When we grow and change so much throughout our lives, why are old friends automatically at the top of the friendship hierarchy?
“How long have you been mates with her for?”, my childhood best friend asks me indignantly.
‘Her’ is a colleague, one of those friendships that has been in my life for a relatively short period of time. I'm reading out my wedding invite list, and the fact this new friend made ‘the cut’ seemingly doesn't compute to one of my oldest friends.
Because this colleague wasn’t there during my first relationship, or through my gap year. I hadn’t known her when I lost my virginity, or found out I’d been accepted onto my dream university course.
She hadn’t been around when I first met my now-husband, or the first time I got drunk (a mix of Smirnoff Ice and Red Bull with Vodka – never again), but when it came to creating the list of people I valued most in this world, she had secured a slot near the top.
In fact, she had made it onto a list that several people I had known for a large chunk of my life had not, and my friend’s question provoked two things: an odd sense of shame (why?
Stay tuned, reader, we’ll get the experts involved in a minute) and a feeling of guilt that I was somehow betraying my childhood best friend (who, crucially, was on the list) by having confessed to a newer friend bringing value to my life.
At the time, with Covid looming large over my wedding day, a million dress fittings and a string of meetings with our florist, I didn’t have the headspace to explore it. But still, this concept of old versus new friends lodged itself somewhere in my mind.
A while later, while discussing the incident with a friend, she too admitted to having felt a similar mix of emotions when trying to mix old friends with new.
“My newer friends were really excited to get to know my old school friends, but my school friends seemed almost hostile to the idea of meeting the newest members of my circle,” she told me.
As we talked, I realised that I had felt ostracised in previous situations where I myself was the new friend, being introduced to a lifelong gang - as if I was somehow below them in the friendship hierarchy.
In fact, just a few weeks ago, I was added to a WhatsApp group for a friend’s hen where her ‘core group’ from primary school more or less ignored every suggestion made by anyone who hadn’t had the fortune of time or place to be present before the bride-to-be had hit puberty.
Really, the concept of time in friendship is obsolete. The value of a friendship is not based on years; how one person might enrich our lives does not necessarily build as the days pass.
Yet somehow, when we do the maths, we still get the same equation: old friendships are seen as greater than the sum of new friendships.
And, in true Carrie Bradshaw style, ‘just like that’ it got me thinking: why, as a society, are we more comfortable with the idea of old friends rather than new ones?
Why do we place more value on those who have been with us longer? Why, when we change and grow so much throughout our lives, do we still struggle to accept the need for new friendships and bonds, or even feel ashamed of this need?
THE CONCEPT OF TIME IN FRIENDSHIP IS OBSOLETE. THE VALUE OF A FRIENDSHIP IS NOT BASED ON YEARS; HOW ONE PERSON MIGHT ENRICH OUR LIVES DOES NOT NECESSARILY BUILD AS THE DAYS PASS.
“Sometimes the unconscious small print of the BFF contract requires us to remain the same people we were when those bonds of friendship were originally made (often at a time in our lives when our brain was a chaotic jumble of thoughts and emotions),” therapist and best-selling author Emma Reed Turrell tells me.
“As adolescents we’re biologically developed to switch our allegiance from our parents to our peers – it’s our friends’ approval that we seek and their acceptance that counts. We learn about ourselves through their eyes, and we use these pseudo-families to separate from our own family of origin.
All good, healthy stuff for a period of time, but we’re not designed to stay in these stop-gap co-dependencies forever. We’re supposed to transition through these intense family-like friendships and into something more independent and self-reliant, able to create up-to-date relationships between self-regulating adults, based on who we are now; not who we were then.”
The problem is, not everyone does this. It’s likely you too will have a friend, or friends, who have the same circle of close pals around them that they did back at school – and perhaps many in the group don’t have nourishing friendships outside of this.
They are still dependent on this one circle, and in order for them to feel comfortable in that dependence, they reject any change or anyone new who might threaten to break the bond.
“Clingy old friends might still rely on you to fill an attachment gap from their own childhoods, or they might see a potential new friend as a threat to their position. Unconsciously, they might be re-enacting old sibling rivalries or reliving playground politics, from a time when tribes and belonging were akin to social survival,” Emma says.
And it goes deeper than that too; it taps into our sense of worth. Having friends to show for our formative years, proving to society that we are able to keep people in our lives for long stretches of time, somehow proves that we are likeable, that we are valued, that we have always been winning in the game of life, long before we knew we were even playing.
Old friendships seem to also become part of a CV that we proudly show to others to reassure them, and ourselves, that we are valued.
But it isn’t just our sense of self worth - it’s our oldest friends’ too - a close pal forming a new attachment might force them to question if they are good enough, they might ask themselves what they weren’t able to offer that lead us to needing to make new friends.
And inwardly too, an old friend - one who has stuck with us through thick and thin - helps to remind us that we can be loved even on our darkest days and even through our most turbulent times (shout out to everyone who stuck with me during my first break-up).
“It can feel grounding to have shared history with old friends but it can also keep us hamstrung to an outdated version of ourselves when we want to update and grow,” Emma says.
“Maybe you used to be a party animal but now you prefer a box set and an early night. You might meet new people pursuing new interests and this can bring challenge to friends who aren’t ready for your change, or more likely, for change in themselves.”
CHANGING AND EVOLVING IS SCARY, AND MEETING PEOPLE ALONG THE WAY WHO HAVE NO OTHER EVIDENCE BUT TO ACCEPT YOU FOR WHO YOU ARE RIGHT NOW IS EMPOWERING.
For me, this hits on why so many of my ‘newer’ friends make it onto the list of people I couldn’t live without, because they meet me where I am at now.
They see the version of who I am in this moment, because they have never known anything else. Changing and evolving is scary, and meeting people along the way who have no other evidence but to accept you for who you are right now is empowering.
Similarly, having friends who you share memories with, who have proven that they support you in your time of need and who you can share nostalgic memories and old jokes with, is important too.
In fact, I need both in my life - and maybe that means it will always be a little bit messy and a little bit like walking a tightrope.
Making a new friend is vulnerable and enriching, it helps us stay open to life and to people and creates fresh opportunities for us to discover new things. Keeping an old friend helps us to feel rooted, to think outside of ourselves and practice forgiveness and love.
And love is exactly what I felt as I stood at my wedding, surrounded by people who - wherever and whenever they came into my life - each brought something unique and valuable into my life.
Each reflecting a part of me and providing a full picture of the life I have lived and the life I am creating simultaneously. And there’s no shame in that at all.
This originally appeared on Glamour UK