped being on the same page. It just happened. Our priorities have changed; people to see, places to go, other things to do. Sure, one of us has a new partner, an addition that has challenged us to make time and make concessions, but nine months of new love hardly seems important in ten years of history (or hard time, depending on the day). While we once employed a full disclosure/no judgment agreement, bits and pieces of our lives began to square away and hide among other parts of our conversations. Text messages become open forums and open letters for displeasure, and brunch plays host to fresh, hot dishes of passive-aggressive annoyance. For most of this past year, it became unclear what we were fighting for: today, tomorrow, or the way things used to be.

The way we look at our friendship has evolved from passive to active, little to too much, which, as trial and error has taught me, will leave you right back where you started: still fighting and as ambivalent as ever. Science agrees, sort of. Two recent and separate studies, out of Stanford University and University College London, found that thinking too much is, duh, counterproductive, and, interestingly enough, a marker for depression. In the last year, we've both made strenuous career changes that left us short of struggling, and, if money makes the world go round, we had definitely stopped spinning. To say the least, it's been a year of growing up separately after coming-of-age together, and we worked hard to kick bad habits and bad seeds, find new passions and welcome new loves. Here's where things really begin to feel like the point of no return. If our definitions of "growing up" or "being responsible" look and feel different, and our support systems no longer place the other first, is this where our paths must split? Is adulthood the fork in the road for childhood friends who feel like they've morphed into The Odd Couple?

In many ways, I've thought of our friendship as a marriage, or any other good relationship that's deep and rich. Aren't most modern marriages based on friendship (or something like it) anyway? Even though I've never been hitched, I don't imagine a marriage and a friendship are based on ridiculously polar values. But marriage itself has changed. In 1990, a World Values Survey found that children ranked number three as a foundation of a thriving marriage. In 2007, a Pew Research Center survey found that children had fallen - nay, tumbled - to the second last spot of what makes a marriage successful. Now research and stats and the economy tell us couples seem to care more about "good housekeeping" and "sharing chores."  Hell, why even get married in 2011?

And then there's the question of divorce. Can you officially call it quits with a BFF? Clearly, when you've spent so much time and effort on someone, it can never be as easy as a simple goodbye or a signed piece of paper. I was talking to a wedding photographer over lunch the other day and I asked her about predicting a couple's viability, if she could discern by now which ones would crash and which would crash faster, and harder. According to this seven-year veteran, there are two truths: one, if you can make it past year one, you've got greater odds of surviving; two, the younger a couple, the faster they fall apart. A study out of Canada's Vanier Institute of the Family found that one in four marriages end in divorce today, and, for the first time in Canadian history, there are more unmarried people than legally married people. I know there's nothing physical that binds us together (no mortgages, leases, timeshares, children), but there are roots that run deep: our secrets ("the dirt"), our memories, our mutual respect, and love. Yes, lots of love. I want to believe those things are enough to bind people forever, together or apart.

Friendships, then, have also evolved. Even the word itself has lost its meaning. I haven't seen at least a third of my Facebook "friends" in about a decade, and I'd probably be just as unaffected as I am right now if I never see a status update again. (Not in a morbid way, but in a we-lost-touch-after-that-one-humanities-class-in-first-year way.) I keep asking myself the same question: What do "other people" think makes for a good friend? I look up the word on Urban Dictionary (basically the best invention ever for the proliferation of slangs and colloquialism). The definition of a "friend," as liked by 1,750 users (out of two million-plus), reads: "A real friend is someone who: it's okay to fart in front of; you don't mind talking to on the bus for at least 20 minutes; can borrow $5 and never has to pay it back; you'll actually call up do stuff." Okay, I have about a dozen people who qualify for that, but I'm talking about something else, you know? Am I that bloody demanding if I want more?

I was told once that it's easier not to expect things from the people you love because they'll always let you down anyway. I've never adopted that way of thinking. The reason I expect more from my close friends (more than I do from those Facebook friends, at least) is because I value my friendships. The more we can challenge each other to do better, to be better people for ourselves and the world around us, the more we push beyond that boundary of where "shit gets real," and feel that connection allotted to so few of us in the era of fast friends.

Then I think about history's great besties: Greek mythology's Orestes and Pylades who were raised like brothers; Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn bound by a blood pact; Paris and Nicole immortalized on The Simple Life. Okay, so that last one didn't endure the test of ratings, but we are like brothers, and we are like sisters. I know enough about people to know that "real" friends are a handful a lifetime, and to live in a world of acquaintances would akin to Dante's definition of hell: proximity without intimacy.

So what exactly does Urban Dictionary say about best friends? "Best Friends are very special people in your life. They are the first people you think about when you make plans. They are the first people you go to when you need someone to talk to. You will phone them up just to talk about nothing, or the most important things in your life. When you’re sad they will try their hardest to cheer you up. They give the best hugs in the world! They are the shoulder to cry on, because you know that they truly care about you. In most cases they would take a bullet for you, coz it would be too painful to watch you get hurt."

Nothing lasts forever, but until then believe. That's why we decide to solider on, fight after fight, time after time, decade after decade. He is still that person to me. And I still want to be that person to him.

Life, etc.: The world around fashion. On a weekly basis, Paul Aguirre-Livingston takes a break from fashion writing and delivers raw and insightful musings that blend society and culture with self.



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