Health Bytes: A case for friendship
Female friendships are the safest, most healing relationships you can be a part of—a non-negotiable component of mental health.
I had coffee with a good friend, one of my most favourite people in the world, last week. We spent three hours together, talking, laughing, and just being. When leaving, the thought crossed my mind, slipping in as easily as ice cream on a sweltering summer day, "I'm so happy.”
For most of my life, happiness emanated from specific things: a good day at work, a word of praise, a text from someone I found attractive, fitting into an outfit that I couldn't fit into three months earlier, and so on. My friendships existed but were never prioritized, seen as something related to my happiness, or sense of well-being.
I think it was my stint in the US that changed the way I viewed female friendships. While I still video chatted with and Whatsapped my girlfriends, it was not the same. And I was too wrapped up with my then-partner to cultivate any new female friendships.
I've always been relatively self-contained as a person. All the things I love doing—reading, hanging out with animals, writing, and exercising---are solitary pursuits. I'm not saying that I don't enjoy people. But I've always preferred small, intimate bonds to bigger "gangs" of friends; coffee dates to parties; quiet dinners to a night at a bar; staying in rather than heading out. And I've never really done all those other markers of friendships: long phone calls that stretch into the night, drunken all-nighters, sleepovers, girls-only getaways. Despite this, I've always had intensely good female friendships, people who've been there for me, no matter what.
Without my friends around, I went nuts. Sure, I had a partner who was, and still is, a friend. But honestly, it's not the same; it doesn't even come close. Female friendships are the safest, most healing relationships you can be a part of—a non-negotiable component of mental health. The older I get, the more I agree with this line from Sex and the City. "Maybe our girlfriends are our soulmates and guys are just people to have fun with."
Not all friendships are healing, of course. Like relationships, you can have toxic friendships. Ones where you "feel inferior, invisible, anxious, and that they are a bad person, thus, eroding a person's sense-of-self and compromising their mental health," as an article in Psychology Today points out. Not surprisingly, the signs of a toxic friendship mirror that of an abusive relationship: one person gives far more than the other, perhaps. Or, maybe, there is gaslighting or caustic commentary. And, yes, this: a tendency to blow hot and blow cold, tell lies, or continually sabotage the other person's happiness or life.
The basic rule is this: how do you feel after interacting with someone? "In a toxic friendship scenario, you might always feel emotionally drained after seeing them; it can be a real energy drain, a feeling of heaviness," says psychologist Gillian Needleman in this article. "You might feel a huge sense of obligation or guilt for not seeing them enough. You might be dreading the interaction, knowing that a conversation is all about them, or a stream of criticism, lies ahead."
If that is the case, run, and run fast.
However, real friendship is a different case altogether. And it turns out there is actual science to it. In her recent book, Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond, science writer, Lydia Denworth investigates friendship and concludes that "a good friendship is really good for biology.” In a conversation with NPR, she points out that social relationships have a direct link with health. "They can change your cardiovascular system, your immune system, how you sleep, your cognitive health," she says in this interview, adding that having friends isn't just a "lovely thing" but "a matter of life and death."
Survival, she claims, is not about the fittest, but of the friendliest.
Friendships, like romantic relationships, are, for the most part, founded on situational proximity, liking and respect, shared values, and, over time, shared history, and great memories. Unlike the former, however, it’s also refreshingly unburdened by inflated expectations.
And that’s perhaps why they last.
Molly Fischer of The New Yorker says something similar in this 2014 piece about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, a fantastic exploration of female friendship (albeit a slightly toxic one, methinks). “Lila and Elena don’t need to pursue each other, and they can never really break with each other; the nature of their relationship changes, but its existence remains fixed,” she writes, adding, “And this is what’s interesting about friendship as the basis for a story—its elasticity. Romance lends itself to declarations and defining events, but friendship eludes these things.”
I think of my friendships, the good ones, and realise how right she is. Time goes by, circumstances, and people, change. But the core of friendship, the essence of it, the knowledge that this is “my person,” does not.
Case in point, my best friend. She lives in another city now, and we haven't seen each other since December 2018. But when the shit hits the fan, as the expression goes, she is the first person I call.
You know that old cliché about meeting someone's eyes and just knowing they are your soul mate? I’ve never experienced it with a man, but that's pretty much how I met her. I remember it like it was yesterday—we met at the entrance exam of a college we would later study together at. She appeared to be perusing a copy of a Malayala Manorama Yearbook, while I nervously paced up and down the waiting room.
She looked up and grinned. "How’s it going?” I remember asking her, gesturing at the book she held in her hands. She laughed out loud and showed me what she was actually reading. Tucked within the pages of the Manorama was another book—some god-awful Harlequin novel with a cover too raunchy to read in public. I laughed back and thought, as Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine did in Casablanca, that this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. It was.
And it still is.