The second most-asked question I field—the first is “Why do I keep choosing the wrong men?”—is “Why are friendships with women so difficult?” Now mind you, even women who had terrific childhoods experience bumps in the road of friendship. Some friends, inevitably, drift out of our lives when their interests shift, while others literally move on deliberately; alas, people outgrow each other. Then, too, the word “frenemy” was coined for a reason and books such as Susan Shapiro Barash’s Tripping the Prom Queen have explored rivalry among and between women. But the daughter whose experience with the first female she knew intimately was toxic and damaging brings something more than the usual baggage to the party.
Musings on why friendship is so hard
Some daughters connect their difficulties to larger trust issues: “I really don’t trust anyone so the friendship thing is part of something larger. I don’t feel safe enough around anyone to let my guard down.” Others trace the problem back to life with a mother high in narcissistic traits: “I was one of three sisters and our mother deliberately set us against each other. My sisters scapegoated me constantly so to stay in Mom’s good graces. They sold me out at every opportunity and it left a sour taste. I’m much happier having a guy as a friend. No competition and no back-biting or jostling to get an edge.”
Our attachment style—whether secure or insecure—impacts our friendships as it does romantic relationships. Those who display an anxious/preoccupied insecure style —always looking for signs of rejection, quick to react to a slight, and highly volatile—will act that way in the context of friendship too. Those with a dismissive/avoidant style tend not to miss friendships because they see themselves as self-sufficient and deem those who need friendships to sustain themselves as dependent and weak; if they have friends, the connections are relatively shallow and usually focused on a mutual interest such as playing golf, knitting, or tending to a community garden. Those with a fearful/avoidant insecure style actually want friendships and miss them but they are also afraid of being hurt.
Yet research consistently shows that friendship plays a significant and beneficial role in women’s lives; women with close friends thrive in ways that those without them don’t and have been shown to be more resilient when life is challenging. Having close friends also adds another layer to how we define ourselves which, as the research of Patricia Linville showed, also helps in times of stress. For example, the more complex your definition of self is, the better you’ll deal with and recover from the end of a relationship or a divorce.
What the unloved daughter brings to the party (alas)
If you’re having trouble making friends or sustaining friendships, do look over the list and see whether you can identify your own behaviors and their source. As I explain in my latest book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, what was learned can be unlearned with conscious awareness and effort.
- Rejection sensitivity
Because she’s always felt that she didn’t belong—not even among the very people who were supposed to love and support her, her family of origin—the unloved daughter is highly sensitive to anything that might smack of exclusion or rejection. This kind of anxiety makes her watchful and very likely to misread situations; for example, she’ll pay close attention to the order in which people were invited to a gathering or may be angry if two mutual friends decide to do something together without asking her along. Her friends may see her as a drama queen and some of them may well conclude that she’s too hard to deal with. Studies show that people high in rejection sensitivity often create situations that end up in their being rejected, ironically enough.
- Worrying about fitting in and not speaking up
Because she wants to belong and she worries about rejection, the unloved daughter may worry about fitting in all the time. Alas, she’s more likely not to speak her mind or articulate her wants so as to fit in and then get angry because she feels she’s giving 100% and getting nothing back. As Darlene, 48, messaged me: “It was only in therapy that I realized that I created the circumstances in which I felt constantly used. My friends aren’t mind-readers, after all, so I’ve had to learn not to be afraid and speak up.”
- Trouble negotiating boundaries
The unloved daughter often suffers from what I call “The Goldilocks Problem,” a reference to the difficulty Goldilocks has in finding what’s neither “too hot” or “too cold” but “just right” in The Three Bears’ House. The unloved daughter doesn’t learn about healthy boundaries or how boundaries are a part of closeness in childhood; she’s apt to think that a boundary is a protection and looks more like the Great Wall of China than not, a way of keeping intruders out. Or she may be so needy that she confuses caring for a friend with clinging to her. She may freak out when her girlfriend needs time to herself, bombarding her with texts and messages. Alternatively, at the first sign of a disagreement, she may wall herself off. Needless to say, many people don’t have the patience to deal with these behaviors.
- Being inflexible
Because the unloved daughter needs constant reassurance, she often lacks the flexibility needed to keep adult friendships afloat; we all live complicated lives, after all. Her propensity to take everything personally often results in her misreading a change in plans as a slight or a deliberate attempt to hurt her. It’s not easy staying friends with someone who needs to be handled with kid gloves.
Friendship can be an important part of a woman’s life. If you’re getting in your own way when it comes to your girlfriends, you’ll need to take a closer look. Remember: what’s been learned can be unlearned.
Photograph by marinavorona1994. Copyright free. Pixabay.com
Barash, Susan Shapiro. Tripping the Prom Queen. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006.