Girl Talk

Not long ago I did something that was unusual for me: I reached out to a girlfriend with an olive branch.

Some months back our children, formerly good friends, had a misunderstanding. We as mothers got involved and resolved it, and ironically, it was the resolution between the kids that led to some awkward tension between us. My friend had wanted to step in while I believed the children should resolve the conflict themselves.

It was a bit unlike me to reach out because I had never been comfortable handling friendships past a certain point, namely, when the friendship got difficult, when our initial soul mate highs gave way to the realities of sisterhood. We bond on sameness (“Me too! Me too!”) and crack at our differences. In the case of my friend above, we had different opinions on one situation that reflected larger overall differences in some of our views. She had, with not insignificant discomfort, managed to bring the issue to my attention, and appreciating how hard it must have been to tell me, I graciously acknowledged her concern and tried to do what I knew she wanted me to do, even if I didn’t really agree with her approach. That, plus the fact that we even came up against this wall at all, somehow seemed to rattle us both.

More than one girlfriend has said to me, “I’ve had several close friendships where we just stopped talking, even for years. The closer we were, the more likely it was going to happen.”

Looking back at my deepest friendships from high school through my 20s, all had gone through that silent volcanic eruption at one point or another. We never shouted or raised voices. Come to think of it, we never even had one single negative exchange. Instead, it was the feelings seething underneath, the ones we dared not voice out of fear of hurting the other’s feelings or just appearing disagreeable, that unhinged our friendship, if even temporarily. How many times had my girlfriends and I smiled and nodded and insisted we were “okay” when underneath we were anything but?

It’s been different for me with men. Before I met Max my best friendships with guys were differently and equally close. Of course there is a mutual understanding and sameness in my women relationships that I can’t replicate in my male friendships, but often I was struck by one critical difference: the freedom to speak completely openly.

With my male friends I somehow felt comfortable and safe enough to disagree. I could say things like “You are driving me crazy!” or “Are you out of your mind?” or take a different stance on a subject and nothing would ensue but rich discussion. Their skins appeared to be tougher, and their memories for emotional infraction blissfully short-term (if they considered the “infraction” an infraction at all). Our dynamics did not change nor did our friendships falter, unless the conversations took a Harry and Sally turn and one of us realized we had feelings for the other.

And it isn’t necessarily that we as women have thinner skins or are unable to cope with differences, but the rules for relating just seem to be different. With my women friends it is important to mirror and validate, and we are nourished by this validation and feeling of oneness. It’s the much needed balm that we can’t get from many men in conversation. I wonder if simultaneously, though, our balm serves as the lock that keeps us from comfortably engaging in conflict.

I’ve had limited opportunity to experience how female communication changes as we get older. One reason is that it’s simply harder to completely replicate the sisterhood friendships that sustained us through our single years. Those girlfriends that we’ve known since school or early career years are still there for us, but many of us in the early family stages, I assume, now depend on partners/spouses and families as our main emotional supports. Or we are now so busy with children and work and insane daily schedules that our friendships take place mainly via e-mail, Facebook, time pressured lunch breaks and frequently interrupted mommy-and-me play dates. In some ways this has built in a safe distance in terms of ensuring that the intensity of sisterhood doesn’t ever reach that boiling point of closeness. But there are days when I miss that intensity.

My friend’s daughter and my son no longer play together. But I realize it’s not because of that incident on the playground. They’re both in the third grade now, where girls and boys start gravitating toward their same-sex friends and groups. In second grade they were beginning these transitions. My friend’s daughter had gotten upset about something my son had said earlier that spring. When I agreed to talk to my son about the incident, in classic guy fashion he simply couldn’t recall the incident at all. He was sorry but mainly puzzled that his friend was still upset. Her mother and I never did get to the bottom of what happened, but the kids have learned and moved on, and so have we.

Do you also find it painful to bring up negative issues in your relationships with girlfriends (that is, more so than in any other type of relationship)? What is your experience with your daughters’ friendships? How do you teach your children about friendship and communication?

7 thoughts on “Girl Talk

  1. Oh gosh. I was raised to quietly let go or move through the negative, not to rock the boat with upset. Anger is always frightening to me. My husband, on the other hand, was raised to think that getting upset and speaking your mind made it better. I think it does. But you have to both be willing to talk until the anger subsides. And that is scary to me too. So, I have to find the balance of when something is worth arguing about. Based on the circumstances and the relationship.

    Oh dear, my daughter’s best friends are still boys, but she’s in second grade and I’m worried about the transition toward more single sex friendships. My daughter still let’s things go with ease, is confused by the drama-fostering ways of some. I guess I am too. Though with age, I find I let things go a little less easily than I wish.

  2. Oh, this hits really close to home.

    {Ouch}

    I really appreciate, and admire, the thoughtful analysis.

    This stuff is tricky, yes?

    I will say, though, that now that my kids are older I have found my way toward close friendships again – the good in this is that it’s beautiful and filling and omg the laughter! But the bad, is the “stuff” you described above.

    {One more time: Ouch.}

  3. Terrific post, Cecilia.

    Like Kate, I was raised not to show anger and I learned – either because I was taught or because it felt easier – to avoid confrontation. I still struggle so badly when I know I need to confront a friend over an issue between us. And, more often than not, I’ll let the friendship fall away rather than address the situation and possibly resolve it. Your post made me think about the number of times I’ve sacrificed a whole relationship instead of dealing with a little bit of discomfort.

    I’m impressed by your willingness to take the first step.

  4. Cecilia, this is a post I could’ve written myself. Well, minus the part about your son and your friend’s daughter. I had so many friendships from college or earlier in my career that got lost because we just couldn’t confront each other about the real issues. We just stopped talking, or I did. And like you, I’ve had many guy friends that I loved being with because it was so much easier to talk to them. No BS, no walking on eggshells. With women, I felt like I had to be different, and almost like I couldn’t just be myself.

    And that’s why in the first years of my daughter’s life, I hadn’t found many moms I could spend time with because I just couldn’t bring myself to more “drama”, as I would call it. But I also eventually realized that this whole “it takes a village to raise a child” thing means I have to take my chances and go against my own comfort level to open up to new relationships so that my daughter, too, will benefit from the camaraderie. Now I’m glad I did.

    So far, I’ve not had to confront anyone yet…we’ll see how that goes when it does happen. I hope I will be as big as you. 🙂

  5. This is a fascinating post, Cecilia. I have only had girl friends. I have kind of attempted at having boy friends, but they could never move to real friendships because I always assumed that there were romantic feelings underneath, on their part of course, never on my part.

    I think it is sometimes hard to navigate relationships with women because we can be so complicated and emotionally complex. We do need and seek validation. We need women to be our mirrors that, in many ways, show us what we want to see, tell us what we need to hear. This is what holds us together. And it’s a good thing, a necessary thing since we can’t get this kind of mirroring from men, but it can get exhausting. And for me, it’s usually that unspoken exhaustion that results in me breaking away from long standing, otherwise, “good” friendships.

    My oldest toddler has three boy friends. She and they are still young, so we haven’t reached that “transition” phase that you describe, but I anticipate it coming as they grow older and become more aware of their differences.

  6. Coming to the discussion late, but wanted to add my comment to this insightful post.

    I’ve accepted that some friendships dissolve and sometimes we don’t know why. It is frustrating because it definitely causes me to question what I did to cause the dissolution. I’ve asked, “What happened? What did I do wrong?” and played mental gymnastics on how I could salvage a friendship that I thought was strong. There are always unanswered questions, but I’ve found that both parties have to be willing to have a dialogue about what may have caused the friendship to go awry. If it is a one-sided conversation, then it doesn’t work.

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