From girl gangs to ghosting: Wells Angels explore female friendship

WI-friends.jpg

“It is often said that it is love that makes the world go round. However, without doubt, it is friendship which keeps our spinning existence on an even keel.”

This quote is an extract from a popular wedding reading, so popular in fact that my Mum read it at my wedding earlier this year. While it’s clear that friendship is a fundamental foundation for a successful romantic relationship, we often overlook or take for granted a different kind of vital - and sometimes life-saving - relationship: female friendship.

In books, films, songs, TV shows, platonic friendship between women usually plays second fiddle to romantic relationships. How often do you hear a song about the passion someone has for their best mate? How many conversations between women on TV shows or in films don’t focus on their relationships with men? (This is such a point of contention, in fact, that there’s an entire test - the Bechdel test - dedicated to measuring whether two named female characters have a conversation that doesn’t involve a man!).

According to friendship expert Dunbar, this disparity goes beyond the media; apparently, we lose two close friends for every new romantic relationship we enter. So why do we put so much emphasis on romantic relationships at the expense of close friendships, and how can we get more out of our arguably as-important relationships with friends?

This was the focus of our July meeting, when Wells Angels welcomed guest speaker Kate Leaver, a journalist and the author of bestselling book, The Friendship Cure, to explore and discuss female friendship. From the moment the Committee announced the theme of the meeting, there was palpable interest among the Angels. This isn’t surprising, given that so many of our members (myself included) openly admit that part of the reason they joined the WI was to make more local gal pals.

Many Angels have moved to Tunbridge Wells from London, sometimes - and definitely in my case - with few connections to the local area. And let’s be honest, making friends as adults is hard. Gone are the days when you could run up to someone in the playground and ask them if they want to play with you (I mean, you could try it. But I think you’d be met with raised eyebrows, and potentially a call from the local social services). It can be awkward and embarrassing to admit that you’re lonely, or to feel like you don’t have many friends nearby. And sometimes, you don’t even realise that’s how you feel (adult life is busy, after all!) - I certainly didn’t until my SO went away for a week and it dawned on me that, at the time, I didn’t know anyone in town that wasn’t his friend.

Before the meeting, we asked the group to put forward questions for the discussion. The questions, which ranged from “how do I maintain friendships when I’ve moved away?” to “how do I let go of toxic friendships?”, revealed not only the significance of friendship in our lives, but also its complexity. As Kate Leaver said during the course of the evening: “Friendships are a source of great joy, but also intense darkness.”. I’m sure every woman can relate to that!

Despite the brevity of the meeting, Kate took us on a whiplash, whirlwind tour of friendship. We explored not only the benefits of friendship, but also the science of friendship (did you know, based on the size of brains, we should have space for 150 friends of varying closeness?), the representation of female friendship in the media (which is so frequently negative - the media love to pit women against each other. Just think Katy Perry vs. Taylor Swift!), the sometimes fine line between feeling included as part of a girl gang or excluded from a clique, the challenges of making friends as an adult (did you know there’s an app for that?), and our own responsibilities as friends. Too often, she said, we take our friendships for granted, and don’t make the effort that such important relationships deserve.

We also tackled some of the more challenging aspects of friendship, from being “ghosted” (when someone stops returning your calls or replying to messages), to gently removing ourselves from toxic friendships that have run their course and now only bring us anxiety or pain. Kate was refreshingly candid about her own difficult experiences, revealing her own anxieties and vulnerabilities, and (I think!) giving us the confidence to voice our own worries and questions.

The evening absolutely flew by, and it really felt like we could have gone on discussing friendship forever. Sadly, we had to wrap it up, but I’m confident that this fascinating meeting left every Angel feeling inspired and with renewed determination to work on their friendships.

It was a great reminder for us all that, when women work together and support each other, great things can happen. Certainly, for me, it made me happier than ever with my decision to join Wells Angels - I’ve met so many strong, inspiring, creative and interesting women in the past year, and it’s wonderful to be part of the ultimate girl gang!

I spoke to a few Angels on the evening to find out why they joined the WI, and their experiences of friendship:

Making friends at the school gate - Natalie

“I settled in Tunbridge Wells when my son started school about two years ago. I’d moved from South East London, and didn’t know anyone who didn’t know my husband. That’s part of the reason I joined the WI - to meet some new people.

“There’s a stigma about school mums and playground bitchiness, but actually I’ve made loads of friends through my son’s school. I think it all starts when your kids go to birthday parties - it’s amazing how much of a bonding experience being stuck in a soft play area with a coffee can be!

“Now, there’s a big group of us from the school, and we do loads of things together, like barbeques. It’s hard making friends afresh, but I’ve been happily surprised by how well I get on with other school families.”

Opposites attract - Rebecca

“I joined the WI earlier this year, through the ballot. The ballot was at 9:30 and I was waiting on my computer at 9:29, poised! I joined because I think Kate and Hannah kick arse - they do the marketing for my side hustle. When they told me places had come up I was like “I have to join this thing they’ve been talking about!”

“My bestie is called Amanda, and I’ve known her since uni when I stumbled into the uni bar and she was talking about sex really loudly, and I thought: “that’s an interesting topic of conversation!”

“I was slightly shyer than she is, or was back then. I’d not been out in the big wide world, and she was so worldly wise, and I just thought we’d get on like a house on fire. We’ve been best friends ever since! I love her because she’s probably the polar opposite of me in many ways, so we see the world completely differently but in a really complementary way. And I KNOW, if the sh*t hits the fan, she’s always be there!”

1000s of miles can’t keep us apart - Tracey

“I joined the WI about a year and a half ago, to meet new people and also because it’s about women supporting women, which is a really good thing to have because we tend to tear each other down instead of supporting each other.

“Because I’m from South Africa originally, I’ve got friends far and wide. For me, it’s those friends that you can not talk to for six months but pick up the phone and pick up exactly where you left off that I love. I’ve got a school friend that I’ve got that relationship with, and I know she’s my go-to person for anything, even though I might not see her for 6-8 months at a time.”