Girlfriends can be a lifeline for many women. We seek out our girlfriends when we need advice on anything from parenting to shoes, when we need a shoulder to cry on or confirmation that the men in our lives are being jerks. Our friends are there to listen to us vent or to make us laugh until our stomach hurts. Our girlfriends provide us with support, validation and good times.
Many of us have friends from different times in our lives. Childhood friends that still remember us in pigtails and call us by our maiden names; several friends from my old stomping ground in Boston draw a blank when hearing about this Laurie “Levine” person (people, it’s been over 20 years). We have college friends, friends that we made at work, in the neighborhood or through our children. The first time I was called “Adam L’s mom” by a pre-schooler and his mom, I knew that I was in foreign territory.
I work with many women who talk about their friendships during therapy sessions. They have been hurt or slighted or angered by their friend and choose to examine their emotional reaction to the interaction in this safe and non-judgmental environment. It is not uncommon for women to struggle with the old feelings that many of us had as youngsters; “where do I fit in?”, “am I cool/thin/smart/rich/fill-in-the-blank enough?” Why do we as women continue to doubt ourselves in our friendships and in our relationships with other women?
A common question that I ask all clients upon the intake and assessment process is who is their support network: where are your people? I am saddened to say that there are women who report to not having a support network. Sometimes they blame it on work, or being busy or sometimes they simply don’t desire a social circle. But, often their isolation is due to shyness, depression or not knowing where or how to find a friend. Together we discuss what they would like in a friend, how they would go about finding a friend and why they think it is so hard to open up and make a friend.
I have had other women clients talk about friendships ending, like a “break up” with a boyfriend. I conceptualize this cooling off period in a friendship like a couple that separates; after years of having sex with this partner, it’s hard to go back to holding hands. There isn’t a term for the ‘break up’ with our women friendships: we drifted?, parted ways? It can be awkward, uncomfortable and extremely painful. Life transitions are a traditional time of shifting friendships: a marriage, the birth of a child or a divorce or death of a spouse. We tend to befriend those with similar lifestyles; the mommies in playgroup or the empty-nesters that travel together.
Sometimes though, the ending of a friendship can be more personal such as a disagreement that can't be resolved or when one feels that her needs in the relationship are not being met and she needs to extricate herself from the friendship as an act of self-care. I have a client that says she “leaves friendship corpses in her wake." She worries about fluctuating friendships and what that says about herself as a friend.
We have talked about what a healthy friendship looks like, how she can get her needs met and how to set boundaries when appropriate. We have also practiced conflict resolution in therapy sessions. She has successfully negotiated some difficult relationships after talking it through in therapy. This helped her gain the skills and confidence to approach an important friend and honestly share her concerns about the conflict at hand.
Another client has talked to me about feeling like a third wheel. She tears up as she tells me about her very close friend that she introduced to another of her good friends because she thought they would hit it off. They hit it off so well, that they buddied up to the exclusion of my client. They vacation together and text daily and when my client joins them for lunch, she feels excluded and left out. The heartbreak is palpable. My client is sad and resentful; something many women feel when enduring the pain of losing a friend.
Many of us have witnessed our kids, particularly daughters endure this kind of pain. We expect this kind of behavior in children, pre-teens and teens. The reality is that it happens with adults as well. Many of us carry old wounds and vulnerabilities into our adult friendships.
What pushed our buttons in 8th grade, if not healthily resolved, is going to be promptly reignited as an adult. The hope is that we have matured and worked through our decades old insecurities of adolescence, but there are some wounds that hover longer and reach deeper than others. Having constantly been the shy girl that doesn’t know how to reach out can rear its ugly head at the PTA meeting or that loud girl with no filter may continue to offend her friends at the office.
I cherish my friends. I know I have made mistakes and I work hard at righting my wrongs and working through difficult times no matter how painful or awkward because I honestly know that I can not make it in this wacky world without my friends. I hope that you, too, have enjoyed this gift of friendship: the joy, the fulfillment and the laughter.