Victoria Stokes finds out female friendships aren't always plain sailing.
What makes a good friend? If you’re to turn to pop culture you might think of Carrie and co in Sex and the City; the glam foursome who weathered breakups, make ups, miscarriages and even a particularly violent dose of food poisoning throughout the course of their friendships. Or maybe you think of everyone’s favourite Central Perk gang. As friendships go, theirs is pretty iconic. But what makes a good friendship in real life? And why, in reality, are friendships – particularly female ones – often wrought with more turmoil than you can shake a BFF pendant at?
“There are so many different qualities to a good friendship. The most important one is probably being able to communicate and feeling understood,” explains friendship expert Irene Levine (irenelevine.com). “Friendships are stronger when people have a shared history, values and experiences, and are able to be honest with one another.
This means trusting that you can be your real self with the other person. Even though most friendships don’t last forever, to be intimate and close, friends need to feel that the friendship will be everlasting,” she clarifies. “Everyone has a need to be understood and supported. Friends help cheer our success and help us get over the road bumps in life.”
Trouble is, most friendships, at some point or another, will inevitably hit a few roadblocks. The reason friendships can prove to be so tricky is because “women have been taught, from a young age, to avoid conflict,” explains friendship expert and founder of Urstrong (urstrong.com) Dana Kerford. “Conflict is a really uncomfortable place for a girl and that feeling is reinforced when she seeks help from the adults around her and she’s told to, ‘Just ignore her. She’s just jealous!’
“These little girls grow up to be women who have discomfort with those tricky situations in their friendships and then become master conflict-avoiders,” Dana continues. “To make themselves feel better, women are then tempted to exhibit inappropriate, stereotypical behaviours such as gossiping, alliance-building, exclusion, ‘The Silent Treatment’… and so on. All of these subtle ways to essentially avoid facing their Friendship Fires® (as we call them) head on. Of course, these behaviours actually make their Friendship Fires® bigger!
And, when Friendship Fires® are never put out, that’s when resentment sets in.”
So how should you handle Friendship Fires? I spoke to the experts to solve some of the most common friendship conundrums.
The Big Bang Theory, Friends, Sex and The City et al have all taught us that having a gang of close knit friends is incredibly important, but how true is that in real life? “Recently I realised that I haven’t really got a core group anymore,” Lisa, 31, tells me. “I moved to Dublin a couple of years ago so I’ve kind of grown apart from a lot of my school pals from home. In the city, I have a gaggle of pals, but none of them are really interlinked. When I see groups of girls posting #SquadGoals pics on Instagram or going away on girls’ trips together, it makes me feel incredibly jealous and I often feel like I’m missing out. Am I?”
Well, “the reality,” says Dana, “is that the ‘group mentality’ in friendships actually makes things very complicated. We want people to think about each of their friendships individually; surrounding themselves with friendships that feel good and centre on trust and respect. Every friendship is different, so it’s important to think of each friendship separately and focus on what each friendship brings to your life.
“You might have a friend you’d definitely call if you needed some advice, a friend you’d call if you wanted a good laugh or a fun night out, or a friend you’d call if you needed help on a project,” Dana clarifies. “Each friendship is unique and requires its own instruction manual. What works with one friend, might not work with another friend, so it’s important that people learn what each friendship brings to their life and focus on that!”
Irene concurs with this thinking. “The number and types of friendships someone has vary greatly based on personality and opportunity,” she explains. “Some people prefer a smaller number of intimate relationships; others prefer to socialise in groups, so it’s important for people to recognise their personal preferences. Even in a group, friendships aren’t equal as some people within the group will have a dyadic (twosome) relationship,” she adds.
Basically? Sometimes the group dynamic is more drama than its worth.
Maybe she’s so negative that you sometimes feel like you need to run for cover, maybe she drops you backhanded compliments on the reg, or maybe, just maybe, you have a sneaky suspicion you just can’t trust her. “An unhealthy friendship is any relationship that is lacking the three requirements of all healthy relationships: positive feelings, consistent interaction, and vulnerable sharing,” clarifies Shasta Nelson, author of Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Heath and Happiness, and CEO of GirlFriendCircles.com— a women’s friendship site. “We know that any relationship that isn’t feeling good is because at least one of these requirements is low.”
So what should you do? “The first step in any relationship that is feeling stressful is to assess the relationship and identify the requirement that is causing the angst,” Shasta advises. “For example: Is it because you leave her presence feeling drained (lack of positivity), is it because you hardly ever see her and she never reaches out to you (lack of consistency), or is it because she does all the talking and never asks you about your life (lack of mutual vulnerability)? Once we can identify which requirement is missing or low— we can then put together a strategy to respond.”
Next? “Ideally you always start with brainstorming how you can raise that missing requirement—how you personally can increase the positivity, consistency, or vulnerability in that relationship,” says Shasta. “Additionally, you can also have a conversation with your friend to help think through ways you can focus on increasing that missing requirement.”
The key is to address issues tactfully. “So if you feel like she’s always complaining and that you need to increase your positivity you might say to her the next time you’re together, ‘I was reading something the other day about how important gratitude is in every friendship… It made me think it might be a good idea for us to share some things in our lives we’re most grateful for right now. Would you be willing to do that’” Shasta advises.
“Your primary goal,” she concludes, “is always to try to repair the friendship and get it back in balance, especially if it’s a friendship with a lot of history or that has been meaningful.
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