On Female Friendship: It’s Complicated

After being bullied at my all-girls boarding school, I developed a social phobia, had to be withdrawn and take three months off. As an adult, female relationships can be just as hard to navigate, which, ironically, is why you need your friends around.
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Publish date:
January 30, 2013
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friendship, bullying, mean girls, female relationships, relational aggression

[You may have noticed a bunch of posts around friendship popping up on the site over the last few weeks. I've got a bit of a bee in my bonnet about how female friendships are portrayed by the media - everyone has a hilarious, supportive group three or four close mates they can confide in (the prissy one, the bossy one, the slutty one - sound familiar?), everyone has a 'best friend,' and no friendship fallout is so great it can't be solved with a bottle of pinot and a rom-com night. Sadly, we all know this isn't true. Friendships can be twice as tricky to negotiate as romantic relationships, and get half as much air time. So, we're going to continue posting on the realities (good and bad) of frienship - and I'd love you to send me your stories too - email me at rebecca@xojane.com --Rebecca]

Topping news items that should be of no interest at all to a woman in her thirties who dislikes musicals is confirmation that Tina Fey is adapting Mean Girls into a musical.

As much as I feel like this is a completely pointless endeavor, I do have feelings on Mean Girls and, indeed, mean girls.

Fey’s original script was based on Rosalind Wiseman’s best-selling non-fiction book Queen Bees and Wannabees, which focused on the way teenage girls relate to each other. The forming of cliques and use of relational aggression, as well as other more obvious forms of bullying, were covered in much detail.

Parents were also advised on how to deal with these issues because, far from being the “so that’s something that happened to you, me and everyone we know…” kind of issue that I’ve always credited it as, bullying, and particularly relational aggression, have been shown to have long lasting effects on people’s lives.

I should have known better, really. I was - as I think most people were - bullied at school. It was serious enough that after four years in an all-girl’s boarding school, I had developed social phobia and had to be withdrawn, take three months off, and get enrolled in a day school.

I’m not going to go into anymore detail. For one thing, I don’t think rehashing these kind of experiences does me any good. For another, with all the talk of trigger warnings this week, I don’t want to be responsible for making any of you feel any worse than you already do today.

The Ophelia Project, which “serves youth and adults who are affected by relational and other non-physical forms of aggression by providing them with a unique combination of tools, strategies and solutions” identifies relational aggression takes three main forms:

• Excluding others from social activities.

• Damaging victim's reputations with others by spreading rumors and gossiping about the victim, or humiliating him/her in front of others.

• Withdrawing attention and friendship.

Although it’s a form of bullying practiced by people of all ages and genders there’s no doubt though that it’s infinitely more popular amongst adolescent girls than any other social group.

I mean, did anyone not go through that at some point in their teens? And – be honest, now – can anyone say that they didn’t dole a bit of it out?

I know that, in spite of the stuff I’d been through by the age of fifteen, I did.

As adults we may have more freedom to decide who we hang out with than we ever did at school, but female friendships can sometimes be hard to navigate. For example, what do you do if your friend doesn’t like your partner, or your other friends?

In my case – erm yeah, they were sort of right. When I lived in the UK, the friends I had were very different from my much-beloved Irish crew, and there was a certain amount of animosity between a few of the girls.

This problem eventually solved itself when one of the English girls turned up at my family-centered birthday party and spent the evening telling my ageing aunties that her boyfriend might have HIV, and another spent the evening upstairs trying on all my clothes and refusing to talk to anyone. So yeah, sometimes when your friends hate your other friends or the older mummy’s boy you’re dating (yep, this happened) they’re right.

Another issue I’ve seen run out horribly is one friend perceives another as being more successful or attractive than them that insecurity can cause ructions. This one has never happened to me personally because, hahaha. But I have watched the relationship between two of my friends, who were once so close we called them “the twins” implode, and it’s been horrible.

Long story short: S and C met at uni, were besties and flat-mates throughout their time there. They’re both head-turners but I’d say insecure about their own beauty. One wouldn’t stay in a bar if the other got more male attention than her, crap like that.

But it wasn’t until we’d all graduated and S became engaged to a successful photographer who already had a child that the real ructions started.

C, who’d always been nice and supportive and a bit of a laugh became jealous to the point of malevolence. She’d email the rest of us to try and get us to persuade S that she was making a mistake (“No.” Apart from which S’s dude was really nice), refuse to speak to S’s fiancé or his kid when they were around and generally became so negatively about marriage and wedding that I wouldn’t be surprised if she wasn’t in some way responsible when the couple broke up a couple of years later.

Unsurprisingly, these two now barely speak. When C met her now-husband she was married within four months in what I can only describe as an extravaganza of confetti, cake and Once Wed-friendly styling. She let her jealousy, which we all know is the most useless and destructive of emotions over her best friend’s relationship get in the way of their own, and ended ruining a valuable part of her life because of it. I heed this story as a warning, and you should too.

Women in your life who aren’t friends of yours but of your partner can also be a source of problems. Mr. Fitz, for example, has a long-term friend who makes it passive-aggressively clear she hates me because I’m the main female in his life now.

Does that make my husband’s group of friends sound like bonobo monkeys? I’ll apologise later but I do know, from discussing this situation with my larger circle of friends, that I’m not the only one going through it, or something similar.

Add together all these scenarios and they’re almost enough to make me understand women who choose not to have any female friends - just because they’re the stuff of social nightmares.

I say “almost” because, in spite of my early experiences, and a couple of truly disastrous female friendships in the years since, I would not be without my female friends. I have male friends and, yes, they’re great, but the friendships I have with them are totally different to those I have with the (ahem) women in my life.

Maybe it’s because I’m married and confiding in men other than my husband would feel inappropriate to me. Or maybe it’s because I am massively girly and tend to have more in common with women in general.

But in terms of support, understanding, taking the piss out of me when I’m behaving like a lemon, and being able to make me roll around on the floor laughing, no-one lives up to my (not mean) girls.

The best female friendships – the ones not tainted by relational aggression or other covert forms of nastiness –boost you to a far greater extent than the worst ones can ever drag you down.

In fact, it’s usually these relationships that protect you against the pernicious influences of the mean girls that sadly inhabit all our lives at various points. And that is invaluable.

Alisande is tweeting about how amazing her friends are @AlisandeF.