For many of us, our formative relationships play a big part in how we approach love. Skills gained and lessons learned in our early romances are important, but recent research suggests that the biggest influence on our adult relationships isn’t our first boyfriend or the example of our parents. Instead, experts suggest that the friendships formed in our teenage years are a much more significant indicator of how we approach our adult relationships.
Many of us will nod along empathically to this news — after all, our teenage friendships can be some of the most all-consuming of our lives. For those tumultuous and hormone-fueled years, our friendships are often as dramatic and intense as any love affair. Simultaneously, they can also be stability in a world that we are still just beginning to navigate. They are our often our first opportunity to experience the complexities of relationships outside of our family and to truly get to know someone who doesn’t have to love you unconditionally — but maybe will anyway.
The skills that we learn in these relationships — communication, compromise, and intimacy — lay the groundwork for our future love life. The thought that disastrous flings and school dance makeouts are much less important than our school friends is a heartwarming one. But what if your teenage friendships were less positive? What does this mean for your love life?
When I imagine teenage friendships, I see an idealized version: a small but closely-bonded group of adolescents who eat lunch together, talk about their crushes, and furtively sneak each other tampons when one of them gets caught out. For me, things were a little different. I moved to a new neighborhood at age 11 and was enrolled in a school where friend groups had already been tightly formed. I was an outsider, and soon retreated into myself, spending most of my early teenage years shy and largely friendless.
When I finally formed a friendship with a girl who lived a few blocks away from me, it felt like being saved. In the way of many teenage friendships, it was rhapsodic. We spent almost all our time together, ducking in and out of each other’s houses, waiting for each other outside of the school gates, and killing long weekends walking the streets of our area deep in conversation. We were to witness each other’s first kisses, the first time we got drunk on cheap alcopops, and the first time we had to think about our futures. We were inseparable.
When I finally formed a friendship with a girl who lived a few blocks away from me, it felt like being saved.
However, like most relationships, things weren’t always as heady as they seemed. There was a strange and toxic power dynamic that came with my loneliness and subsequent reliance on my friend which she toyed with endlessly. She would frequently be cruel, making snide comments about me or siding with others when they joked about me being a nerd. When she got a boyfriend at age 15, she once brutally told me that she didn’t want to be my friend anymore, because she wanted to spend time with him and I was irritating her by always “hanging around.” I still remember the sharp shock of abandonment. The fear of rejection has stayed with me ever since.
Still, our friendship somehow limped on until I went to college. We stayed in touch, her visiting once and being endlessly derisive of my new home and friends. We would arrange to see each other when I was back at my parent’s place and she would be disinterested, flicking through her phone while I tried to keep the conversation going. Our friendship had clearly run its course and yet, in a pattern that I have replicated in almost all my relationships since, I felt that if I worked hard enough I could fix things. She had been an important part of my life and I wasn’t yet willing to let go.
Predictably, it was her who finally called an end to our friendship — in perhaps the most painful way possible. On one return visit home I found that my messages and calls went unanswered. Although there was no word for it back then, I was experiencing the now dreaded phenomenon of ghosting. We never talked again.
Our friendship had clearly run its course and yet, in a pattern that I have replicated in almost all my relationships since, I felt that if I worked hard enough I could fix things.
If our formative friendships are the most significant influence on our adult relationships, then perhaps this break-up explains the flawed dating behavior that I still exhibit today. The dread that I felt back then, when my messages went read but unresponded to, has stuck with me with me throughout my 20s. It has bled into my love life, leading me resolutely unwilling to let my guard down with anyone. I now recognize my reliance on my former friend and am determined not to let it happen again. After all, if someone you have grown up with can leave you without ceremony, then you can bet that some guy from Tinder who’s taken you on a few dates in the height of cuffing season can too. Being left on read still leaves me feeling jittery, and I’ll bolt at the slightest suggestion of waning interest – better to leave first than to feel that same sense of rejection that I did all those years ago.
I am perpetually envious of women who still count their childhood friends as among their closest companions. Women who visit their hometowns for the weekend and post pictures of grinning groups of women with gushing captions. Women who pick bridesmaids who they used to play pretend weddings with back in recess who now get to be part of the real thing. Women whose friends will remember the first time they had their heart broken or their high school crush. I wouldn’t change my amazing circle of friends for anything, but I can’t help but feel that there must be something profoundly reassuring in experiencing that kind of stability, to have that kind of constant no matter what. There is a confidence that comes with not having been let down that I am painfully aware that I lack.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever get over the end of that friendship. Years have passed and it rarely crosses my mind today, but the seeds of doubt that it planted have grown roots that are difficult to turf out. When I first read the report suggesting that this could have a bearing on my relationships forever, I was initially concerned. After all, besides a few notable exceptions, many of my adult relationships have ended disastrously. Could it be that the baggage I was bringing in from my past was to blame?
I’m not sure if I’ll ever get over the end of that friendship.
The more I thought about it the more I realized that we can’t necessarily judge our ability to love based on our romantic relationships. Yes, I have yet to find one person that I want to spend forever with, but that doesn’t mean that my life isn’t full of incredible, fulfilling, and stable relationships. Many of my friendships now span a decade of love, support, and plenty of tequila shots. I have friends that I can call up in the middle of the night, friends that I can binge watch shows with, and friends that I can dance on the tables of seedy bars with until we get kicked out. I see in my friendships all of the qualities that I know will make me a great partner someday — my caring nature, my loyalty, and my ability to put someone else first. We all have baggage, and mine hasn’t stopped me experiencing love in a myriad of forms.