When I look at the history of my life so far, it goes like this: the Education Era (1987-2006), the Burgeoning Career Age (2006-2013), and now the Hen Weekend Years (2013-?). Every few months, 15 or 20 or 40 of us get together, in hired houses in Oxford or Bristol or Brighton, to decimate cases of prosecco. I’m not complaining. For me, these experiences have been lovely and life-affirming; they send me home exhausted, but with my heart brim-full. I love a party.
I’m stating that upfront, in case the next thing I have to say sounds misanthropic. Here it is: more is not always merrier, and friendship is not a group activity. Socialising en masse is wonderful, but every profound bond I’ve ever had has grown out of time spent one-on-one.
To follow a conversation down an idiosyncratic, meandering route shaped on either side by the two of you: that is one of the finest rewards of friendship
The best conversations – the ones that you think about for days or years afterwards – don’t come easily or immediately. Get together with a friend or a gang of friends and there is the headline material to cover first: “How’s Dave?” “Any news on the flat?” “Are you still having problems with your boss?” You can go home after that, and it’s like you’ve snacked on crisps all night: enjoyable, but not that filling.
With a group, this is usually the end point – but chat with one friend for an hour or two, and something opens up. Under the gentle interrogation of a back-and-forth, new thoughts begin to float to the surface, and emerge from your lips unrehearsed. “Something really weird happened at a family lunch the other day,” you find yourself saying, though you hadn’t really planned to tell anyone. Swimming through topics, an hour later your friend confides, “Sometimes I think I’m in the wrong career.”
These ruminations, shared like secret treasure with one person alone, are the stuff that makes a real connection. A good friendship has humour and shared interests and similar values, yes, but these are all circumstantial – happy coincidences of where you both come from and how you crossed paths. The most meaningful pairings, for me, also have moments of vulnerability and support – of being able to say “We’ve been trying for a baby for almost a year,” and have the person opposite you offer the full weight of their attention.
It’s not always easy to say something like that in a group – even if your friendship group, like one of my closest circles, is five wonderful women who’ve known each other a very long time. How can you give voice to a tentative thought when you have to address five pairs of eyes in turn? Intimacy works best in twos.
Among the most important people I’ve met in recent years is my friend Tor, and from the very early days, our friendship has been built on long dinners. When I say goodbye to her, I often have the sensation that we could have kept talking for another four or five hours – even though it’s 2am already. Sometimes we get together with others too, but I guard our one-on-one outings carefully, because they give me intellectual and emotional sustenance. To follow a conversation down an idiosyncratic, meandering route shaped on either side by the two of you: that is one of the finest rewards of friendship.
Of course, it’s time-consuming to see your loved ones individually, and there are periods – sometimes painfully long periods – when it’s just not going to happen. You’re working 12-hour days, or your babysitter is bankrupting you, and rounding everyone up at once to remind each other that you all still exist is the best immediate solution. But it’s not the same thing; it doesn’t satisfy in the same way. It helps to keep a friendship alive, but it won’t feed it up and make it stronger.
With some relationships, a long-distance phone call twice a year will do the trick; others can be maintained by an occasional walk while your baby sleeps in the pushchair. If you’re lucky, you can fit in a whole evening together, or even an annual holiday – and if you’re really stuck, you can drag your friend on an Ikea errand and then drive the longest way home. Whatever you do though, don’t invite all your mutual friends, however much you both love them. The most important conversations are duologues, wherever and however they happen – and a friendship only admits two.