Monica and Rachel. Thelma and Louise. Wilma and Betty. The Sex and the City ladies. We’re bombarded by beautiful examples of the commitment and intimacy of female friendships. Despite their differences in wealth, background, profession, success, or relationship status, these fictional women manage to support each other and share each others’ lives with warmth and ease.
But is this really how things are for women in real life?
In real life, friendships sometimes fail. I’m not talking about people from whom you grow distant merely due to the burdens of work and family life. With those people, even if you see them only once a year (or less) you usually still have warm feelings towards them and keep up with their lives through social media, email or the odd phone call.
I’m talking about the relationships that, for one reason or another go from trusting and intimate to disappointing or even hostile, often within the blink of an eye.
This seems to be particularly true for us women; for some reason, the friendships that men share are not as emotionally fraught and complex as ours. Mens’ friendships can certainly be deep and meaningful in many ways, but without the unspoken expectations underlying most close relationships between women.
Let’s take for example Carrie and friends on Sex and the City. On the surface of SATC, these women are rock-solid. They accept each other’s wildly different life choices, they have fun together, they support each other through heartbreak. It’s an idealized version of the female friendship and while I loved watching it, I knew that it wasn’t just the fabulous wardrobes and NYC apartments that were fictional. In reality Carrie would have lost at least one of her friends when she had her affair with newly-married Big. In reality, Charlotte probably would have completely ended her relationship with Miranda after Miranda got accidentally pregnant (by one-testicled Steve no less) while Charlotte was desperate for a baby but unable to conceive. In reality, would their friendships have lasted through all the ups and downs of life?
But if SATC is female-friendship fantasy, then Good Will Hunting offers the ironic alternative ideal for men. When Will (Matt Damon’s character) finally leaves Boston, his best friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck) is sad but clearly proud and satisfied that his friend is following his dreams. If we were to check in with Will and Chuckie a month later, we’d probably find they were still happily texting, emailing or calling each other and nary a word would have been said about Will leaving without a word. If this scenario happened in real life, it probably would play out exactly as it did on screen. Chuckie wouldn’t have felt betrayed or abandoned in the slightest. GWH is male-friendship reality.
Why is friendship so different for us ladies? What is it about the bonds we forge that are so easily broken?
I’ve been thinking about this issue for a number of years now. Female friendships have always been very difficult for me. Whether this stems from experiencing the stinging rejection that only adolescent girls can dish out, or because I had no sisters to teach me how to fight (and make up) with other girls, I have never been part of a large group of girlfriends. Instead I’ve always just had one or two really close and trusted friends.
A few years ago, one of those friendships failed. I had become very close with one girlfriend whom I met at work. We vacationed together, we knew each others’ families, we were at that sweet spot in a friendship where you can show up at your friend’s house in yoga pants and veg out for hours on her couch without a moment of awkwardness.
Then my life started to change, at increasingly rapid speed. I got engaged, moved in with my future hubby, I took a full time course and got a new job, all within about a year. Without going into too much detail, she just kind of dropped out of my life. She shut me out. I tried unsuccessfully to find out why, followed by far too many months of blaming myself – for exactly what was never clear. In some ways, even though she had plenty going on in her own life, I was the Will to her Chuckie – except that when I struck out on my own she didn’t smile sadly and adjust to the new dynamics of our friendship, she just dropped me altogether
Far too often, this is the reality of female friendships. There are no SATC-esque reconciliations over fancy martinis; when feelings are hurt they stay hurt and we’re not very good at forgiving and forgetting.
Women are deeply emotionally invested in their relationships with girlfriends. This allows us to give the open and heartfelt support to each other which makes these friendships so valuable. But the raw emotions leave us vulnerable to hurt that is amplified far beyond what was ever intended.
What does this mean for the friendships in our lives? I think every relationship gives us an opportunity to learn about ourselves and the kinds of people with whom we choose to share our time. Funnily enough, almost four years after the end of that friendship, I realized recently that the person I am today would not be compatible with my old friend. I have new interests and the things I value have changed. After all that time feeling sad and confused about what happened, I find I’m actually happier without her.
Sometimes people are only meant to be in our lives for short periods of time. There are probably very few who truly see us through everything over the decades of our time on earth. These people should be cherished, but more importantly we should all try to be this kind of person for our loved ones. That’s the lesson I’m slowly learning – how to be a good friend.