“I’m just not a girls’ girl” is a dirty phrase.

It stands out in a world where strong female friendships are the lauded as the foundation of feminist solidarity and anything less is a result of a bitchy personality or an overriding desire for male attention. A world where female friendships are the pinnacle of non-familial relationships, often heralded even over romantic connections; the squad, BFFLs, girl gang. It makes sense, in many ways. The bonds created between two women can be unbreakable, powerful and incomparable – you only need to stop and think about the fact that our periods can sync within months of close proximity if you want an apt metaphor for this.

They can be unbreakable, but they can also be incredibly hard to forge for some.

Assuming that women who find themselves with more close male friends do so by choice is a mistake. Doing so, whether consciously or not, creates a void between women; the girl’s girl, and the boy’s girl. It creates a space where anxieties about likeability (a cursed word that women are so often measured against, more often than men certainly) can foster. This divide seems at odds with the basic goals of uniting women and plays into the hands of catty stereotypes.

When I was younger, I floated my way through much of secondary school with an ever-evolving group of mainly female friends; there was always a group sat at our table at lunch time, you could always find a few willing to go to the cinema on a weekend, and there was always someone to pass notes to in lessons. Looking back, things were easier then in many ways. Friendships were many and fleeting; within a matter of months (or, in some cases, weeks) everything could change. There was a certain ease in that.

As I grew older, I found that friendships felt more cemented and steadfast, and while this was a wonderful thing in many ways, it also terrified me. I found safety within my ‘group’ of female friends. A set of women who came as a unit; whilst any individual meeting would most likely see members missing, the friendship remained one that was centred around community, rather than on a one-on-one basis.

When you see a powerful female friendship presented in the media, most often in films, the most enviable quality of their relationships is usually this intense emotional bond between them, one that often rivals any familial or romantic connection. This usually centres around an almost total removal of boundaries with no secrets: nothing is held back.

And that sounds wonderful. But it also sounds pretty terrifying – or at least it does to me. It takes a very certain type of person to feel comfortable existing with no boundaries, even if it’s only with a select few.

When I went to university, I was sure that that would be it. Rather than having dreams of finding the love of my life, I had dreams of finding that best friend; that one person that just got me, that I would tell everything to and would be like a reflection of myself. An extension of my personality. My chance to force myself to open up to someone in a platonic context, a one-on-one friendship that would give me everything I could need.

Instead, I got three years of what, quite frankly, made me worry that I was destined to always be a failure in that department. Whilst I made friends, there were times that I felt rejected in more painful ways than any romantic rejection has ever made me feel. On a degree course that was 80% female, I thought it was inevitable that something would click, but that just didn’t happen. Of my three years, I would count one real female friendship, which wasn’t even made until third year so felt unfairly cut off before it even fully blossomed.

Instead I was surrounded by a wonderful group of boys who I lived with for three years. They were easy to get along with, funny and they were caring. They were everything I needed in friends. Yet, there was still something inside me that was disappointed that I had become one of those girls.

It is only more recently that I have stopped to think about this in a non-self-pitying way, or with any wider significance than my own life (hello ego!). It’s given me a lot to think about.

Female friendships are wonderful things, and that is exactly what can make them terrifying. In the same way as we feel the need to have ‘perfect’ romantic relationships, they are intimidating things to enter into. Without sex or romance as a means to stumble into intimacy, it all has to come from the two of you being willing to open yourself up to someone that has no label attachment to you, and no guarantee that they will reciprocate. This is especially hard for a generation that seems terrified of vulnerability – no wonder many of the most powerful female friendship stem from childhood, when we have little fear and no boundaries to break down.

Now, in my early twenties, I am navigating friendships as a young adult and I have never been more comfortable. My core group of girls have remained with me since school (despite our friendship being increasingly conducted over Facebook messenger rather than face-to-face meet-ups due to life taking us to different parts of the country) and I feel incredibly lucky to have them. We have evolved from naive fifteen-year-olds into young adults and looking back I can’t believe that I ever felt that anything was lacking.

I’ve come to learn that having one best friend is not the pinnacle of friendships. You are not a failure if you don’t have a Monica and Rachel style friendship in your life. A group of women can just as easily be an extension of yourself as a singular human – and it’s okay if your group of women is actually largely a group of men. And perhaps having a group rather than a single person to rely upon is even better. Variety is the spice of life, right?

I’ve made new friends, and I haven’t been as scared. Learning to control the anxiety and pressure that we put upon ourselves to create these bonds can be freeing, and comes with a much happier outlook. I read Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love recently, and my immediate reaction was to cry with inadequacy in comparison to the beautiful friendships celebrated throughout the book. Then I stopped and thought about the incredible women in my life that my own self-centred pity somehow let me forget for a moment, the old friendships and the new, and it made me realise that just like any other relationship, friendships come in so many shapes and sizes. They are also much trickier to navigate than people give credit to, and that is fine too.

Female friendships are an incredible thing, and something to be treasured, but they are also not something to judge yourself by. They are something to work on, they are not perfect, and they are certainly not set in stone for the rest of your life. By realising that you can open yourself up to the whole world of female love that is out there.

Words: Beckie Doyle

Illustration: Sophie Parsons