University provides the optimal conditions for intimate friendships. When you’re sharing an ant-infested student house – living, eating, sleeping and breathing within a hair’s breadth of one another – emotional closeness is an organic by-product of physical closeness. It’s easy, largely sub-conscious, and almost default. Without making any real effort to find out, you become tacitly aware of the most intricate minutiae of your friends’ everyday thoughts and habits. By week two you can recount with pinpoint accuracy Sally’s rationale for not endorsing the crushed avocado fad, know how much milk everyone takes in their tea to the nearest millilitre, and recognise with absolute certainty who has just walked past your room by nothing but the pace of their footsteps. It is an intimacy that otherwise takes years to achieve formed in a finger snap, and it is magic.
If you are really lucky, the intimacy of those initial bonds endure and strengthen throughout your time at university, and well beyond. I myself was under the impression that I may be one such lucky person. But what I hadn’t anticipated, is just how many of my female friends seemed to view this period as what journalist Dolly Alderton so aptly described as ‘the warm-up act for the main event’ of a relationship. More specifically – a romantic one.
It is a subconscious state of mind that strikes cruelly arbitrarily to burst your bubble of intimate friendships and university domestic bliss – and it often goes a little something like this. Your friend casually mentions another Tinder date they have planned, with the usual eye-rolling qualifiers that it will probably amount to nothing. Even when the night arrives, you chortle conspiratorially over cups of £5 corner-shop wine at the ‘waste of makeup’ you’re sure it will once more turn out to be. They leave with a mock-grimace, promising to catch up and share details first thing the following day. Most likely, you do catch up the next morning. They tell you it went better than expected, that he was actually quite nice, and that they have plans to meet again. They do meet again, more and more. Eventually she admits she thinks it’s going somewhere, and the pair of you are abuzz with shared joy and excitement for her newfound happiness.
But then the catch ups become fewer and fewer. He starts coming over – a lot. On more occasions than not, her evenings are spent cocooned with him in her bedroom. For days at a time, you don’t hear much more from her than a tinkling laugh through a closed door as you pass by in the corridor. Messages she once replied to in minutes are left unopened for weeks. Arrangements you made months prior are cancelled last minute in place of vague dinner plans or ‘forgotten’ date nights. Her free time becomes dedicated to a seemingly greater ‘us’ than friendship could ever have provided. Soon enough, you find yourself reflecting slightly bitterly on the past few months’ events and tribulations in your own life, of which she is now blissfully unaware.
It is a sombre image, certainly. But it is also a familiar one for most women. For me, this fish-slap realisation happened to hit in the final year of university, but I believe the unfortunate reality is that this ‘friendship as warm-up act’ mentality is one that will be played out at some stage in the majority of women’s lives. I say “women’s”, because this isn’t a re-shuffling of priorities that I often observe to the same extent among men. Of course, it is not inconceivable that this disparity, at least in part, comes back down to science – to evolutionary differences between men and women. Women, with their more limited supply of eggs, long gestation period, and subsequent responsibilities for child rearing, are under greater biologically-driven pressure to hold on to romantic partners. Evolutionarily speaking, this sort of pressure is not shared equally by men, who may well feel instead the remnants of an inclination to ‘spread the seed’ as widely as possible to ensure the perpetuation of their genetic line. When considered in combination with prevalent romantic narratives forcing the notion that life isn’t complete until a man ‘chooses you’ down the throats of young girls with a sugary-sweet pink spoon, it is not entirely surprising that women so often fall into the trap.
But, crucially, it doesn’t need to happen at all. We get out of friendships what we put in. Intimacy like that you share with your housemates in the first years of university may feel like it just organically occurs, but it takes work to maintain. Not an arduous slog, but the smallest of cumulative gestures of the sort that reward and nourish your own soul as much as the recipient’s. Romantic relationships and friendships are not mutually exclusive or either/ors, they can happily co-exist, and both are vital. So, I implore you – make the effort to preserve and cherish your friendships as you do your relationships. Treated carefully, they may well be the ones to carry you through to your dying day.