An Irish woman's social, political and domestic commentary
Sunday, October 09, 2005  

ST on friends - Why female friendships are more deadly than the male

You read a lot of rubbish about the inability of men to form loving friendships in the way women do. As far as I can see, the difference is that women create not deep friendships, but deeply hysterical scenes. Tears, phone slamming, spiteful reminders of past failings, drunken reconciliations and admissions of PMT-fuelled hostility: these are the unique characteristics of female friendship. Men sail serenely through life making friends, while women make friends into enemies.
We are told that men are distant and uncomfortable about sharing intimacies — they prefer to confine their conversation to football and slagging. Women, on the other hand, have profound and affectionate relationships. They have best friends for life who provide unconditional support and endless analysis.

Perhaps these myths influence friendships. Perhaps men, taught to expect little, are grateful when opportunities for sharing arise. On the other hand with high expectations, perceived betrayal and neglect will shock a woman who expects her girlfriend to be a refuge from the slings and arrows of life. Discovering that your saviour is slinging a few arrows herself can be quite gut-wrenching.

If you feel betrayed by a spouse or family member, the row is contained by the existence of the almost indestructible bonds tying you to each other. Family are by your side because they have to be. Occasional crimes such as bad temper, drunken snogs with the wrong person, unreliability or sarcastic remarks can be placed in a context of general human failing.

If a girlfriend sins in this manner, however, the situation escalates in the absence of a legal obligation to maintain the relationship. You don’t have to face each other at work the next day, or wake up in the same bed or eat Christmas dinner together. The basis of the affection, the fact that you freely choose to be friends, has a scary consequence: you can also choose not to be friends. If the relationship depends entirely on goodwill, the withdrawal of that goodwill takes a lot of getting over.

It is for this reason that when friendships are clearly past their sell-by date we are so reluctant to let them go. It’s easier when there is a huge row and you can, with a free conscience, delete them from your life. It’s what you would do with an ex-lover, and yet we hardly ever do this with an ex-friend. I’ve only done it once.

Romantic gains and losses are familiar narratives. We fall in love, we fall out of love, we kiss them goodbye and after a publicly recognised period of mourning, we pick up and start again. With a friend, we keep trying even if the friendship has run it course.

This makes things worse, not better. We made friends in the first place because we shared a common experience. Same class, same college, same sport, same work or same tastes. But as we go through life we lose this shared perspective. The mystery is why we are so confused when we sense the increasing fragility in the relationship. Where men and women differ is in the creation of that hallowed category of the Best Friend, which intensifies the pain on the death of the friendship.

Men seem to accept that they have different needs at different times and different people will provide those needs. One friend will be great for discussing marriage problems, another for job insecurity, another for a light-hearted cheer-me-up pint. Women will ruthlessly single out one friend to be the Best Friend, who must provide consistent support from school through the romantic dramas of our twenties and the logistical chaos of raising a family.

It’s when we move from one phase of life to the next that the brittleness sets in. Those intimate friendships of schoolgirls and twentysomethings inevitably dissolve when one or other meets a proper man. The chief function of the Best Friend, to listen to the micro-details of courtship and break-up, becomes defunct. If the Best Friends move through the benchmarks of life at relatively the same pace, there will be some hope. But if one friend gets married or moves or has children, the one left behind will be bereft. She will resent the abandonment; the other will resent the burden.

These are the friendships that do not die brutally and quickly, this is where the resentments will be nourished into hostilities that will generate screaming matches over the most trivial of crimes. But since the crimes are trivial, they must be forgiven, and the chore of carrying on the friendship remains.

Ironically, if there weren’t this pressure to be the mythical loving Best Friend, then the friendship would have a better chance for survival. It could ebb and flow according to the needs of the day without recrimination or undue obligation.

Couldn’t we reorganise things so that instead of Best Friends and ex-friends and vegetative-state friends, we recognised that offering short-term contracts instead of permanent positions is a happier and more effective method of life support? We recognise this in the workplace. I wish women would recognise it with each other.

In the meantime I’ve started collecting male friends. They are just as rewarding and there are no emotional scenes.

posted by Sarah | 20:03 11 comments
Female friends are great because all you have to do is listen and when you need someone to talk to they will LOVE to hear you rabbit on.

Also you can tell them to shut up if they talk about soaps and makeup. Which you generally can't.
I stumbled across your blog somewhere and really enjoy it.
I agree 100% with your thoughts on female-female friendship. I think the perception that men don't share their feelings with their friends are completely unfounded. All of my male friends and I routinely share very intimate details of our lives, and the vast majority of them are straight men in their mid 20s. Most of my female friends say that they are better friends with me (they always quantify, why do girls feel the need to quantify the friendship) than with most of their female friends because there is no drama, no expectation and ultimately no hassle.
What is the remit of your column in the ST Sarah? The male/female condition or some such? It's all very amusing but

a) you seem to be attracting some right oddballs to your site (and I don't mean Leon exclusively)

b) do you have free rein? I mean are you choosing to write about this aspect of the the human experience to the exclusion of others?

I can only assume it is the remit as this column ventures into
more varied areas with regularity, informing readers of key facts such as the revelation that councillors do not eat rice something I have since indpendently confirmed.

just a thought.
I find your 'remit' question condesending Gerry. Journalist by any chance?

A couple of practical questions Sarah: How did you get your ST column? How long do you spend writing it per week? How do you come up with ideas? Well done on juggling it with two small children!
Dear Gerry and Godiva, and all other oddballs reading..

Well Gerry you are right - I do appear to have a funny collection of readers. I love them all except the horrible anonymous hostile ones.

Here is the story of my blog and column. Some years ago (2?) I kept thinking, I've got to get out of all this PR/marketing lark. I would love to have a job writing a Sunday column. A friend told me about blogs and I thought, you know I could start one of those and just have it as a place to keep ideas I have at a particular moment. Then if I ever got my fantasy job I would have a little library of thougths and in case I ever got stuck some time. I just started posting and a most unexpected thing happened. People started reading it and sending me emails and I began interesting debates with friends and strangers. To this day I am always surprised that people read it and bother to comment. While the hostile ones are upsetting I have built relationships with people which I really enjoy.

The ST job happened when a friend who also worked at the ST had spent years harassing me and telling me I should be writing properly . I was always going to get round to actively seeking my fantasy job and actually a few times I did send samples to editors of some newspapers - although not the ST. Never got a reply! Then the friend showed the last birth story to the editor Fiona McHugh and she read the blog and it seemed, liked it. So they asked me (to my delight) to write one column, then 3 or 4 more on trial and I keep sending them in and they keep publishing them. So the blog ended up being my portfolio instead of just a repository. So I think I am one of the few people in the world who got a job because of the blog.
One always hears of people losing jobs because of blogs. Still, there's always scope for that - I am sure I will piss someone off with dire consequences....

On the remit, there is nothing really official. If I am in the News Section it should be Newsy (so the mobile phone/Shell one was in News as was one on FG/Labour coalitions) and in those I try not to mention "I". In the Review they should not be too Newsy and I think on this they like the personal angle. I try to get something in (although I am guilty of not doing this recently) to reflect the fact that I am Irish - they have quite a big Irish operation so its not like the Observer with just a few token Irish stories. Both the blog and the Review column tend to reflect simply whatever is going on in my head at the time. With the "friends" one this week someone did point me at an article in the previous week's paper about how your friends change as you go through life, particularly when you get married. I have found this to be the case and my friendships are changing - of course also because I have moved to the country. So it is a theme in my life right now.
If you read the early years of my blog it will all be about George Bush and international news. This was because I was working in an office and read 4 newspapers a day and had time to be outraged. It is more personal now because that's my life now - in my head instead of looking out. No doubt my focus will change as time goes on.
Frequently I will consider posting on the blog about current affairs but to be honest, I have read far superior blogs to mine that focus on politics and I do not think mine would add much value by simply repeating that Tony Blair is a shit, Bush a dangerous idiot, FF the corrupt destroyers of what little hope our country has and my god another earthqauake lots of people dead its so sad. If I do post on politics its because I think I can add something different e.g. Hobbs and the petition or councillors not eating rice (amazing but true!).
Finally, I would usually spend about 3 hours writing the column but a lot more thinking about it. Which drives my poor husband spare as he's watching me walk around with my head in the clouds. Sometimes I'll write a bit on Wednesday evening and then hopefully wake up on Thursday morning with the end in my head. Its hardest when you don't know what your conclusion should be until you start writing. Then you waste time thinking instead of writing. My mum comes down at about 10.30 and minds the babies and I usually send it in around 1-2pm. And then I wait for acknowledgement that's it ok. And then I relax until Monday when I start to think - shit, what will I write about this week!
one more thing: Of course the friend whose intervention provided me with the opportunity was of course MALE. 'nough said.
Thanks for that Sarah, really very helpful. I've done the submitting stuff to editors and now just want to blog for my own amusement. Last time I tried I ran into lots of tech problems though.

How do you delete spam comments? And what template did you pick. Most of them only show one post at a time instead of putting them all on one page and letting people scroll like yours - which is nice and readable.
Ignore the first part of that question (re deleting comments) Sarah. But the template info would be useful. Thanks!
Condescending! pish pish. The opposite is true.

There are millions of lifestyle columns and the world needs another Mariella/Suzanne Moore/victoria Coren like it needs a hole in the head. I know for a fact the Sarah can straddle a wide variety of topics and on scanning back through the blog I am pleased to see that she does/you do (person is difficult in a blog) in the ST. The last two on the never-interesting Darcy and "friends" have given me a misleading impression - hence the question about the remit as I know Sarah can (and does) more.

GUBU is the only blog I read. I remain, as ever, a fan.
Men and friends...
One friend will be great for discussing marriage problems, another for job insecurity, another for a light-hearted cheer-me-up pint.

Men don't have the first 2 sorts of friends.
Hi Gerry

Thank you very much. I do know what you mean about the topics. In fact I remember when I wrote for Trinity News and the then Editor Conor Sweeney (now European Editor of The Irish Independent) was after me to do some "how to be famous in Trinity" article. I protested that I was always called upon to do the stupid articles and wanted to do something more serious. He said that anyone can do serious things and its much harder to get someone to do the softer things. More recently a researcher on the The Last Word said something quite similar when they asked if I would contribute to a piece on handbags or other rubbish. I asked her why they got me to do those things - she said it was impossible to get good humoured women who were willing to go on the radio and discuss almost anything. I am happy to comply - its exposure for me, the column and a bit of craic. So the Review slot is not anti-News but I do try to keep in mind a certain tone and approach to topics. Not so much the topic but just the angle. And then I get the occasional forays into the News Section where I (hope) I can prove to a larger audience that I can do other things too. But then, perhaps we should not operate on the premis that Review is less worthy. In fact on Sunday I happened to be in the company of a younger sister and her friend when the paper arrived. The friend immediately sat down to read the column. Now both she and my sister would never read broadsheet papers (except the sports sections perhaps - they are big sports fans) but they always read my column and they had a great laugh about the girls fighting. I think its nice if you can reach an alternative audience and say something to them. Who knows maybe they'll read other things and improve themselves. Which is always good.
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