Missing Links: Reclaiming the Power of Friendship


When it comes to friendships, women do not respond as men do, and, by the same token, women need friendships and connections in a way men do not. Female relationships differ from male relationships, and of course, much of our behavior as friends has been conditioned by our mother’s patterns with her own friends. This is an underlying theme, that our mothers, as our first love relationship, have set the example for our ability to be close with others. This is compounded by the fact that women and men have unique needs when it comes to friendship, and rely on this relationship to different degrees.

“Males can spend 10 years away from a friend and get together without even having to catch up,” says Alice Michaeli, sociologist at the State University of New York. “Men expect less whereas women expect so much. On the other hand, if a woman breaks off a friendship, it is because it doesn’t fit in with her family or suit her marriage.”

When at the age of 49, Meredith* had a falling out with her best friend, she realized it had been years in the making. “It took me so long to understand that just because Kerri and I had been close in childhood didn’t mean that we had to be close as adult women,” she says. “Our mothers were best friends and we were expected to be the same.”

Although some women are better equipped psychologically to manage the ups and downs of female camaraderie, it has been established that friendships in general are critical for women. Scientists believe that those who have more human contact can live twice as long as those who are isolated. With women at a seven-and-a-half year advantage over men in terms of longevity, we can attribute a part of this longer, healthier life span to a woman’s ability to have intimate connections with their friends. Women are willing to share their innermost feelings with their female friends. Yet there are reasons why a friendship will break up, despite a history of trading confidences: There are many changes and alterations in a woman’s life that require new and ongoing friendships.

The objective materials that constitute the basis for friendship are lifestyle, common values, socioeconomic status and education. Yet these links are not the only ones. It is possible for two women of disparate backgrounds to come together and bond on a spiritual level. What contributes most often to the end of female friendships has to do with trust, loyalty and betrayal. “Two women can be friends with every commonality and if one does something to the other, the friendship is suddenly and irrevocably over,” Michaeli says. “They may remain in superficial contact, but the closeness they formerly shared will never be recovered.”

Another factor with friendships is that they change as our lives are altered. Women in particular seem to have friendships that are affected by circumstances. When a woman’s status changes and she becomes divorced or married or has a child, she and her closest friends may no longer be in the same place in their lives. A part of the distance that occurs may be a matter of perception (i.e., a woman feels she is not wanted by her married friends once she is divorced). Or a woman who is a stay-at-home mother might not feel she is any longer the equal of her friend who has climbed the corporate ladder.

Geography is another piece of the friendship equation. In our mobile society, we make friends wherever we go as a matter of convenience. While women do miss old friends, the need for new friendship is ever-present. Often women seek female friendships because a husband or partner may not emote. A woman will look for an emotional response to her issues and finds that her female friends will listen.

Of course, there is always the possibility that a man will come between best friends. This threat does not go away in later age; the high incidence of divorce ensures that the scenario can recur in middle age. “Two years ago, when my four children were under the age of 7, we moved to a small town,” says Gwen*. “I was isolated and I missed my friends who were far away. I joined a reading club in order to meet other women. There was a woman named May who became my close friend and confidante. We met for coffee often and our sons were in the same class in school. Eventually we went out for dinner as couples. I noticed that she spoke mostly with my husband and that she was slightly flirtatious. She seemed to watch us closely, how we lived and where we went on vacation.”

Gwen and May admitted to each other they were both unhappy in their marriages and both were later divorced. Gwen moved to another town and the two remained friends ­ until Gwen heard May was dating her ex-husband. “I couldn’t believe that I was so blind,” Gwen says. “One night she brought her son over to my apartment because she needed someone to watch him while she was meeting my ex-husband. I have never spoken to her since.”

Trust, of course, is one of the most meaningful elements in a friendship, and implicit in this trust is the expectation that there will be no betrayal. On the other hand, it is uplifting to hear of friendships that have survived a crisis or have been resurrected as a result of a kind of personal revelation, or even those that have survived life’s stresses and changes. Amy Bloom, author of A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, describes her friend’s battle with breast cancer. “I realized once again that what and who we are in everyday life is sharpened and focused in crisis,” says Bloom. The illness brought the two friends together in a profound way. “We now know how much our lives have to offer us and how stupid and ungrateful we would be if we did not take advantage of those gifts.”

Once female friends survive a crisis, they become closer; they can count on each other and act as a shield against the world.

Female best friends are not always appreciated, but that is something we can change. If we look to our husbands to be our best friends, ultimately we may be disappointed. While there are other qualities in a marriage that mirror those of a best friendship, the responsibility is fundamentally different. Female friendships, on the other hand, require patience, acceptance and nurturance to survive.

“My family lives so far away and has for the past 16 years, that my girlfriends have become my family,” Samantha* says. “I have hung on so tightly to these friends and it has been worth everything.”

*Name has been changed.

About the Author: Susan Shapiro Barash is the author of “Reclaiming Ourselves: How Women Dispel a Legacy of Bad Choices,” (Berkeley Hills Books). She teaches critical thinking and gender studies at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City.  

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