Tuesday 6 December 2016

Tanya Sweeney: 'Women are complex, imperfect and messy, so it stands to reason that their friendships also will be'

Tanya Sweeney

Published 26/11/2015 | 08:35

Tanya Sweeney
Tanya Sweeney

It’s safe to assume that across the wide swathe of literature and pop culture, female friendship is having a moment. And why not? It’s certainly a rich seam to mine.

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Since Bridesmaids lit the blue touch paper there’s been TV’s Girls, Broad City, Doll & Em and Playing House, while on the big screen there has been Frances Ha, Mistress America and Tangerines. Elena Ferrante’s literary sensation My Brilliant Friend and Emily Gould’s Friendship also neatly encapsulate how friendships can wax and wane.

Ultimately, however, the message is clear; the bond between two females is unbreakable. It may shapeshift, but it can never be destroyed. You’ll have seen it on meh Facebook memes and in Hallmark aisles — your female friends will always have your back.

Except… well, that’s really only half the story. Women are complex, imperfect and messy, so it stands to reason that their relationships — platonic, familial, romantic — will be.

The an uncomfortable truth is that women can treat each other with magnificent unrepentant cruelty. The childish competitiveness isn’t left at the school gates. No, it is a constant companion, lurking in the shadows and waiting to rot a ‘sismance’.

From my vantage point, it seems as though male friendships don’t seem to go through quite the same cycle. Men hold on to pals for decades, barely knowing the names of their friends’ parents, much less their addresses. But there’s something comforting in this lack of complication. Women, by contrast, foster white-hot intimacy among their pals, trading secrets and truisms to bolster a budding relationship. We’re more prone to friendship ‘flings’. When it’s good, it’s very good, but when it’s bad, the backlash is severe.

Perhaps some of the problem is that we romanticise female friendships and see them as a solace in our lives. We expect so much from these friendships that they are likely to buckle under such pressure when the reality doesn’t match up.

I’m lucky to have a small handful of friends who have my best interests at heart, and I theirs. There is genuine intimacy, care, joy and love there. But they are a small number among dozens of others who have infracted ‘girl code’: the social freezing out. The cruel chasing of someone you might have a tentative crush on. The competitive dieting. The piercing bitching. The hidden agendas.

I’m not alone — a paper commissioned by the UK’s Social Issues Research Centre found that the lifespans of friendships for women my age are getting smaller.

Kelly Vane, the US-based author of Twisted Sisterhood, commissioned a survey and found that out of 3,000 respondents to her survey, 90pc of women had at least one girlfriend to turn to, yet 88pc of them said that there was indeed an undercurrent of meanness and negativity that plagues them.

An equal number said they’d suffered palpable emotional wounding at the hands of other women from meanness, manipulation and cruelty.

While several women will decry that they have no time for undermining friendships, often can’t be helped. We live in a culture where female envy and jealousy are shown to us every day. Typically, women have been made acutely aware that there isn’t enough to go around — opportunities, fortune, eligible men. We are conditioned to a mindset of lack.

The good news is that, as women get older, toxic, competitive relationships fall by the wayside. The ones left standing are the ones to cherish.

I’m a fan of the Nora Ephron way of making friends: pinpointing funny, interesting, accomplished women in one’s orbit and asking them to lunch or dropping them an email.

I’m not likely to make the first move when it comes to men, but I’ve little reserve when it comes to approaching women. It ensures that you are surrounded by the right kind of women, and your friendships have at least gotten off on the right footing. The trust and respect come later.

And if they last beyond the lifespan of a fling, so much the better.

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