In her delightful essay “How to Be Friends with Another Woman,” Roxane Gay writes, “If you are the kind of woman who says, ‘I’m mostly friends with guys,’ and act like you’re proud of that, like that makes you closer to being a man or something and less of a woman as if being a woman is a bad thing, see item 1B. It’s okay if most of your friends are guys, but if you champion this as a commentary on the nature of female friendships, well, soul-search a little.” (Item 1B: “If you find that you are feeling bitchy, toxic, or competitive toward the women who are supposed to be your closest friends, look at why and figure out how to fix it and/or find someone who can help you fix it.”)
I’d like to explore a topic I’m not sure I ever have in writing: female friendships. In all honesty, my own female friendships have played varying degrees of significance throughout my life. It’s not that they’ve ever been unimportant. It’s just that there have been times in my life when I’ve kind of lone wolfed it. Not a ton, but a few. There have been periods where it’s taken some time to establish friendships, either because I’ve lost friends (such as after petty childhood disputes) or I’ve started over in a new place (such as during my vagabond third decade). Then there have been other times where I happily find myself embraced by a comfortable family of girlfriends with whom I can be myself, fully assured of total acceptance and loyalty.
Like all relationships, each friendship is different. Each has its own degree of intimacy and truth-telling, humor and realness. Each has its own maintenance regiment. Some are super easy, some are harder. I feel like the tenuousness of female friendships stems not from their reputation as catty, competitive, or insincere, but from the fact that we sometimes have high expectations of our female friendships that can be hard to maintain. Some demand a lot: time, support, energy, unconditional acceptance. But in return, so many of our emotional needs as women can be met through our true female friendships.
So, while each friendship is different, I think I can pare female friends down to four broad categories: fake friends, polite friends, kind friends, and real friends. Most evolve from one blend of these to another.
Fake friends are probably not really friends, and they can take on many forms. They’re the one-uppers, the constant criticizers, the users, the emotional drainers. They’re our frenemies. They’re toxic, and for whatever reason, they’re not always so easily shaken. Maybe we’ve got a long, complicated history; maybe we’re masochistic; maybe, despite the trouble, there are still some benefits to the relationship that just keeps us hanging on. These must be the “friendships” that have earned women the reputation of having difficult friendships. But, you know what? For the purpose of supporting this paragraph, I racked my brain to think of some behaviors of fake friends that I’ve encountered along the way, and came up fairly empty handed. So, either my memory is terrible or fake friends are for high school and reality TV.
Polite friends are nice and everything — they’re certainly better than no friends at all. But their politeness can be painful. It could be because she’s a new friend, or she’s a friend who’s just completely different from you (politically or socioeconomically or whatever), but for some reason one or both of you just aren’t comfortable enough being fully herself. Even though these friendships can be unfulfilling or awkward at times, depending on the situation, sometimes you’re better off just staying polite and silently judging or whatever. Don’t act like you don’t do it.
Kind friends are true, unconditional friends. They’ll always accept and love you as you. They’ll never ever ever criticize your awful boyfriend (until he’s your ex and you need her to). They’ll never tell you your haircut looks bad or you shouldn’t wear those jeans anymore. They’ll take your side in every dispute. While this is wonderful and we all love friends like these (typically I’m too non-confrontational to be any other kind of friend), we also need our “real” friends.
Real friends are not afraid to tell you how it is — that your boyfriend is an asshole, that your clothes don’t fit right, that you’re acting ridiculous. Whether it jeopardizes your relationship or not, they can’t help but to be real with you and to always be themselves. We don’t always want to hear what our real friends have to say. Their bluntness can hurt. But, one other nice thing about real friends (besides hearing the ugly truth you need to hear sometimes) is that they typically have a quality that lets you feel free to be real with them in return, which can feel awfully freeing.
Female friendships aren’t typically some static version of any of the four “types,” but change as the relationship evolves or to suit a particular situation. What might start as a polite friend could turn into a kind friend and then eventually a real friend. Some once-real friends separated by time and distance might find themselves becoming polite friends once more. Female friendships are as dynamic as the females that are part of them.
Sometimes we find ourselves so fixated on other facets of life that we forget to nurture our friendships, but this will only hurt us in the long run. Kate Baer talks about the absolute NECESSITY of genuine female friendships throughout life in this wonderful blog post, well worth a read. Ultimately our female friendships not only improve and uplift us as women, but their benefits extend to our work and family lives as well.