Do you have any advice for young women navigating female friendships? In the fall, my daughter (a freshman) got along so well with her roommate in her dorm but now is really struggling with this relationship. I have noticed a pattern of intense connections with her female friends, and then she becomes disappointed or decides to become aloof with them. Thank you.
Books have been written on your question.* I will offer my 500-word perspective knowing it is woefully incomplete by comparison!
What you’re describing of your daughter’s experience is not uncommon. Female friendships can be rich, intensely satisfying — and deeply fraught. Throw in the adjustment to college, being away from the familiarity of home, and living in close and COVID-ified quarters, and you’ve got yourself some of the trickiest interpersonal waters life has to offer. Take those dynamics and contextualize them in age-old narrative myths that women are competitive, catty, insecure and vain? There's potential for heartache and confusion at every turn.
Of course there is also no question that female friendships profoundly enrich our lives. If being a woman in a man's world diminishes us (in the U.S. women still make between $.57 and $.75 on the dollar compared to men, endure sexual harassment in both public and private spaces, and have our reproductive decisions governed by others), then female friendship counterbalances and uplifts us.
Female friendships address deep psychological needs and raise issues of identity and boundaries. And in young adulthood, with our identities still forming and emerging, our relationships with women provide not only companionship and comfort, they help us figure out who we are. There’s a lot riding on them, which can heat up the fireball when they crash and burn.
We often project our best and worst selves onto our friends. If I’m feeling good about myself, I look at my friend and get the feeling she feels good about me also. And that makes me feel loving towards her. Nice.
But when I’m not feeling good about myself, when I’m judgy about whether or not I’m a smart/beautiful/worthy person, I look at my friend and attribute those judgments to her. And then I feel rejected or judged and vulnerable. Not so nice.
Meanwhile, my friend, just like me, wants to be seen and loved. If all I see when I look at her is a projection of how I feel about myself, she feels overlooked and rightly so. Oy. Complicated.
The work we need to do in making our relationships healthy is often around reeling those projections back in and taking ownership of how we feel about ourselves. When we see past the mirror we’ve put in front of our friend’s face, we can truly be ourselves and see who they are.
That makes for a healthy, loving friendship. Boundaries are present but permeable and we no longer attribute our judgments about ourselves to other people. I’m almost 60 and still working on this, so it’s worth reminding your daughter to be patient as she learns how to do this work.
If you’ve been reading my column, you know that my advice will start with asking your daughter some questions. The first, of course, is whether she wants to talk about her relationships with women. If the answer is no, then you walk away.
If the answer is yes, it might help to start by asking her to tell the story of one of these friendships. As the story unfolds, you’ll hear clues about what happened and how your daughter felt about things and responded to them.
Approach her story with curiosity, asking questions like, “What did she say, and then what did you feel?”
If you can help your daughter express some of the feelings she's had along the way in her friendships, you might begin to see more depth to the patterns you’ve already observed, and then be able to help her see some connections. “Ah, so when she didn’t include you that time, it felt like she iced you out,” or “When you were feeling especially generous, you were also feeling kind of lonely and wanted something from her also…”
It’s entirely possible that your daughter has poured enormous energy into connecting with women but is still a stranger to herself. Hopefully telling her stories will begin to reveal her relationship to her own inner self — whether she's aware of her own needs, how she seeks to get those needs met, and what her expectations of relationships with women are all about.
From there, I would want to know more about the intensity factor. I’d ask what she is looking for in her female friendships, and if she can think of commonalities or themes. Helping her see that her friendships have been something of a mirror, and then helping her reconcile what she's been seeing in that mirror, will help her clarify what she sees and begin to separate what is her from what is her friends. And clarity will equip her with more choices in how she pursues, develops, nurtures or ends her friendships.
*Further reading: Deborah Tannen’s You’re The Only One I Can Tell