Tag Archives: friendship

Old friends

A few weeks ago I unexpectedly ran into two people who I haven’t seen in a year. The year before that I only saw them a few times in total. But up until two years ago, they were part of my very closest small friend group.

It was very strange seeing them again. A lot has changed in all of our lives. I certainly feel like I’m very different to who I was when I was close with them. But at the same time, talking to them again made me feel like almost no time had passed since the last time.

Running into an old friend is a very unfamiliar experience for me. I’m pretty young anyway, so I haven’t had much time to develop and then lose touch with friends. I’ve also hardly had any ‘friends’ in the first place. Most times when I’ve lost touch with people (like when I left primary school, and then when I left secondary school), it’s been a relief to have them out of my life. But losing touch with someone who I actually have largely positive memories and feelings towards – that’s never really happened before.

We lost touch because we all left college and were no longer seeing each other daily just out of habit. Everyone became busy with their new things and meeting up became more like a chore than anything else. It’s been two years since college ended and I still have no idea how I actually feel about the situation. Am I sad? Do I miss them? Do I care? I’m not sure. I really did enjoy spending time with them when we were close. But I don’t feel like I desperately want to spend time with them now. We would have very little to talk about, not much in common, and no shared reference points.

So, were we only friends because we happened to be at college and school together? It can’t be quite that simple, because there are plenty of people who I went to school and college with, but I certainly didn’t have ‘plenty’ of friends. Is it just that we happened to be in more classes together? Is it just because they took pity on me and invited me to sit with them at lunch when they saw me by myself? (Yes, that really is how we first met).

If we have other things in common apart from college, then why have we lost touch? Surely if we really enjoy each other’s company, we should all still be putting in just as much effort to see each other as we always used to (even if external circumstances made that rare or more difficult). But that’s not the case either. When we left college, I pretty much accepted that we were going to lose touch, and soon gave up on trying to initiate contact. Most of the others seemed to do the same thing.

Did we stop getting in touch so that we wouldn’t be saddened by letting it happen organically? I don’t think that was the reason for me. I knew it was going to happen sooner or later, so I was resigned to the potential sadness involved, regardless of when or how we lost touch.

In the last few years, I have increasingly developed online friendships. These are a very real and important experience for me, but they also cause me even more confusion about the definition and purpose of friendships. If I made friends with the school friends at least partly because we were at school together, then why did I make friends with people online? We certainly haven’t been forced together by circumstance. Some aspects of getting to know each other online are extremely inconvenient: geographical distance, timezone differences, lack of easy ways of getting in contact. And yet it’s happened anyway, and some of my online friendships are much closer and more significant to me than in-person friendships of the past. Why? I don’t know! I don’t understand any of it! What are friends, anyway?!

My instinct is that my online friendships formed because we had a lot in common. Online profiles make it really easy to summarise your interests, identities, and personality. A significant number of my online friendships happened because I read someone’s profile and then sent them a half-joky message saying “We have lots in common, we should be friends!”. That kind of thing can’t really happen in-person. Instead you have to try to subtly collect information about a person until you can decide whether you will be capable of getting along. I guess some people might find that easy (or even enjoyable?), but I certainly don’t.

I suppose it’s also easier to reach a wider pool of people online. It’s easier to narrow down the type of people you’re exposed to by your own interests and preferences. So that makes it possible to be a lot more picky. If I wanted to be friends with autistic people at college, there would have been maybe two or three people who I was aware of. If I want to meet autistic people online, all I have to do is write a bit about myself and I end up surrounded by a community of autistic people.

So the friends I make online are likely to be more closely suited to me than people I meet in person. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel sad about losing touch with my college friends. They were really good friends at the time, and were very important to me. But they were important as my school and college friends. Now we aren’t at school or college anymore, I don’t need school and college friends – and neither do they. They have their own new friends now: university friends, work friends. And I have my own new friends too, friends that are suited to my life as it is now.

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Binary trust and friendship

My ability to trust people seems to be binary. I don’t have the capacity for complex in-between levels of trust or closeness, like “acquaintance”, “friend”, or “close friend”. Everyone in my life can be sorted into one or the other.

By default, strangers start off as ‘untrustworthy’. The untrustworthy state has certain characteristics:

  • I don’t automatically believe things they say, unless it’s supported by evidence or by a ‘trustworthy’ person.
  • I don’t expect them to honour commitments or keep promises.
  • I don’t tell them anything about myself that I consider private, personal, or important.

It takes a long time for someone to become trustworthy. I only started properly trusting my newest friend from college after almost two years of spending time together every day. That in-between period consists of me being cautious and guarded, while observing the other person to gather evidence of trustworthiness. When I eventually decide to trust them:

  • I assume they are telling the truth and believe the things they say.
  • I expect them to honour commitments and keep promises.
  • I will tell them anything about myself that I want to.

I think my binary trust state is a result of a combination of different things. Part of it is probably autistic black-and-white thinking, part of it is having different social skills and standards to NT people. And another part is probably a learned defence mechanism, as a result of having so many negative social experiences in the past.

When I like someone, I am immediately desperate to get to know them. I don’t see the point in waiting around with small talk, when I already know that I like them enough to make friends. But this method doesn’t tend to work with NTs, because they get freaked out or confused by it and things go wrong. So as a result, I’ve taught myself to suppress that urge, and instead to be very cautious in order to protect myself.

Binary trust also protects me from good relationships which go wrong. If I’ve classified someone as trustworthy and they break that trust, they are demoted permanently. This happened with a secondary school friend after I found out they lied to me.

The interesting thing is that my trust state for someone doesn’t have that much of an impact on what the relationship actually looks like from outside. When I stopped trusting that secondary school friend, we didn’t stop being friends. They probably didn’t even realise anything had changed from me! I was still happy to spend time with them and have fun together. I had just lowered my expectations, so I no longer believed things they said without evidence, or expected them to keep commitments, or told them anything more about myself that was important.

Similarly, when I eventually classified my college friend as trustworthy, they probably didn’t notice much difference. I had changed my rules for my interactions, but the rules themselves aren’t the only things which define the interaction.

I think the main reason for this is that I’m an extreme social mirrorer. When I made my secondary school friends, it happened because they took pity on me standing around by myself. They immediately started treating me as a friend, and so I reciprocated. Even though it was still another year before I properly classed them as trustworthy, my behaviour matched theirs straight away.

Similarly, I mirrored my college friend. But in this case, they were extremely reserved, and so I was too. Which made it even harder for us to become friends! And when I eventually decided they were trustworthy, things didn’t change much because I was still mirroring them and being reserved. It just meant that if situations arose in which I could e.g. tell them something about myself, I was allowed to do that under my new rules.

It’s only in recent years that I’ve noticed this binary trust state. I’m not sure if that’s because it’s a relatively recent development, or because I’ve just never been aware of it. Probably a mix of the two. It’s strange to think that other people don’t do this, though. It’s hard to imagine being able to have complicated rules that are different for every person in your life. How would you keep track?!

Social catalyst

I often find myself acting as a social catalyst. I’m good at bringing other people together, smoothing things over, improving people’s relationships with each other. I end up as an impartial outsider who helps out the social group without really being part of it.

Here are some examples of times I was a social catalyst:

  • When I was younger, I made friends with two people who were already ‘best friends’ with each other. When one of them was upset, I would immediately offer to leave the two of them alone to talk, because I knew they didn’t trust me as much and might not have wanted me around.
  • When I’m out with my friends, I’m often the one who interacts with strangers like waiters or salespeople on behalf of the group, because they’re often uncomfortable to talk to them.
  • When my friend was upset, I offered to go and send her partner to talk to her, because I didn’t know what I could say to help – but I just wanted her to feel better.

The general trend is that I prioritise the happiness of other people (or the group as a whole), over my own – even when they directly contradict one another. If someone is uncomfortable or upset, I often don’t know how to help. But I still want to help, so I try to find another way to make them feel better And usually the next most obvious response is to bring them another person who does know how to help, instead of me.

It’s quite difficult to write about, because the situation involves two directly competing urges in a single situation. One urge is to stay, socialise, enjoy the company of the other person – because I like them. The other urge is to alter the situation to make the other person happier – because I care about them.

In reality, I almost always end up choosing the second option. The first option might seem appealing but I know that I would find it difficult and uncomfortable anyway. I won’t know how to help, I’ll feel bad about that, and I’ll end up unable to enjoy any interaction with the person in the end. So I choose the second option. I give up my own chance at an enjoyable interaction (because I know the chance of it actually being successful or enjoyable is very slim), in order to make the other person happy without me. The options are either: both of us are unhappy and uncomfortable, or: one of us (me) is unhappy, and the other is (possibly) cheered up.

It’s taken me a long time to see that this is a thing that I do, and to be able to actually describe it to myself. I’m not sure what I should do now that I recognise it, though.