Some time ago I invited a good friend and her cat stay with me, someone I’ve known for years. She was in need, I have a big house with a spare room. I won’t litigate what happened next because the details of an unraveled friendship aren’t all that interesting, and she isn’t here to defend herself. What is accurate is that the friendship ended swiftly and abruptly. The sort of ending one imagines with burning fields or using nuclear codes.
So, no going back.
About three weeks later I realized I was left with a flea infestation. In an 1870’s house with cracks and crevices everywhere this is an unmitigated nightmare. Pro tip: don’t try to handle it yourself, hire an exterminator. For the two plus weeks I paraded around my home in knee-high, ski socks (see below) washing and drying every, single, goddam thing, I had plenty of time to think about what went wrong.
I’ve had a small handful of friendships over a lifetime that ended suddenly. Each one a painful and confusing experience. None I saw coming, all with women. I don’t mean to imply this can’t happen with men, but that has not been my experience. I have always had close male friends. The relationships contract and expand, but never implode.
Could some of the reason be that there is less closeness in male/female friendships? When I examine this further, it doesn’t ring true. My men friends and I share intensely personal details of our lives, and spend hours exploring life’s mysteries mixed with loads of teasing (my favorite). If there is a missing emotional component, it isn’t apparent to me.
As I dodged flea bites and inspected myself for the hangers-on, a thought occurred to me; these defunct relationships had one characteristic in common, the inability to give or take realistic feedback both inside the friendship and (I observed) with others. The tax was to never challenge the other’s bad thinking.
I have found that female friendships use cheerleading as a way to bond; let’s drink wine and tell each other how great we are! Nothing wrong with that, it’s a lovely boost. That boost can become a straight-jacket when part of the encouragement becomes propping up one another’s missteps.
With my male friends I come right out and say when something is amiss, or if I think they are doing the wrong thing. I want it to land well, but I don’t worry this might be the end of the friendship. With women, I often stay silent. The reactions to any perceived criticism is often defensiveness, withdrawal, or outright anger. Pretty effective tools at shutting others down.
I wonder if we are socializing women to be unable to hear direct feedback. Or, maybe women hear so much in their early lives they can no longer tolerate it as adults?
Either way it stifles a friendship. Then, one day, seemingly out of nowhere, they flatten or are abandoned. Creating avenues for less fun dialog acts as a safety valve, relieving the pressure for lasting closeness.
Being open and able to hear people’s real experience of you can be a valuable tool, and an asset in deepening relationships. I’ve heard things over the years that have helped me soften my sharp edges, and learn greater empathy. I’ve been humbled by my mistakes and blind spots. It’s never fun getting feedback that I’m not wonderful all the time, but necessary for both sides of the friendship.
I don’t think the inability to tolerate criticism is unique to women, but it’s worth asking if this is more true across a population for women than men, why that might be, and how it’s hurting us?
I want close relationships with women and men. Women are generous in ways men rarely are. Every time I get sick it’s women who run towards me in full sprint.
Is it a gender issue or just my luck of the draw? What I do know is that I’ll be cultivating relationships with people who offer and accept a dose of reality and a generous quantity of forgiveness.
I need both in equal measure.