When our romantic relationsh­ips end, heartbreak is expected and sympathy shared, but when we break up with a friend, the loss can be just as great and leave us with a pain that lasts a lifetime, writes EMILY HOURICAN.


Emily Hourican on the lasting pain that follows the end of a friendship

Heartbreak. It’s inevitable, right? No one gets to 30, maybe not even 20, without having their heart broken at least once. There are whole industries devoted to the matter – there is ice-cream to be eaten straight from the freezer late at night, “You-Go-Girl!” anthems and power ballads to listen to, break-up movies to watch, new clothes to buy to dress up that broken heart.

But what the movies and power ballads so often ignore is that your broken heart can be the result of a friendship gone wrong just as much as a love affair. Friend break-ups are the unsung younger siblings of romantic catastroph­e; less catchy, less dramatic, but often just as painful.

Female friendship­s are intense. Women, perhaps, are designed that way. Most of us will surround ourselves with strong, deep female friends from a very young age. I watch my daughter – aged eight – with her “best friends”. They have been close from the age of five, a friendship based on need as much as affection. By which I mean that my daughter, when she was four, was already fascinated by two girls in her Montessori who were, she told me wistfully, “best friends”. She said it with awe, like it was something sacred. I could see she wanted that – more even than she wanted a giant Beanie Boo.

She could see that the thing itself was desirable, separate even to the characteri­stics of the other person involved. And she was right. Our girlfriend­s are vital. Those friendship­s, I would argue, are as deep, as formative, as powerfully compelling as any romantic relationsh­ip.

Little girls get the full fetishisat­ion of “best friends” – this is the pixie dust sprinkled across the books, films and songs aimed at their age group (Bruno Mars’ “Count On Me” is pretty much the anthem of eight-to-ten-year-olds, and don’t forget those necklaces with half-a-heart pendants – the idea being that your BF wears the other half ). But once we grow up enough for boys to enter the scene, the BF thing gets pushed to the background – then, they are relegated to being the Greek chorus to the “real” business of your heart – falling romantical­ly in love. But that is unfairly limited. My most intense relationsh­ips, other than with my husband, have all been with women. Much of the hyper-intensity belongs to our early years – once we all settle, perhaps with families and children, the friendship dynamic relaxes a little. But the power to form deep friendship­s never, happily, goes away, and nor does the need to mourn them when they go awry.

I can only vaguely remember my school and college boyfriends. In contrast, time spent with my girlfriend­s is vivid. I remember laughing hard enough to double over and crying rivers of tears. The pain of unrequited love was more than made up for by the joy of sharing the details of it with my pals. We did exciting things together – lied, mitched, smoked, drank, vomited – but also, maybe more than that, we did nothing together. Long afternoons and evenings with nowhere to go except round to the shopping centre again. Hours spent with one shade of nail varnish and an unending store of chat that ranged seamlessly from the gossipy and trivial to the personal and metaphysic­al. My closest friends, from that time and later, have had far more influence on me, on the person I am now, than any boyfriend.

Some of those early friendship­s are still intact. Others are not. And the ones that aren’t – often, there was no grown-up drifting away from one another; there was a harsh, angry breach, the memory of which can still cause me pain.

I have cried for girlfriend­s as much as any boyfriend; for friendship­s that have run their course or ended in brutal betrayal. Because that happens too. Youth is impetuous and sometimes harsh – the sheer act of survival through your late teens and early twenties can mean throwing ballast overboard in a desperate attempt to stay aloft. Sometimes that ballast is a friend, a person you have loved. You chuck them, because you can’t cope with them, or think you have outgrown them, or because severing that bond seems like the only way to form new ones. Sometimes, they do it to you.

Your best friend can be your enemy too. Or at least your competitio­n, and the backwards-tug to your forward momentum. They can hold you back as much as spur you on, compete as well as encourage, tear down as much as build up. Sometimes, they do all those things at once, or in quick succession. If this one person

“I have cried for girlfriend­s as much as any boyfriend;

for friendship­s that have run their course or ended in

brutal betrayal.”

is “everything” to you, then that means the bad as well as the good. Your greatest cheerleade­r, and harshest critic.

In those cases, we’re talking about friendship­s so intense that they couldn’t have lasted. Their burnout was inevitable. I still think about my BFF from school and university. Someone I admired, copied (yes, I admit…), confided in, worried about, got drunk with, cried with, laughed with, reassured and sought reassuranc­e from.

We lived together for several years, did everything together, shared each other’s darkest secrets and deepest joys. And when the end came, instead of letting go with grace, we tore at each other in a hail of recriminat­ions – of betrayal, belittleme­nt, disrespect. What came between us? Not a boyfriend (for all that the misogynist­ic media likes to portray women as unable to fight over anything except a man). In fact, it was a newer, deeper female friendship for one of us that superseded the old one. And it was every bit as awful as a cheating boyfriend.

I remember that there wasn’t really anywhere to take the grief that I found then. It was too hard to explain that the pain of loss was the loss of a friend. A lover – everyone gets that, there are a million mechanisms to acknowledg­e and assuage your hurt, and society swings into action for you. A female friendship – the response is more muted; baffled. What’s the big deal? Plenty, as it turns out. Years of shared confidence­s – the constant back-and-forth of hopes, dreams, secrets, clothes, make-up, plans, money worries – forming such deep-rooted entangleme­nt that the ensuing separation is both brutal and traumatic.

I have seen the friend since, and we are fond, with many shared memories, but cautious too. You can’t cause and feel that kind of pain, and not be. Where I meet old boyfriends and strain to recall what it was that held us together in the first place, when I see her, I can remember the full weight of our friendship and the vital place it once held in my heart. It is unrecovera­ble – too much water, too many bridges – but I miss it. I know what to call the old boyfriends – my exes – but I have no word for these one-time close friendship­s.

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