From the flicker when a woman wordlessly hands you a tissue while you’re crying on a train to the blaze of a 20-year relationship that has covered every crisis and celebration, female friendship is like no other bond on Earth.
Sure, I experienced my fair share of Mean Girls crap at my all-girls school but in adulthood my female friends feel like safe harbour. Especially today, as someone constantly being let down by wastemen in the dating world since I became single again following the death of my husband, my mates are who I rely on. They understand me, make me laugh and make me grow.
It’s no mere coincidence that our friendships form a protective umbrella against the shitstorm that is being alive. A study published by academics at the University of California in 2000 found that women are more likely to bond with one another during times of stress. They called this the "tend and befriend" tendency, stemming from our desire to promote safety and reduce distress.
For some of us, the closeness of our friends could literally determine our survival. One study published in Oncology Times found that women with early stage breast cancer were much more likely to survive if they had a strong social group.
While there can be no doubt about the power of female friendships, lately I have been wondering whether we place too much pressure on them and whether our expectations of one another are realistic.
When female friendships break down, it doesn’t feel like a romantic break-up. For me, it often feels far worse – like I’ve failed not just myself and them but also the sisterhood.
While there can be no doubt about the power of female friendships, I have been wondering if we put too much pressure on them and whether our expectations are realistic.
More than that, I’ve noticed that it takes quite a lot for a friendship to end. There are always warning signs – indicators that we were growing apart or just had different priorities – but these were steadfastly ignored because to acknowledge them would be to admit that the relationship wasn’t perfect. Perhaps we put up with more from our friends than we would from a romantic partner before it gets to the point where the relationship has broken down.
It’s not hard to understand why this happens. In a world where we are bombarded by so much gender-based injustice, from the tampon tax to #MeToo and the gender pay gap, friendship between women becomes a votive for all our hopes and dreams, our kindness and our love. When it fails, it feels particularly painful and profound.
For me, the pressure and unrealistic expectations placed on female friendships owes something to the increasingly pervasive narrative that women’s relationships with one another can be all-sustaining love stories. I remember the seed of the idea being planted way back when in Sex and the City, when Carrie and friends suggested that they, rather than men, could be each other’s soulmates.
For cis heterosexual women such as myself, this concept has emerged as a way of extricating ourselves from relying on men to make us happy, freeing us from settling down with someone just because that’s what we’ve been told we ought to do. So in some ways it is liberating.
But I question how well it is actually serving us. Just as we can’t expect our romantic partnerships to provide a tonic for all our ills, we can’t look to our friendships for this either. I’m not sure swapping one for the other will do anything to free us from looking to others to plug the supposed holes in our lives.
I’m not alone in feeling that it’s all gotten a bit much. Laura Jane Williams, a novelist who writes 'romance for cynics' in her bestselling love story, Our Stop, agrees. "I just don’t think the notion that your friends can replace the figure of a romantic love is a realistic one – mostly because I don’t believe you have to 'replace' anything," she says. "It sets expectations far too high and pressurises all of us. And then what happens when the rules change, when your replacement lover gets her own lover?"
"You’re asking for trouble," she adds. "A full life means yes, sharing it with key people, but it also means taking responsibility for your own happiness and understanding the ebb and flow of key relationships in our lives."
Things tend to get a bit rocky when someone gets married or has children, which suggests to me that we find it hard to adapt to change when we've put too much emphasis on a friendship.
Looking back over my friendships – especially the long ones that have ended or faded out – the common problem areas came about over either the introduction of a new partner or a major lifestyle change. There were a lot of reasons why one of my oldest friendships ended but a catalyst was that she was in a long-term relationship with a partner who I didn’t like, and when I then met my future husband after being perennially single, she didn’t like that it took away from time with her. Things tend to get a bit rocky when someone gets married or has children, which suggests to me that we find it hard to adapt to change when we’ve put too much emphasis on a friendship.
It cuts both ways, too. I have married friends who’ve struggled to adjust to new commitments to their spouse because they’ve realised that their friendships will change as a result. By the same token, I’ve struggled with friends who’ve had children and had to learn to adjust and find a middle ground rather than expecting we’d just carry on as before.
Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of You're The Only One I Can Tell: Inside The Language of Women's Friendships, found in her research that women tend to avoid confrontation with friends in case things get messy. She also found that women can be competitive about their connections with one another, which can lead to conflict. Those of us replacing the ideal of romantic love with the love of friendship, and hoping for a less complicated life, may find the opposite.
Mess is perfectly okay though, says Kate Leaver, author of The Friendship Cure, an exploration and study of modern friendship. "Anyone who is expecting their female friends to be perfect cheerleaders in their life is probably not being real about the way human beings operate," she tells me.
Perhaps the hardest thing to acknowledge with any friendship is that sometimes relationships end, and friendships are no exception.
"Sometimes your female friends will annoy you, let you down, betray you, forget you, bore you or do wrong by you. I've spoken to women who feel like they're somehow failing because they don't have a picture-perfect friendship group in their lives, like the ones they see in pop culture and the media," she adds.
Perhaps the hardest thing to acknowledge with any friendship is that sometimes relationships end, and friendships are no exception. It’s part of life.
"Just because we adore our friends," says Kate, "doesn't mean our relationships with them are in any way immune to things like jealousy, boredom, spite, betrayal, apathy, busyness or simply a change in life circumstance that weakens your compatibility."
"In fact, treating friendship as though it is untouchable and eternal often does nothing but set us up for disappointment," she adds, "because inevitably some or even a lot of our friendships will fail, fade from our lives or end – either quietly or in conflict."
I wouldn’t be half the person I am today without my female friends. The ones who have stayed the course continue to surprise me; they are the historians of my life and make me laugh through even the heaviest mental fog.
But I also know that people aren’t perfect and that they can let you down, often without meaning to. It’s about finding the balance of personal connection without weighing another person down with expectations of happiness and fulfilment that, really, I should be responsible for myself.