Despite being able to move between many different groups, I am the kind of woman who likes having a best friend, a ‘person’ to call her own.
If you’re lucky, she’s the one person who understands you, loves you, gets you — and I think this perhaps is unique to female friendships. Husbands may be wonderful, but no one can understand you in the way a female best friend can.
Finding that close connection with a friend often feels much like falling in love. There is the same intensity, the excitement, the joy of seeing a glorified version of yourself through someone else’s eyes. The older we grow, the lonelier it can become, particularly when you’re living overseas, your children have left home and you are adjusting to the empty nest. This is when we rely on these friendships all the more.
Five years ago I met ‘her’ at a local Connecticut restaurant. I was lunching with friends and noticed a woman stand up and twirl for her husband, who looked on adoringly. She was wearing a fabulous oversized cardigan, and on my way to the loo I paused to say: ‘Great sweater.’
She stopped and looked at me. ‘You’re English!’
So was she.
In the middle of that restaurant we discovered that not only were we both English, she had lived in the part of London in which I grew up, was an aspiring writer, and knew almost no one since moving to town a couple of years prior. It felt like kismet.
Before we went back to our respective tables we had swapped numbers, and a week later were sitting in a small cafe over a cup of tea as we shared stories and got to know each other.
Jane Green is the author of twenty novels, including eighteen New York Times best sellers
Our friendship didn’t initially have the short burst of intensity that usually foretells it will burn itself out in a relatively short space of time. We started with a weekly cuppa, which turned into a weekly lunch. Within a year or so, our lives were completely intertwined.
I loved her husband and child, and most of all, I loved her. My person. For the first time since moving to America, I had someone who not only understood my humour, but made me laugh until I snorted. She knew what I was talking about when I reminisced about EastEnders. She was also a cook who made mince pies and Cornish pasties from scratch, always making extra for us.
Mostly, we understood each other. We had such similar upbringings: when I met her mother, it was like meeting my own.
My only sadness was that she wasn’t able to see herself the way I saw her: beautiful, clever, talented and wickedly funny. She had written a novel (unpublished), but worked at a job she hated, with people she disdained.
She would joke about not being clever, talented, successful enough and would ask why someone like me would be friends with someone like her. I didn’t understand how someone so great could have so little belief in herself. Except, I did. For years I was the poster child for Imposter Syndrome, terrified someone would see me as a fraud. So even here, in our flaws and insecurities, we bonded.
Turning 50 was a milestone, as I finally started to feel comfortable in my own skin, thinking perhaps I was worthy, perhaps my success was more than sheer luck. And here was this beautiful girl, a decade younger than me, who was struggling with the same things. I wanted her to be the woman I knew her to be, to rise above her insecurities and claim all that was rightfully hers.
But, most of all, my God I was happy having a best friend again after so many years. Very quickly, I couldn’t imagine life without her. Our multiple daily conversations ranged from writing, to the purpose of life, to the best kind of false eyelashes to buy. Outside of family, she was the most important person in my life.
I wanted to help her fulfil her potential, not have to work with awful people, but do the thing she wanted to do. I loved her novel and introduced her to an agent, then another. Her novel remained unpublished.
When I was asked to take on a screenplay project, I knew I would do a far better job with a partner who had a better understanding of scripts, and because she had once worked in the film business, because I wanted to help her become a professional writer, I asked her to partner with me.
Which is where it all started to go wrong.
‘Finding that close connection with a friend often feels much like falling in love. There is the same intensity, the excitement, the joy of seeing a glorified version of yourself through someone else’s eyes’
Some say you should never work with friends. Add a healthy dose of pandemic fear, isolation, and fluctuating hormones, you have an explosion just waiting to happen. I had a sense, a fear, that the rose-coloured glasses through which she saw me would fall off, revealing me not as the shimmering, sparkling star she claimed to see me as, but as someone human, flawed, and eminently ‘not enough’. I wish I knew then how prescient that was.
Within a couple of months, what had started off so brilliantly was souring. Our working styles were not compatible, and my creative, easily distracted brain-storming irritated her more and more.
Where once we used to banter and catch up before settling down to our task, suddenly it was straight down to work. When I came up with ideas she didn’t like, she would roll her eyes, exasperated. When I questioned her choice of words in the writing, she flew into a fury.
Growing up, ‘Jane is difficult’, was the message I heard from my parents. My friend may not have said those words, but I felt the same message behind her irascibility, felt the constructs I had so carefully built, the confidence, the sense of my own value, shrink with every conversation.
As time ticked on, the chasm between us grew bigger. Every exchange felt filled with impatience and frustration (hers), bewilderment and pain (mine). Perhaps she felt much the same bewilderment and pain. Neither of us was able to express it.
I began to dread talking to her.
Women’s friendships can be so very complicated, imperilled by low self-esteem, fear of being disliked, fear of speaking up. If the hard conversations had happened, if one of us had the courage to push the other to talk about what was happening honestly, perhaps things would have ended differently and we could have salvaged our friendship.
‘Women’s friendships can be so very complicated, imperilled by low self-esteem, fear of being disliked, fear of speaking up’
Once the pandemic started, when everything was unknowable, when we were each filled with fear about the future, that self-esteem, so hard-won but so much more fragile than I had known, shattered as we found ourselves less and less able to talk maturely about the things that were causing us pain. We retreated instead to childlike responses of annoyance, anger, withdrawal.
There was clearly no way of continuing to work together, but we both wanted — at least we said we wanted — to preserve the friendship, to go back to the days when we had nothing but adoration and respect for the other.
I begged to meet, convinced we would do better in person rather than the months of Zoom calls. She refused. I sent endless apologies, mea culpa-ing myself into oblivion, building her up, putting myself down. She refused to meet.
I had long before bought her a gift. I drove to her house and hung it on the door knob knowing she would see me on a security camera. She didn’t come out. We were communicating via email only — and because we couldn’t reach an agreement about work, I ended up withdrawing from the project, thinking our friendship was paramount, wanting us to get back to where we used to be.
I never heard from her.
As quickly as she came into my life, she left it. The person with whom I had shared every part of my life for the past few years, was gone. Initially, I expected an email from her, an invitation to meet, but after a week of silence, I knew she had gone. And in her place was grief, pain, and confirmation of my greatest fears: I was indeed worthless.
I had been ghosted. This is the term given for when someone suddenly cuts off all communication without explanation, which has become something of a modern-day phenomenon in relationships conducted in the digital world.
Most associate ghosting with traditional romantic associations, usually among younger people, left baffled and heart-broken when calls and texts are ignored and people find themselves blocked and de-friended on social media.
‘Ghosting is immature and cruel. It’s inexcusable to deny somebody else their voice, their chance, even if it’s just to say goodbye,’ said the writer Freya North
But, as I’ve discovered, ghosting is increasingly common among friends and is devastating, whatever your age and circumstances.
The clinical psychologist Loren Soeiro, wrote of ghosting: ‘The emotional consequences can run from unpleasant to severe. You may think that they’ve finally recognised the things you hate about yourself. Ghosting causes you to question yourself, which can be devastating to your self-esteem.’
The writer Freya North recently spoke of her own experiences of being ghosted by a boyfriend in 2016 on the podcast Postcards From Midlife. It led not only to writer’s block, but to a breakdown.
‘It gave my already fragile self-esteem an absolute walloping. It took me a long time to understand that it wasn’t anything about me. I judged myself on the fact that I had been cancelled out, I had been obliterated with someone else’s permanent marker. It was horrible, definitely one of the catalysts of my breakdown.’
Happily, and thanks to therapy and learning more about the human condition, Freya is not only fine today, but very happily ensconced in a relationship. But, she says: ‘Ghosting is immature and cruel. It’s inexcusable to deny somebody else their voice, their chance, even if it’s just to say goodbye.’
In the absence of an explanation, with no idea what had actually gone wrong (and as a novelist with a somewhat over-active imagination), I did what so many women do, internalised the emotions, blamed myself, spun a web of stories, all of them ending with me being the awful person I feared.
Prior to this, I thought I was a good friend, a good person. But I was questioning everything I had previously believed to be true about myself. I wasn’t kind, thoughtful, or loyal. I must surely instead be selfish, narcissistic, and talentless.
It took ten months for my heart to piece itself back together again after plunging into a deep depression, my days filled with grief, and loneliness. Until one day I looked at a photograph of myself at a book event, with two women I adore, a smile on my face that I hadn’t seen in a very long time.
There you are, I thought. I remember you. And I realised the depression had lifted and I had come back to life, back to myself, my confidence restored.
Many, many months later, I received an apology from her. We met for a walk. I wanted to hear her side, and tell her my experience.
I needed to see how it would feel to see her. Perhaps I knew that on some level I needed closure.
As we walked, I found it hard to look at her and wrapped my arms defensively around my body to try and protect myself as we stumbled back into the destructive behaviours that broke up our friendship.
I tried to explain how I had felt her contempt for me during our working together, and she stopped, dead in her tracks, snapping that she didn’t know what I was talking about.
I shrank again.
Later, I told her how devastating it was when she disappeared. She cried, and I saw how much pain she was in as well. I hugged her, for a moment back in the maternal/older-sister role I had adopted before we worked together.
Afterwards, as we parted in the car park, both of us promising to keep in touch, I realised that seeing her, as painful as it was, had indeed brought me closure, and with that, a semblance of peace.
We haven’t spoken since. I don’t know if we will. I miss her every day, but my confidence was hard-won, and took 50 years to build. Yet during this experience with a friend, who herself lacked confidence in exactly the same ways, it completely evaporated, teaching me how fragile it is.
Now I have it back, now I am at peace, I can only hope she manages to find her own sense of worth. And I hope I never lose it again.