You don’t hear about the hours they spend memorising freckles. You don’t hear about the time they bought a pair of socks from Joy The Store at the train station – full price! £8 on a pair of socks! – so that you wouldn’t have to re-wear a pair. You don’t hear about the picturesque night they practised slow dancing when they got in from the club, an endeavour that ended with their first perfect kiss timed miraculously with a Bright Eyes chorus at sunrise, a moment so utterly cheesy it could have been a scene in a John Green novel.
You, the friend, miss all of these delights. You don’t hear about the simple pleasures, the loveliness of falling together with somebody, becoming enmeshed and entangled and engrossed. Instead, you get the slanted perspective shaded with doubt and worry. There’s no middle of the night text about a perfect shag but you’re first in line to hear about the argument that sprang up out of nowhere; the commitment issues; the failure to stick to vegetarianism; the ex-girlfriend drama. The all-night prang-out when one party accidentally blue ticked a message about what time they’ll come home. The sturm and drang of deleting Tinder.
Naturally you develop a dislike of the lover. Not just a passing unease but a deep-seated aversion, a calculated disapproval. Are they really right for your cherished darling friend? Your beautiful pal, who you’ve shared endless pints and god knows how many hilarious hours with, the same friend who just last week was so upset when this “amazing” lover went hot and cold on them. Does your friend really need or want all this hassle? Surely they deserve somebody more beautiful, more intelligent, more witty and more exciting. They deserve to travel a bump-free path, a sunny yellow brick road, a prang-free zone.
In one regard, the role of the friend is to sniff out the danger. To be ready with the objections and if necessary, smash the rose-tinted glasses. You guard your loved-up pal against the warning signs they miss when they’re too busy enjoying the ride. As a friend, we’re a step away from the picture and can see the cracks in the canvas a little easier. We know our friends better than we know ourselves. We recognise the upset on the other end of the phone for what it is and call it out with honesty and love (sometimes mistaken for envy) as our motivations: you always go for the needy girls. You need to learn to value yourself. You always rush things. Don’t let her pressure you into moving. Don’t let him stop you from going out.
In another light, those early flummoxes in a relationship are not a hazard to perceive, but a test. Not just a test of the lovers: of course they’ll work it out! One day they’ll have a flock of gorgeous children and an immaculate townhouse; fuck them off, they don’t need any testing. No, the early-stage fracas serves another purpose: it tests the friend. It asks: what kind of friend are you? What relationship do we have?
When you doubt the new love affair, your friend turns the questioning to you. Are you still my friend when I ignore your judgment and I stick with this girl? Are we mates when I ignore your message that I’m “getting into something bad”? Will you respect me when you seriously doubt my judgement? When I move in with her and away from you? And… how close are we? Will you let this lover of mine into your life, even though you nurse a deep-seated resentment that I do not understand? If something goes wrong in my relationship, can I still turn to you? Will you be unbiased and understanding when I date a girl so far removed from you and our relationship and all the things we used to share? When my lover changes me into a better, stronger person , will you remember to forget the shit I did in the past? Will you catch up if I leave you behind?
What can they do, the friends on the sideline? Do they look away, avert our gaze, ignore the fact they no longer hang out? Wait for the couple to break up and come charging in with the tissues and boxsets when it inevitably goes wrong? Or do the friends look in, faced full on with love and optimism, quash our fears and say good luck? We wait on the sidelines, biding our time, taking the talks we’re offered, and wondering.