So there I am, minding my own business, when I hear a familiar female voice call my name. I look up from my book, nod a cursory and polite ‘hello’ back to the woman and continue reading. I look up long enough to notice that she looks well and happy. And so the exchange ends, for we both have no interest in indulging in inane small talk. So far, so unremarkable… until you realise that the woman in question was once a best friend, for nigh on two decades. We once bonded over a shared love of music in secondary school, travelled to far-flung places, cried over relationship break-ups, indulged in all manner of adventures. We once even ended up in A&E together after a crowd-surfing episode at a gig went spectacularly awry. We even referred to the other as ‘the wife’.
So how did it come to this — barely willing to exchange pleasantries?
Whatever the ins and outs, the rights and wrongs, breaking up with a friend is heartbreaking and often has ramifications far greater than the break-up of a romantic relationship. What’s more, there’s no big talk, no tearful goodbye, no closure. And certainly encountering an ex-friend in person wasn’t nearly as awkward or uneasy as bumping into an ex. Yet, when I solicited opinion on the issue of culling friendships, I soon realised that being on the receiving end of a friend dumping was not much fun.
Said a friend who was recently frozen out by another female friend: “It hurts like hell. In fact, in many ways, it was worse than being ditched by a boyfriend.” We live in a world that believes that any modern, independent woman worth a damn has a coterie of ever-dependable gal pals; that the bond of female friendship is unshakeable and impervious to any slings and arrows. Yet here’s the thing shows such as ‘Sex and the City‘ don’t tell you. We women can be awful bitches and we can treat each other with superb, piercing, unapologetic cruelty. There’s the bitching, the freezing out, the passive aggressiveness, the gossiping. For starters.
I have a friend, let’s call her Lisa, who has what she calls her A-list and D-list of pals. Much as the title suggests, the A-list are afforded certain privileges and ‘access'; the D-list, less so. “You have to earn your place on the A-list, but it doesn’t mean you won’t slip down to the D-list in time,” she explains.
Most likely, there isn’t enough rainforest left to write about just how bafflingly complex female friendships are. Contrary to what popular culture might tell you, they can be imperfect and strained on occasion and utterly bizarre in nature. They are at once fragile and strong, and can crack under the most trivial of circumstances. “A woman’s identity is largely bound in her relationships, in much the same way that a man’s is bound in his work,” says relationship expert David Kavanagh. “Women put more emphasis on people’s perception of them, especially on how other women see them. The idea that a guy might ring another guy up and go, ‘I haven’t heard from you in two weeks’ would probably never happen. Female relationships are more intense than male ones, but this can work both ways,” agrees psychotherapist Colman Nocton. “When things are good between women they’re great, but when they’re bad the backlash is much more severe.”
It’s long been thought that women’s intuition and our peculiar cognitive powers give us the edge over men. However, it’s a skill that ensures that we’re our own worst enemies. “Females think much more reflectively than men and their cognitive senses are much more refined, which is why their bitching is that bit more entertaining,” observes Colman. “When boys fight, it can be physical and, generally speaking, is not particularly well thought out.” Adding insult to injury, bitching is often confused among women for wit, intellect and social sophistication, and used as a bonding tool to boot. When women adhere to this ‘pack’ mentality, things can get even more sinister. In this situation, many girls play along with the back-biting for fear of social exclusion, or that they’ll be next in the firing line.
“In a social group, the ability to ‘outwit’ each other with bitchy remarks starts to escalate,” says Colman. “You then start to jostle for status and position in the group, which is when bitching gets even worse. You have to be wittier than the last person, so that you safeguard yourself from being the victim. The higher you go with your insults, the less likely it is that you’ll be the victim. Others simply think, ‘I wouldn’t take her on’.”
Somewhat alarmingly, many researchers have noticed what I’ve long suspected — that many female friendships aren’t the nurturing, feelgood cocoon that we might think. In fact, many women are thought to bond over shared miseries and moaning at length, prompting researchers to coin the phrase ‘co-rumination’. However, friendships going sour are nothing new; in fact, it’s been happening for thousands of years. According to evolutionary biologists, women have a ‘nurturing instinct’. During hard times, we tend to protect the weak, hoard food and align ourselves with other females for protection. So when the bonds break, and females go cold on one another, it goes against nature somewhat.
Says Kate Fox, a researcher at the UK’s Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC): “Females, as gatherers and with responsibility for bearing and raising children, also had a critical need to build cooperation and trust with other females. A woman in childbirth or with young babies was highly vulnerable and in need of protection and support — cooperation with other females, both in gathering food and in childcare, was essential to survival.”
In 2007, Fox wrote a paper entitled ‘Girl Talk‘ for the research centre, in which she unearthed a curious development in the nature of female friendships. The life span of friendships for women of my generation was getting shorter. “Considering women of this generation are at their most mobile socially, economically and geographically, it is of little surprise that their friendships are perhaps less set in stone than the ‘best friends’ needed by younger generations and the longer standing, but perhaps fewer, friendships enjoyed by older women,” says Fox.
Kelly Valen, the US-based author of ‘Twisted Sisterhood’, also sought to unravel the dark legacy of female friendships and frenemies. After she wrote an article in the ‘New York Times‘ admitting that her life’s greatest sorrow stemmed from her inability to feel closer to other women, she realised that thousands felt the same distrust and discomfort with other women. She commissioned a survey, and of 3,000 respondents, 90pc of women had at least one girlfriend to turn to, yet 88pc of them said that there was an undercurrent of meanness and negativity that plagues the gender. An equal number said they’d suffered palpable emotional wounding at the hands of other women from meanness, manipulation and garden-variety cruelty.
“I’ve found my fears about women’s covert competition and aggression to be frequently validated — the gossip, the comparisons, the withering critiques of career and mothering choices,” Valen says. “We women swim in shark-infested waters of our own design. Often we don’t have a clue where we stand with one another — socially, as mothers, as colleagues — because we’re at once allies and foes.”
It certainly rings familiar, and rare and rather fortunate is the girl who doesn’t count at least one ‘frenemy’ in their flock. And, as my fallout with ‘the wife’ shows, the women closest to you are the ones with the capacity to hurt you the most.
After interviewing hundreds of women from various backgrounds and of all ages, gender studies queen Susan Shapiro Barash wrote what has arguably become the definitive self-help book on the thorny subject of female friendships: ‘Toxic Friends: The Antidote For Women Stuck In Complicated Relationships.’ And after ‘Means Girls‘ star Lindsay Lohan was spotted carrying the book under her arm, the book was catapulted on to the bestseller list almost overnight. ‘Competition is often a part of even the most intimate female friendships,” she notes. “We live in a culture where female competition, envy and jealousy are shown to us daily [think ‘Desperate Housewives‘ and ‘Mad Men‘]. Thus, women are raised to believe that only the prettiest, smartest, luckiest ‘girl’ gets the glittering prize and there isn’t enough to go around.
“This limited-goods theory is part of the problem and seeps into female friendships. There can be jealousy in the closest of friendships. Perhaps your friend doesn’t envy you because you are a single mother, but she envies you because you have a successful career. Or there are friendships where one friend envies the other for her looks, or because she has more money or she has brilliant children, or is pregnant while the friend has been trying for years.
“In any of these scenarios, women tend to think that if their friend has it, somehow they’ve lost their chance. Until we stop thinking this way, competition will exist in female friendships, and even jealousy, which is a very negative emotion and can undermine a friendship,” Shapiro Barash concludes. Perhaps not surprisingly, she observes that part of the problem is that women tend to have such great expectations of friends. “They hold the bar so high that it can be impossible for the friend, with her own complicated life, to come through,” Shapiro Barash says. “Women of all ages romanticise female friendships and believe that these friendships are the answer, a solace, in their busy, intense lives. Female friendship is held up to us as an attainable, honorable goal.
“The past 40 years have shown us kinship, beginning with the Women’s Movement in the 1960s, when women banded together for the sake of an improved and fairer world for their gender. The belief was underscored by the value of female bonds, and the elements of friendship were enmeshed in female solidarity; the ‘sisterhood’ represented a mutual experience, a covenant. “Women supporting women had come to the forefront of a woman’s life; the by-product was that female friendships held weight,” she adds.
Of the notion that a break-up with a friend has more repercussions for a woman than breaking up with a boyfriend, Shapiro Barash affirms: “Losing a friend is more devastating than a romantic break-up because a woman who experiences this feels so unanchored. Women expect their female friends to provide a support system; these friends understand their feelings in a way that a husband or child or one’s mother may not. Thus, when the friendship falls apart, it feels particularly unsafe, as if there is nowhere to turn. “During the course of the friendship, we share so much personal information that once there’s a schism, the friend worries that she could be betrayed by her friend who is now walking around with all her secrets — her soul has been revealed. “Trust has become a major issue; it’s not only a question of will the friend spill her confidences, now that they are no longer together, but what the repercussions might be. This makes the woman feel very insecure and her concerns are combined with a tremendous sense of loss over the loss of a friendship,” she says.
Little wonder that any break in the connection feels like a slap in the face.
It’s worth noting that when it comes to potential bedfellows, most women have a checklist as long as their arm. While there’s nary an aspect of the men in our lives that goes unchecked, women seem to be that bit more laissez-faire when finding friends. Our desire for a wide circle of mates stems from a number of variables.
Shows such as ‘Sex and the City’ have conditioned us to believe that a gaggle of gal pals is a marker of social success. That’s why we keep amassing friends, and stress quantity over quality. Adding insult to injury, we think nothing of accepting friendships on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, resulting in a rather odd scenario whereby we have more than 200 ‘friends’ who we know next to nothing about.
Meanwhile, Valen advises that in order to keep our friendships on an even keel, and avoid a ‘Mean Girls‘ situation, we need to “respect one another, show tolerance, treat others with dignity and occasionally don the muzzle and not say certain things. “We need to grow our girls to be more confident so that they aren’t looking outside of themselves for that validation. Comparisons drive insecurity that leads to this ugliness. We also need to improve the culture and be better role models. If you gossip in front of your daughter, it’s a powerful message about how the world works. You send them messages about bonding and getting social rewards,” says Valen.
Some friendships are subject to a certain amount of ebb and flow. It’s probably best to see a friendship breakdown not as a failure, but as a friendship that simply hasn’t gone the distance. It’s no one’s fault; lives have diverged, values have changed, practicalities have intervened.
What will eventually become of the wife and I? It’s hard to tell. But there’s nothing like a break-up to give your senses a shake-up, and with my pal priorities now straight, I’m taking a leaf out of the dictionary. A friend is commonly defined as “someone we know, like and trust”. It sounds deceptively simple, but when it comes to finding kindred souls, I reckon that’s as perfect a starting point as any.
A version of this post originally appeared in the Irish Independent.
Tanya Sweeney is a journalist who writes for the Irish Independent, Irish Daily Mail, the Dubliner and Evening Herald. She is also the contributing editor of Stellar Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @tanyasweeney