Pop culture tends to romanticize female friendship, turning the normal fights, jealousies, and secret-sharing into something mythic. From the popular TV show Girls to the newly released book The Girls (which I highly recommend BTW), people can’t seem to get enough of, well, girls, and specifically the bonds they forge between one another.

It’s true that female friendship can be complicated, but that’s not the whole story. At its core, female friendship, at least my experience of it, has been about one thing: defining one’s self against the boundaries of another human. I know this sounds a bit shady, but hear me out.

We experience life with our friends at our side, determining who we are and who we are not through their eyes. In middle school we sought out friends who could tell us who we were, because we weren’t sure ourselves. In high school we sought out our friends to remind us who we were when romantic relationships and mistakes and the future distracted us from ourselves. And in our 20s we can be completely ourselves with our friends, reassured by their easy acceptance.

Like it or not, we’re actually pretty dependent on our friends, and although the times change, the purposes of friendship stay weirdly constant. For evidence: a timeline comparison!

Growing Up

At age 4: My best friend at this age was Shannon. We played long-lasting and detailed games of House and were attached at the hip at birthday parties and preschool social events.

At age 20: My best friends were my roommates. We moved into our first apartment, complete with rent checks, chore duties, and overflowing recycle bins. We always had someone to talk shit with at frat parties and pregames.

Leaving Home

At age 6: Once we were tucked into bed and the lights were turned off, the unfamiliarity of my friend’s bed made me miss my own room. I cried into my friend’s shoulder until she made me laugh and remember why I had wanted to sleep over in the first place.

At age 18: Three weeks into freshman year, I crawled into my well-worn twin-XL bed, the unfamiliarity of my first dorm room finally overwhelming me. I choked back tears, until my roommate made me laugh and remember how happy I was to be in college in the first place.

“Romance”

At age 13: My friends took my phone and texted boys for me, followed by co-ed hangouts that led to me being helpfully pushed in empty rooms or airless closets with boys who I mostly just stared at.

At age 21: My friends helped craft endless messages sent to boys, followed by deep analysis of every text received and examination of said male’s every social media account. If any of us was pushed into an empty room with a guy, we executed a swift rescue mission.

Social Life

At age 15: We’d spend lazy days lying around on couches and beds, making music videos to pop songs and poring over sneakily bought issues of Cosmo. When night rolled around we wandered outside, bored and looking for something to do. We never wanted these nights to end, refusing to go to bed.

At age 22: We’d spend busy days going to class, working, and studying. When night rolled around we wandered outside, excited and looking for bars to get into. We often wanted these nights to end early so that we could go home, eat mac and cheese together, and get into our familiar beds.

Not sure how to feel about this. Any more examples that I’m missing?