Like many of my other reflections, this was inspired by an emotional scratch that was started by friction with a friend. In this case, it’s the sparkiest friction to date with a friend that I care deeply about. By now, we’ve come to a resolution by arguing, taking time away, and then talking once we had more clarity. We fought primarily because she felt that she was overextending herself and I was not making myself available or vulnerable enough. There is much more nuance to our situation, but let’s focus on this “over-” and “under-extending” driver.
After a few e-mails were exchanged right after our argument, we finally got ourselves on a phone call and talked about what we were feeling. We clawed back and forth with statements of self-expression:
“I felt that you…”
“…and, you made it hard for me to…”
“If I don’t behave this way then you…”
The over- and under-extension, perceived by both sides, is a result of our expectations. One of the most illuminating ideas that I have come across is from Martha Nussbaum (who I’ve cited before), a prolific contemporary philosopher who writes about emotions (among many other topics). Martha has written that our feelings are cognitive in nature because they embody our expectations.
You cannot over- or under-extend without referencing a line that tells you what is appropriate. What is your rose-y pink line of an appropriate friendship based on?
When we think of what a good friendship means to us, it’s an image informed by what we’ve seen throughout our lifetimes. What were our parents’ friendships like, what was pop culture telling us, how did our very first friendships from childhood develop? Not only are we influenced by the models of friendship that we passively consume, but also by our sense of self. How I am expected to behave and when I get feedback from others is relevant.
Every other that I know of, prefers women to be warm, accommodating, graceful, a good listener. While those are characteristics with positive connotations, the fact that we are preferred to behave like that is what can become insulting. There’s no spectrum for warmth or grace, it’s either you are or aren’t, and so breaking this binary mold is easy. We carry these expectations with us, and use them as a measuring stick for the relationships in our lives.
It’s rather distasteful to admit to our judgmental tendencies. For the sake of clarity, I think what most people mean when they exclaim “I’m not a judgmental person but…” is that they are not going to overweight their perception of a person on just a few data points. But, implicitly, we all acknowledge, that at some point, we will draw a conclusion. We do need to draw a conclusion, so that we can make a decision about whether a thing or person is desirable in our lives. We’re all judgmental: we spend our days in a continuous cycle of assessment, discriminating what we like from what we don’t, but differ on how big we need our sample sizes to be. Now, where this otherwise respectable approach can become distasteful is when we are in a trough or a peak of emotion with someone that we care about. In that moment in time, we need to administer perspective, to afford our loved ones with the tolerance that we believe they deserve, while still exercising our judgment.
Ironically, the burdens that me and my female friends often commiserate about, we can unintentionally place on each other. In my case, my friend and I were punishing each other, however mildly, for the burdens that the nebulous voice of society had put on us. Our friendship was caught in the cross-hairs. Had we not talked clearly and directly, and acknowledged that our feelings had as much to do with our dialogue that we have with ourselves on a daily basis as they did with the conversations we had with each other, then we would have never been able to move on.
Women have to befriend one another for a reason other than mutual enjoyment and care: by engaging in honest friendships, we engage in self-liberation. By asking for what we always need and sometimes want, we literally give ourselves permission to live life on our own terms. We become allies for each other every time we give our friend what she’s asked for. In a world where even the least ideological of countries, least guided by religion and other mystical dogma, emphasizes physical beauty for women, promotes narrow standards of physical beauty, pays women less than our male counterparts, asks us to Lean In but can punish us when we do, living on our own terms is a challenging endeavor. While workplaces and other communities that we’re a part of take more effort to navigate on our own terms, female friendships can be empowering opportunities for self-expression.
On a spectrum for relationships, wholeheartedly befriending other women definitely takes effort. But, it is an effort that when done with deliberation, isn’t just well worth it, it’s necessary.