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RIP BFF: why women need to talk about friendship break-ups

I had recently realised that the radio silence I’d been getting from my best and oldest friend wasn’t just about hectic schedules or different time-zones. Rather, in the most brutal and honest terms, I…

Some friendships weren’t supposed to last forever. Kalexander

I had recently realised that the radio silence I’d been getting from my best and oldest friend wasn’t just about hectic schedules or different time-zones. Rather, in the most brutal and honest terms, I had been dumped.

I’d just moved to a new city and was establishing myself in a new academic and social setting. Sitting around a table with a bottle of wine and a few of my new female friends – all fellow writers and academics – I began, hesitantly, to talk about this terrible experience. I don’t know what I expected – perhaps embarrassed silence. Instead it quickly emerged that each of the women around that table had a traumatic story – sometimes past, sometimes still being lived – about the complications of an important female friendship, or about its loss.

There was a sense of discovery and of relief around that table, and it didn’t stop there. As each of us ventured out and began to raise this topic with other women, we found that, almost invariably, whomever we talked to had a story to tell about their own friendship ordeal. And that this telling usually invoked a sense of revelation: of airing something previously scabbed over with silence. In a culture saturated with relationship narratives, we found that women wanted to talk about their difficult and important relationships with other women, and often hadn’t been able to.

Why don’t more women talk about this? In my own case, part of the reason I struggled to talk about the break up of my oldest friendship was the shame I felt. It wasn’t just about having one fewer person to catch up with. I was ashamed when she dumped me, and I cast around for reasons to justify it. What did I do to deserve this?

She never did tell me, and that made me feel even worse. But it seemed a bit trivial, mourning for a friendship. What’s a lost friendship compared to a lost partner, or a lost relative? Most of us have more than one friendship at one time, so what’s the big deal if one turns out to be a dud? Why should I need to talk about it?

It’s strange because on one level we do talk about friendships in our culture, we talk about them a lot.

Bromances, a new subgenre of the buddy flick, get a lot of attention. Female friendships also get plenty of air time, in the guise of the Best Friends Forever (BFF) idea, which seems to be more readily applied to female friendships than male ones.

The BFF idea has most currency with Gen X and Gen Y, but for women of all ages certain friendship myths have flourished. For example, the idea that very old or very close friends can talk about anything; and that silences between such friends are always comfortable; and that the closest of friendships have a kind of in-built longevity. Perhaps these myths contribute to our difficulty negotiating and discussing real female friendships, so much more muddy and mortal than the BFF ideal with its promise of effortless forever-ness.

Like many women of my age and older, I could lay some of the blame for the friendship myths on Anne of Green Gables, whose letters to best friend Diana went from besotted to borderline nuts. Emily Dickinson’s letters to her friend Sue Gilbert reveal a similarly passionate tone between these two friends:

Susie, forgive me darling, for every word I say, my heart is full of you, yet when I seek to say something to you not for the world, words fail me. I try to bring you nearer.

In her book Between Women: Friendship, Love and Desire in Victorian England, Sharon Marcus points out that women of that time often formed passionate friendships, wearing jewellery made from each other’s hair and writing poems celebrating their unions.

She argues that friendships between women were a critical component of their identities; something I believe to be equally true in relation to 21st century women. Yet, I balk at the idea that these friendships are unproblematic, or that they necessarily last forever.

According to my own experiences and the many women I have talked to about this topic, real life cannot mirror this heady, sentimental realm. It’s time to start admitting this, and openly discussing the importance of real, difficult female friendships.

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12 Comments sorted by

  1. Sally Webster

    Lecturer in PR & Communciations at Victoria University

    Natalie, thank you for this thought provoking piece. However, I don’t agree that losing a friendship is trivial – you write: ‘But it seemed a bit trivial, mourning for a friendship. What’s a lost friendship compared to a lost partner, or a lost relative?’ Losing a friendship, I would suggest, can be more traumatic than losing a partner or a relative, because as you point out there is so much power, openness and connection with friendship. Your piece has inspired me to consider how we also don’t acknowledge…

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  2. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    For an instant I thought the article read "RIP BFF: why women and men need to talk about friendship break-ups"

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  3. Lynne Newington

    Researcher

    If women find it difficult and going through all those mixed emotions, one can easily understand the need for men to do the same.
    Betrayal under any circumstance is traumatic across both genders.
    Creative people do tend to feel it more, maybe due to a certain vulnerablity, if that's the right word.
    You have a good sense of where you're at is what comes across, good on you.

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  4. Dianna Arthur

    Environmentalist

    When I separated and divorced my husband and when I ended another long term relationship, suddenly my only friends were other single women and even my married male friends sort of faded away.

    What is it with that?

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  5. Sophia Choi

    Postgrad Marketing student at University of Western Australia

    2 years ago my BFF of 8 years betrayed me. After much contemplation, I brought the events up in conversation. She apologised and I thought I got over it and we continued to be friends. It was smooth sailing for 3 months then out of the blue she stated to indicate that she never really felt sorry for what she had done and that she just needed to me to cool off and see things her way.

    The conversation we had to fix our relationship was more a band aid over a broken arm. Every time I saw her I felt…

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  6. Dianna Arthur

    Environmentalist

    Judging from comments thus far (with the usual exception), men have nothing to fear from the "great feminist plan for world domination", because, just like men we are not always good friends to each other, not always loyal and not always reliable.

    Humans are fickle and we change - just like in marriages, after a number of years we can find that we do not have that much left in common any more. Having done some dumping as well as being a dumpee, I did try to at least explain rather than just cold-shoulder. I believe everyone is entitled to an explanation, doesn't always happen though.

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    1. Lynne Newington

      Researcher

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      I read an interesting concept on feminist's and going by what stereotypes have been depicted as, there's is a hell of a lot to fear, especially fathers.
      Endeavour Forum Letter: In Defence of Father's.

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  7. Steve Brown

    logged in via email @yahoo.com.au

    What is with the female-centric nature of this article? Do women actually believe that men don't have good friends who they 'split up' with and feel nothing over?

    Granted women put more emphasis on relationships than men might (or perhaps that is just how women see things and men have unwittingly accepted this perception as truth) but it whiffs a bit of female exceptionalism and reinforces the stereotype of men as unfeeling, uncaring, insensitive etc

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    1. Natalie Kon-yu

      Lecturer in Creative Writing, Literature and Gender Studies at Victoria University

      In reply to Steve Brown

      Female friendships are of particular interest to me as they are so underrepresented in our culture. I would never suggest that men don't have meaningful platonic relationships with one another (nor would I suggest that women are somehow more feeling, as I believe that is problematically essentialist). What I would suggest is that we, as a culture, more readily accept the idea conflict and disharmony between men than women.

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    2. Steve Brown

      logged in via email @yahoo.com.au

      In reply to Natalie Kon-yu

      Thanks for clarifying that for me Natalie.

      When you say that that 'female friendships are so underrepresented in our culture' is that relative to the attention male friendships receive?

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    3. Natalie Kon-yu

      Lecturer in Creative Writing, Literature and Gender Studies at Victoria University

      In reply to Steve Brown

      I do, and I'd argue that we say a great range of male homosocial relationships which encompass a number of different permutations, friendship being only one of them.

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