Of all the real-world problems I hear about most often from readers. the issue of female friendship comes up with regularity, although there are many variations on the theme. Some women report having issues with trusting another woman, especially since the first female in their lives proved herself to be untrustworthy. Others aren’t quite sure why but feel uncomfortable around women.
Looking for root causes
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all reason adult friendship may be hard for you, but there are some generalizations we can make. Some of them may connect to your childhood experiences in your family of origin as well as your experiences making friends—or not—in school; again, it’s important to be able look back at those years both inside and outside the home and try to make sense of your history. Many unloved daughters feel immense shame and hide it all costs when they’re children and later adolescents; the last thing they want is for their friends to know what they fear to be the truth—that they are unlovable and unlikable and whatever else they hear about themselves—and so they develop a persona for the outside world. That’s protective, of course, but it also makes them feel fraudulent and afraid of being found out. That was me as a girl and an adolescent, and it was an unhappy place.
In our culture, there are models of female friendships, and all of them include self-disclosure and mutual support, even though there are always sub-plots of rivalry and envy. It’s a theme that’s present in Little Women, omnipresent in Sex and the City, and part of every chick flick ever made; don’t kid yourself about not being influenced by the cultural buzz. Novels, movies, and television shows confirm these cultural tropes about women and friendship, just as media reinforce assumptions about men and friendship. Studies show that men have different ways of connecting with friends than women do; typically, men spend time doing things with their friends—that might be playing ball, going to sporting events or watching them on television, drinking beer or anything else—rather than talking. Some research has suggested that women’s friendships can be described as “face to face” while those forged by men are more “side by side.” Women gravitate toward relationships that focus on and value self-disclosure, which may be off-putting or simply foreign to someone with an avoidant style of attachment style (who prefers the doing style associated with men) or difficult to manage for someone who is anxious in relationships. Cross-gender friendships, studies show, include far less self-disclosure.
Another reason you may feel more comfortable being friends with a man is that men tend to be much less critical or judgmental about less-than-perfect behaviors exhibited by a friend than women are. That’s what a study published by Diane Felmlee, Elizabeth Sweet, and H. Colleen Sinclair in 2012 called “Gender Rules” showed; the participants in the study were all college students and single young men and women. Additionally, they found that women held their female friends to higher standards of behavior when certain principles of friendships were breached than they did men. Lowered expectations of intimacy, solidarity, shared interests, and loyalty with a guy friend may make it easier for some women to function.
Questions to ask yourself
Once again, if you want friendship to play a larger part in your future life, self-questioning affords you the opportunity of a fresh start.
- What exactly makes me uncomfortable around other women? Is it sense of competition? Or the fear that I can’t measure up? Or that I’ll be rejected? All of the above or something else?
- What kind of women am I drawn to? Am I working from a positive or negative base?
- What is it that I look for in a friend? Try answering this as precisely as you can, along with the qualities you prize most.
- How important is it to me that my friend and I are more alike than not? Or do I prefer being in the company of someone who’s quite different? Or does it depend?
- Is there a typical script my past friendships have followed?
- What roles do I end up playing in my friendships? Am I a leader or a follower? If I have the same role again and again, why is that?
- What is it that you bring to the party that gets in the way of making or keeping friends? Without devolving into self-criticism, look at your own behaviors honestly. Are you always anxious about rejection? Do you fall into patterns of pleasing?
There’s no question that friendship can add dimension and caring to our lives. If making or keeping is difficult for you and you really want to change, the way to do that is to work with a gifted therapist.
This piece was adapted from my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Out of a Toxic Childhood. Copyright © Peg Streep 2019. All rights reserved.
Photograph by Katie Treadway. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Felmlee, Diane, Elizabeth Sweet, and H. Colleen Sinclair, “Gender Rules: Same and Cross-Gender Friendship Norms, “ Sex Roles (2012), vol 66 (7-8), pp. 518-529.