What not to say to a single friend, and how to welcome yet another baby into your social circle… Hadley Freeman explores life’s trickiest dilemmas
How to cheer up your friend who is depressed about being single without lying to them, patronising them or making them feel even worse
One has to begin by making the – I hope – patently obvious statement that there is nothing wrong with being single. Nonetheless, there are times when it can be tough. A person might have been happily single for years, and then one day, for whatever reason, they wake up and the misery goggles are on. Where once staying in and cooking a lovely meal for yourself was a delicious, peaceful treat, now you can only see how all recipes in cookbooks are measured out for two or four people, and you end up having a half-hour tearful argument with yourself in the kitchen about whether that means you should just use half an onion, because it is just you who will be eating the meal and not the happy, normal couple with the amazing sex life that the cookbook is expecting. Just you, you, all alone you.
So, if your single friend admits to feelings of slight loneliness, you are likely to be seeing just the ripple on the surface of a dark and murky swamp. Thus, your first reaction should be extreme flattery. And your next reaction should be complete panic that you don’t let them down and say something that will traumatise them for ever.
Now, a simple fact that is often overlooked is that it is not just women who occasionally feel lonely but, shockingly, men, too. And so, for purposes of gender equality, I shall give our hypothetical lonely friend the name of Charlie.
So Charlie calls you, and the following conversation transpires:
Charlie: “So, um, I guess I’ve been feeling a little down recently because I feel like I’m the only one of my friends who’s not in a relationship.”
You: “Oh honey, don’t worry. Look, [name of your partner] and I will come and meet you for a drink right now, OK?”
You’ve failed before you’ve even begun. If there’s one thing worse than feeling single and lonely, it’s feeling single, lonely and outnumbered. I don’t care how much Charlie likes (or claims to like) your partner. When a friend is feeling lonely, they need one-on-one attention. They do not need you and your perfect relationship sitting opposite them, emanating couple smuggery as you occasionally give each other little knee rubs that are blatantly code for “Don’t worry, darling. I’ll never let you be in the miserable state Charlie’s in now. We’re safe. Shall we go home now and have sex?”
Why on earth would you bring your partner with you anyway? When a friend asks to see you, lonely or not, they mean you in the singular, unless otherwise specified. You may not live in France, but unless a friend specifically says, “You and [name of partner]”, they mean “tu”, not “vous”.
Second sample conversation:
Charlie: “I’m so down. I don’t want to die alone.”
You: “You won’t die alone, I promise. You’re too amazing for that.”
WRONG! You are not psychic, and hoping that Charlie doesn’t die alone is not the same as knowing it will not happen. Also, this suggests that being in a relationship is like winning a beauty pageant and that Charlie’s current single status is somehow a reflection on Charlie when it is, of course, actually a reflection on everyone else for not recognising Charlie’s fabulousness.
Third sample conversation:
Charlie: “I’m so fed up with being single. I dread the weekends.”
You: “But so do I, Charlie! At least you don’t have to spend your weekends with [insert the name of your partner here]’s parents, like I do!”
This is pretty much akin to consoling a friend who just found out that they are infertile by whining about how much your twins cry when they haven’t had their nap. Competitive misery is never an attractive quality. Maybe you’re the kind of person who likes to feel that you’re always suffering the most; if so, stop it, because it’s annoying. More likely you think you’re making someone feel better by telling them that their misery has not just company, but a whole party. This tactic does not make anyone feel better. It makes them irritated.
Fourth sample conversation:
Charlie: “I’m just so tired of being the only single person among my group of friends. Everyone’s getting married and having babies, and I’m always the fifth person on a table of five.”
You: “Is there no one in your office? Have you considered internet dating?”
What is wrong with you? If you think Charlie is so stupid, why are you friends in the first place? I am pretty sure Charlie has had a good look around the office already, and as for internet dating, asking a single person if they have considered it is like asking someone where was the last place they saw their car keys. Maybe some people have not heard of internet dating – rare tribespeople in South America, time travellers from the past – but it is extremely likely that your single friend has, and for various reasons, rejected the possibility. These reasons might include that, for every one story they hear about a friend of a friend of a friend meeting their future spouse on the internet, they’ve heard about 276 stories about someone’s internet date announcing by way of introduction that they have chlamydia.
It is a tragic comment on the state of human development that so many people still don’t understand that when someone comes to whinge to you, they don’t actually want advice about how they could do things better – they just want to whinge. The one thing that will make them feel better is you listening and making sympathetic noises. That’s it.
The exception to this rule in the case of the depressed single friend is if you have something that you can do to fix the situation – such as, say, a lovely single friend with whom you will fix up Charlie. Conversely, if you don’t have anyone with whom to fix up Charlie, unless you think lemon juice is a great remedy for a paper cut, do not say, “Oh, I wish I could help, but I literally do not know any single people: everyone I know is an old married person like me these days”, etc, etc. It’s bad enough feeling single and lonely without feeling like the last single and lonely person on planet earth.
Look, it’s actually not very hard to say the right thing to your depressed single friend: you just have to put a little thought into it and not spew out all the above cliches you’ve heard from movies and your mother. Jettison any idea that being single is a reflection on the single person. Instead, think carefully about why Charlie is single and why you are friends with Charlie, and whether the two issues are related. Chances are, Charlie is a pretty special person, and therein lies your answer to both questions: “Charlie, I’m so sad to see you so sad. I hadn’t realised how lonely you were feeling because you have so many friends who love you. Unfortunately for you, you’re great. Awesome, even. Therefore it’s harder for you to find someone to be with. I hope you know that you really can call me any time, and I always love hanging out with you. Now, what time is it? 11am? Perfect – cocktail time.”
Talking about eating disorders without using a single photo of Kate Moss
You know what’s so brilliant about eating disorders? They’re just so goddamn photogenic! After all, they:
1 mainly involve women and – even better – girls who have a whiff of tragedy about them (there are few things better than a tragic female);
2 are caused by celebrities and fashion models;
3 involve, centrally, a female body, which is already exciting but, on top of that, this female body tends to change its shape quite drastically because of the illness (one of the aforementioned few things that is better than a tragic female is a female body that very visibly changes shape);
4 feature food that is eaten or, in this case, not eaten to obtain that shape;
5 can be illustrated with a photo of Kate Moss, who is, of course, the cause of all eating disorders.
With such a catalogue of attributes, it’s no surprise the media love a good eating disorder story.
There are plenty of memoirs out there from people who’ve had eating disorders, and I have no interest in contributing to that pile. So I’ll just say that I was hospitalised when I was 14 for severe anorexia nervosa and spent the next three or so years in various psychiatric hospitals. I did not look like Kate Moss: I looked, my mother said, like someone from Belsen, which seemed more appropriate for a Jewish girl. In fact, I doubt if I was even aware of Kate Moss’s existence until several years after I first got ill, because I was more interested in Home And Away and Neighbours than supermodels back then. So maybe Erinsborough causes anorexia? Or Alf Stewart?
I lost a lot of important years in hospital, and even after I finally left for good, I lost more time to my two full-time jobs: being anorexic and trying to cover up being anorexic. It was a long time before I admitted it even to my closest friends whom I made after hospitalisation.
Many of the people I was in hospital with have since died, some from starvation, some from ensuing health complications, some from suicide. I was luckier. Eventually, I made a recovery of sorts and fear of food no longer dictates my daily life. But some experiences leave indelible scars, and that’s just the way it is.
I don’t believe personal experience imbues one with expertise. Nor is this a part of my life that I particularly enjoy discussing. However, I find it easier to talk about anorexia than to say nothing when people claim that it is entirely to do with models, or, conversely, that the media are blameless. Both positions are ridiculous and perpetuate the problem. Eating disorders, like any mental illness, do not come from an outside agency, like a germ causes flu, or caffeine causes sleeplessness. They are a means of expressing extreme unhappiness, and it happens that the medium used to express it is food and the body, just as other people use drugs, alcohol or cutting. To suggest that fashion models cause eating disorders is as demeaning as saying beer adverts cause alcoholism, or watching Trainspotting brings on a pesky bout of heroin addiction.
The cultural obsession with thinness is not irrelevant. When I was in hospital, the doctors and my parents would try to assure me that all my fears about fatness and food were the illness talking. Yet when I was finally discharged, I was amazed to find myself in a culture that seemed to disprove all their assurances.
I read articles in women’s magazines that could have been written by me when I was in hospital. There was Elizabeth Hurley saying she’d kill herself were she as fat as Marilyn Monroe. There was one well-known fashion writer describing her horror when her thighs, for the first time, touched after having a baby. I felt like the paranoid in a cheesy horror movie who realises that his worst fears are, in fact, real. There is something very wrong when society condones an attitude reminiscent of the beliefs I held when I was mentally ill. And, for a while, I used this as an excuse not to get better. If models, actresses and other women didn’t eat and obsessed about weight, then why should I have to change? These things didn’t make me ill, but they did make it harder to recover.
The bizarre value attributed to women’s bodies – whether it’s a fashion magazine demanding skinniness of its models or a tabloid newspaper praising a footballer’s wife’s “perfect curves” – can, to someone who is looking for a way to articulate their unhappiness, present, subconsciously, a perfect solution. When one finds it hard to vocalise one’s true feelings, and when one’s own body seems like the medium that speaks the loudest to outsiders anyway, a twisted logic follows. One’s body suddenly looks like the most powerful tool to wield. But it’s an unhappiness from within that makes one need to wield a tool in the first place.
Often, friends and families of people suffering from eating disorders focus on the food, and this is, certainly, the most pressing short-term issue simply for their physical health. But it is not the cure. There are other issues, not least why they got that way in the first place. Getting to one’s target weight is by no means the cure, as relatives of anorexics discover to their dismay. It is the same with cultural factors. They play a part, and many more play a part than the media allow, but they are not the cause. Unfortunately, some things are too ugly to be illustrated with a photo of Kate Moss.
What to expect when your friends are expecting
Congratulations! Your friends have shagged. Now they’re going to have a little sleep-depriving, bank-account-emptying bundle of joy, and it’s time to prepare yourself for the drastic life change you’re about to experience. For some reason, while there are millions of guides out there for expectant parents, there is nothing for the poor, confused, panicky friends of these baby-makers. So put your feet up, set up a personal account at Le Petit Bateau, and get ready to hear the un-pastel-coloured truth.
As soon as the pregnancy has been announced, you will learn, in the most extraordinary detail, tales of your friends’ sex lives. It is traditional that when a woman tells her girlfriends she is pregnant, she must then describe for how long she and her partner were “trying for a baby”. This is a pregnancy euphemism for “having lots of joyless, stressful sex”, and you should appreciate this euphemism, because pretty much every other detail you hear will be related in bloodied detail.
So now that your mind has been filled with images of your friends anxiously rutting away, it’s time to learn more about the results of said rutting. In truth, the pregnancy will likely be the relatively easy stage for you, as it will feel as if your friend has a very long cold in that she tires easily, is off alcohol and occasionally looks a bit green. So, all in all, pretty painless for you. Until the last month. This is called the Gross-Out Stage, as you will now be forced to hear all sorts of medical, biological and gynaecological details that you are strongly urged to block out if you have even the slightest thought that you might like to have a baby yourself one day.
You see, by this point she will be so desperate to get this baby out, so accustomed to her body being treated by doctors as little more than a baby pod, that she will forget that others are not quite as let-it-all-out (so to speak) about what’s going on inside her vagina. So just as she has been told to do pelvic exercises throughout her pregnancy, as her friend, you are advised to do ear-blocking exercises, tightening and releasing the muscles in your ear canals to prevent any information getting through and lodging in your brain for ever.
As the due date approaches and, most likely, is bypassed with no child emerging, your friend will be extremely uncomfortable and understandably desirous of others sharing her pain. She will do this by grossing out everyone around with liberal use of the following words and phrases: “mucus plug”, “discharge”, “leakage”, “dilate”, “speculum”, “vaginal wall”. And just to confirm that pregnancy destroys any connection sex might have to love and desire, your friend is likely to talk about how she now “makes” her partner have sex with her in the hope it will trigger childbirth. When she relates this to you, simply nod and say what a good idea that is. Do not say, “You mean you’re using a penis to smoke out the baby?”
She’s had the baby! And what a lovely little cherub has improbably emerged from her insides. Now, if you think you had heard all there was to hear about your friend’s body by this stage, prepare to lose your innocence. Possibly because your friend cannot believe what her body has proven capable of doing, she will now feel the need to describe the childbirth in varying amounts of detail. Hopefully you will have been doing your ear-blocking exercises and your canal muscles will not let through a single syllable.
For the first few months you will be in the infant stage. It can come as something of a shock to go over to what was once your friend’s lovely, peaceful flat where you’ve had many chatty cups of tea and many ranting glasses of wine, and find a strange mewling creature, covered in babysick, crying in inexpressible confusion, living only from feed to feed, nap to nap – and that’s just your friend.
Although babies are notoriously expensive for the parents, they work out as quite handy little money-savers for the parents’ friends. You might look at the amount you spend on Le Petit Bateau onesies and marvel that not only did you not spend that money on your person, but it was not even on a child who emerged from your person. But that is to take a short-term view. You will hereon socialise with them almost entirely at their house and drink wine – very quietly – in their front room. This might sound a bit of a downer, but think of it this way: over a period of, say, five years, taking into account all the taxis into town you won’t pay for, all the overpriced cocktails you will no longer buy in bars, you will save roughly a million pounds. (Note: this money-saving benefit will disappear when your friends then move out to the suburbs-for-the-space, which will entail you spending £75 just to get to their house from the station in sodding Teddington.)
After about a year, you should have settled into some sort of routine, one that generally involves you becoming very au fait with the napping and feeding schedules of your friends’ children and working your life around them accordingly. You will become so indoctrinated with the thought that ringing a doorbell will lead to chaos that you will find yourself texting your parents when you are outside their front door, even though the last baby they had in their house was, in fact, you.
Now, as these people are your friends, presumably they are not total dicks who will talk to you as if their lives are inherently superior to your life simply because they didn’t use contraception one night. But even non-dickish new parents will be consumed with a concern to which you cannot quite connect. Whatever conversation you have with them from here on, you will notice that their eyes frequently dart elsewhere. While they may be saying, “Oh, that is fascinating – please tell me about your latest office crush”, their thoughts will be, Oh my God, has he swallowed a pound coin?! Has he stuck his fingers in a plug socket?! Has he been kidnapped by Eta?!
Simultaneously, you’ll hear yourself talking about the latest chaos in your life and your heart will sink at what a cliche you sound – the messy, childless friend, ho ho! – and you’ll know, too, how silly your concerns are compared with your friend’s constant vigilance to keep a small person from injuring themselves. Yet they are still your concerns, and they were once your friend’s, too.
Look, this is not an easy life change you’re about to go through, but ultimately, it is a wonderful one. Your friend is having a baby! This means, if you like babies, you can now go round and play with it whenever you like without having to do the 3am feeding or bottom-wiping. And if you don’t like babies, seeing how unbelievably tired your friend is every time you pop round and then backing away in horror as you notice a dollop of baby poo hanging off the cuff of her bathrobe will only serve to vindicate your decision. This is what we call a win-win situation, for both you and your friend.
Handy hint! When your friends then have their second baby, accept that you will probably not hear from them for at least the next five years..
Ten signs you are having a non-awesome date (possibly autobiographical)
• The date ends so early you stop off in Topshop on your way home, slightly drunk and buy a dress.
• As you walk into the restaurant for this first date, his face falls. “Oh,” he says. “I thought you were the other one.”
• “I don’t mean to sound racist but…”
• Somewhere in between the first and second course, it transpires that he once slept with your sister.
• You turn up, as primped and preened as a shih tzu at Crufts, only to realise he not only saw this as just a friendly coffee, but brought his girlfriend along to boot.
• He starts crying halfway through and you find yourself reassuring him that you’re sure he’ll get back together with his ex-girlfriend as they’re obviously meant to be together (yes, just like Steve Guttenberg does at the beginning of Three Men And A Baby – exactly that. You are Steve Guttenberg).
• “You want to go home now? Man, Jews always leave early, don’t you?”
• You have to wash your face when you get home because it is sticky with his slobbery saliva from when he licked your face. Literally, licked your face.
• “You’re how old and you’re still single? Tick tock tick tock!”
© Hadley Freeman 2013
This is an edited extract from Be Awesome, by Hadley Freeman, published next week by Fourth Estate at £12.99. To order a copy for £9.99, including free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop, or call 0330 333 56846.