It took me 26 years to learn how to be a good girlfriend. Not to the men I've dated, but to the incredible women throughout my life that I've been lucky enough to call my friends.
From the time I was a small child, I glamorized the notion of romantic relationships, always chasing the affection and approval of boys. I found that being in relationships came naturally to me: I liked having another half to talk over important things with and I was a self-professed love junkie, constantly seeking the rush of endorphins that accompanied the beginning stages of dating.
Throughout my early twenties, I accumulated a few close female friends, but we always tended to be closer when I was single. Ladies' nights and last-minute dinner plans were easy to accommodate when neither of us had a significant other, but the second a man entered my life I'd become flaky and unreliable, always canceling plans if it meant getting to see my boyfriend.
It was as if I didn't know how to handle being in a relationship and being a good friend at the same time. Most of the men I was so eager to ditch my friends for were awful. They treated me poorly, were emotionally unavailable and never accepted me for who I really was -- unlike the supportive women in my life.
After repeating the same toxic patterns with men over and over, I spent a few solid years in therapy untangling my codependent tendencies and was happily single for a few years. My friendships thrived again. I was no longer part of a "we" and was enjoying a life I was creating myself.
During this time, one friend in particular became my rock; I'll call her Anna. Anna and I talked about everything together, often laughed until we cried, and told each other our innermost secrets. From the time we woke up to the time we went to sleep, we were in near constant communication with one another. Even if we couldn't physically be in the same place, we'd watch our favorite shows simultaneously (the trashier the better) and text about the outcomes. For about two years, we always had each others' backs, and rarely fought or argued about anything major.
Until, love junkie that I am, I found myself in a relationship again for the first time since therapy. A healthy one, no less, that had me head over heels. He was smart, caring and loved me for who I really was; I finally felt like I had met my match. As our relationship progressed, I realized we had a strong foundation and a breakup wasn't in sight. Though a small part of me knew it wasn't right, I immediately fell back into my old habit of ditching plans with my friends to make time for my relationship.
At the time, my boyfriend had an unconventional work schedule that meant we'd normally only see each other on the weekends. Because of this, I wasn't around much to see my friends Friday through Sunday -- including Anna. I'd end up making tentative plans with her, which, most of the time, I'd flake out on if my boyfriend could unexpectedly hang out.
Anna was single at the time and I could tell all the hours I was spending with my boyfriend were making her a little annoyed. Carelessly, I attributed her frustration to jealousy or neediness, still not grasping that -- just like relationships -- my friendships needed care and attention to thrive. Feeling defensive after she expressed frustration at my flakiness one day, I asked her to come along to a party my boyfriend and his friends would be at. I can be flexible, I thought. We can all just hang out at once.
That night, Anna got upset at the behavior of some of the guys who were there, thinking they were acting less than gentlemanly; one was apparently making some insensitive comments to her that were getting under her skin. Anna, coincidentally, was less than sober. We've all had moments when we've had too much to drink (myself included) but for some reason I couldn't handle how emotional she was getting. I felt embarrassed and I snapped, deciding I needed to cut her out of my life.
That wouldn't seem to be the normal reaction of someone who knows how to handle the ups and downs of friendship, right? That's because I truly didn't.
As a kid, I moved around a lot, switching schools several times before graduation. I never really had a big group of girlfriends who all knew each other, or women who had known me for decades -- which is the polar opposite of the sorority-sister bonds we're presented with on TV and in movies. Carrie Bradshaw and her three besties did a lot of good for our societal conversations about sex and gender, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel weird at times for not having a tight-knit wolf pack of women I brunched with every Sunday, swilling back cosmopolitans while discussing sexual positions and bikini waxes.
The friendships I did have somehow never felt up to par with my own self-imposed expectations of what a group of girlfriends should be like. Not because the women in my life weren't supportive, creative, wonderful people, but because I was insecure about maintaining a large group of female friends in the first place.
Throughout each of my moves as a kid, and later on as an 18-year-old lost soul looking for a continuous new start, I got used to the notion that people were replaceable. You had to have that mentality to not be endlessly heartbroken. During my post-grad wanderings -- which found me in Chicago, Minneapolis and Los Angeles -- I kept believing something better was waiting around the corner: new friends, a new job, a new boyfriend.
What I couldn't see at the time of my fight with Anna was that at this stage in my life, I was actually putting down roots. Life was going well, I was centered and happy, yet I was still behaving as if nothing was really permanent, including my friendships.
The day after our fight, Anna apologized for her behavior, but I was furious. Not being able to see my part in the events leading up to that night, I told her that her behavior was unacceptable, and the more she apologized and seemed genuinely surprised at my anger, the angrier I became, claiming she had issues with alcohol (which she didn't) and that I couldn't handle the pressure she put on our friendship. We didn't speak for nearly a year.
For the first few months, I felt justified in my reaction. I told myself I didn't need a "toxic" friendship, just like I hadn't needed the toxic relationships with men in my early twenties. I was completely blind to the fact that the toxic part of my friendship with Anna was me. All my years of therapy had taught me how to have healthier romantic relationships, but they hadn't made me a better friend.
Last summer, I attended four weddings, nearly back to back. At each one, the bride seemed to have five or six best friends as bridesmaids -- girls who had known each other since kindergarten or middle school or college -- some landmark time in their lives when they leaned on each other for daily support. These girls seemed to pledge their lives to one another. These girls made toasts that brought tears and laughter to everyone in the room, making fun of each other's annoying habits because they knew each other so well.
Me, I replaced friends when I found flaws in them, afraid they would see my own. These bonds of sisterhood at the altar were almost as beautiful as the weddings themselves. I realized that while I was happy in my relationship, what was missing from my life were the meaningful friendships I had turned my back on. I began to see that it didn't matter how many girlfriends I had or how long I had known them- - what mattered was that we were there for each other.
Over time, Anna let me back into her life, but I still haven't forgiven myself for being so careless with a friendship. None of us are finished products; all of us have lessons to learn and crosses to bear. But if there's one simple thing I wish I had known sooner, it's that the people who love you in spite of your flaws are people you should cherish, forgive and strive to make happy, whether they are your boyfriend, your best friend or your mother. Relationships of all kinds will have their ups and downs, but working things out and making the other person a priority is the only way to make them stronger.
It took me 26 years to learn how to be a good girlfriend. Not the kind that goes on dates with men, but the kind that answers her phone when her friends need her, who offers to help without being asked, who sticks with someone even when disagreements arise and who prioritizes the people who care about her. As that clichéd Carrie Bradshaw once said: "I am someone who is looking for love." Someone who still wants meaningful connections outside of her fantastic, loving relationship. Someone who is trustworthy. Someone who doesn't write people off. Someone who will carve out time to be fully present with you. Someone who cherishes the girlfriends in her life. Their affections are the ones I'm chasing now.