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With A Little Help From Our Friends

In a world obsessed with finding "the one," we often overlook the profound impact of our lifelong friendships. Forged over years and through life's ups and downs, it's these platonic relationships that offer a safe haven for vulnerability and mutual understanding. Despite the rise of digital connectivity, nothing compares to the irreplaceable comfort and joy of sharing moments with friends who have known us the longest.

A Little Help From Our Friends

Why is it that we are so obsessed with romantic relationships and “finding the one”? It seems that we have always been this way, which explains why the tales of Anthony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, Ross and Rachel (even Gavin and Stacey) have kept us captivated with their various iterations of the love story over the ages.

In the words of Shakespeare himself, however, “the course of true love never did run smooth”, as evidenced by the fact that over half of all marriages now end in divorce and that many more couples remain unhappily together for financial or cultural reasons. For people living in emotionally disconnected relationships, it can be a very isolating existence. Human connection is such an essential part of our wellbeing that loneliness is cited as being equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day, whilst those enjoying happy spousal relationships have been shown to live longer, healthier lives.

Committing to a single person is a huge leap of faith and unfortunately we seem to be developing ever more unrealistic expectations of what our romantic relationships should deliver. Esther Perel, relationship therapist and New York Times bestselling author, states that we expect from our partner, belonging, identity, continuity, transcendence, mystery, awe, comfort, novelty and familiarity; she observes, “we come to one person, and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide”. She’s right. Who can possibly meet all of those demands and still hold down a day job?

The fact that no single person can possibly be expected to meet all of our emotional needs is why our platonic relationships are so valuable. They provide us with love and connection from a different but equally important perspective. For example, asking “Does my bum look big in this?” is a far more politically loaded question when addressed to your partner than to your best mate; you’ll more likely get an honest response and receive it with better grace when delivered by the latter than the former!

There’s something really special about our lifelong friendships. I recently spent the weekend with three of my oldest school buddies. Despite having met over 40 years ago, whenever we get together, we revert back to the essence of ourselves before life got really complicated; the people we were all those decades ago when we saw each other on a daily basis

Reminiscing and laughing about our formative years, our teachers, our crushes and first broken hearts, I always feel enormous gratitude that these people I love, with whom fate randomly threw me together, still care enough about me and each other that we coordinate our overpacked diaries and make time to travel to see each other to reconnect and remain relevant in each other’s lives. Collectively we have been through cancer, divorce and death of parents; the hurdles of life which start to loom large during midlife. It’s so much easier for people who know each other so well to talk about these deeply personal things and to be vulnerable with each other.

Whilst our lifelong friends are incredibly precious, we are all likely to have people come into our lives for a time who do not necessarily stay the distance. This is quite normal; it is said that we have friends for a reason, for a season or for a lifetime. For example, people who might not have connected under normal circumstances might bond quite intensely during difficult shared experiences, such as cancer treatment or bereavement because of their mutual understanding of what the other is going through and their mutual support helps each to keep going. Eventually life inevitably moves on and so do some of our friends, both figuratively and geographically.

Of course we now have clever digital ways to stay in touch but it’s not the same as being in the same room. This is why despite the apparent increase in our virtual connectivity, the scientific evidence suggests that we are becoming lonelier as a population. We don’t get the same hormonal rewards from our online interactions as we do in real life and there is real concern about the mental health impacts of this in teenagers and young adults in particular, who appear to be especially vulnerable to social disconnection, despite often very active virtual lives.

Last week I lost my lovely friend Chris Woodford to cancer. Chris was my clinic nurse at the Princess of Wales Hospital in Bromsgrove from my first day in my new Consultant post 15 years ago and looked after me there every Wednesday until poor health forced her reluctantly to retire. I am thankful to have been able to visit her during her last days and let her know how much she meant to me. This blog is dedicated to her memory.

Love, Julia x


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