Introduction: The Fascination with Our Female Friends

The Greatest Truth

Losing a female friend can have more repercussions for a woman than breaking up with a boyfriend or a husband.

Four Other Truths

  • Women make more excuses for their female friends than they do for their husbands and children.
  • Women cite reuniting with an old friend as being among the top five most rewarding experiences.
  • Women’s friendships get “frozen” and don’t move forward.
  • Women confess to hanging onto difficult friendships even when they know they’re destructive.

What is it about our women friends that makes the relationships so compelling?

Female friendship is held up to us as an attainable, honorable goal. After all, who understands us better than other women, especially those whom we have let in, in whom we have confided our deepest thoughts and hopes, and with whom we have shared both sorrow and joy? The past forty years have shown us kinship, beginning with the Woman’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.

As usual, conflicting messages and suppositions for women entered into the equation, creating confusion over what female friendship means, and how it is to play out. How much importance are we to allot to our women friends? Women can be mystified by what is expected, even though we live in a world where concepts such as “girls’ night out,” “for women only,” and “bachelorette parties” hold special signifi cance. We pursue, praise, and appreciate these relationships while at the same time there is often an underlying sense of uncertainty. We don’t always know where a friendship fits in the scheme of our lives or what to do with a lost friendship. But what about the friend we stand beside even when she causes more problems than plea sure, fl ying in the face of Webster’s definition of a friend, “one attached to another by affection or esteem; a favored companion”?

I have leaned on my closest friends during bad times, celebrated with them on happy occasions, and commiserated with them about the daily grind. I have friends who have carried me through different periods in my life, from high school to college to career, then from marriage to children to divorce and remarriage. At every stage, I’ve recognized that certain friends come through while others may be unpredictable. And what happens when a friendship is on the rocks and uneasy for both parties? Why aren’t we more honest when it comes to making a break with a female friend?

The Changing Face of Female Friendships

The kinds of friendships that women seek today can differ dramatically from those of their mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations. Baby boomer women describe their grandmothers as women who were not inclined to indulge themselves in such relationships. These women put their days in as mothers and wives (a number of them worked as well), and much of their female companionship was provided by their mothers and sisters. If there were friendships during this time period, they were more common among women of privilege, and even these connections were not the intimate ones of today. In comparison, women of the twenty-first century identify with work friends; our lifestyle invites friendship, despite a hectic pace.

Over the past forty years, female bonding has evolved as the opportunities to engage with our friends have increased. Encouraged by our mothers, teachers, and aunts, we value our female friends, and raise our daughters to do the same, to respect these friends and to expect a great deal from them. We have the luxury of choosing our friends, while obligatory families are and, at times, burdensome. Not only are our women friends sought out, but they are available today as never before—via e-mail, text messaging, instant messaging, and cell phones. We have friends for all sorts of reasons, to fill contrasting needs. Implicit is our trust in these friends; we depend upon their opinions and thoughts. In a crisis, large or small, we know exactly whom to call. And more important, there are designated friends to call for specific events, those whom you call for a shopping spree, or to help paint the den, or to pick up a child when you have a scheduling conflict.

Are We Fooling Ourselves?

From kindergarten onward, there is a desire among females to connect with other females. Yet it isn’t only the level of devotion to our friends that differentiates women from their male counterparts. There is the emotional component to these friendships, a dependence on the relationship, and a developmental pro cess that differ from the male perspective. An emphasis is placed on loyalty and history, and yet a new friend can suddenly trump a childhood friend, tossing allegiance to the wind. Women seem uncannily capable of such actions.

Nonetheless, female friendship is a meaningful part of my life, as it is for most women. I feel regret for those friends I’ve lost and gratitude for the ones with whom I’ve toughed it out. I’ll go out of my way to meet a friend, and I look forward to our time together in this pseudo sorority that we have devised. Although we swear by these ties and confide in our women friends as we cannot do with a long-standing male partner, husband, or male friend, our connections are not always free of tension or frustrations. This is the other side to our friendships with women, one that we’re often reluctant to face head-on.

Women collect friends because we need them at every stage of our lives, for myriad reasons. I remember when I moved to Connecticut for six years in the 1990s, I made such an effort to stay in touch with my New York City friends and at the same time to develop new friendships in an unknown town. Infiltrating a tight-knit group of women and hoping to be accepted is such a raw memory that it is one reason I decided to embark on this project. Ironically, what women seem to crave most is acceptance among friends, and yet we can be insensitive to the plight of “the new kid in town.” What was it exactly that I sought from these women whom I hoped would befriend me? It wasn’t only companionship, it was the recognition and sense of belonging that friendship yields.