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.