Your Female Friendships Might Be Ruining Your Life

How close is too close?
May 10, 2018, 1:39pm
Photo: Image Source / Alamy Stock Photo

I am lying in bed with my friend Leah*, who is crying. A small bit of me feels bad for Leah – who is crying because she has depression – but a bigger, more honest bit feels happy. Leah and I have been friends since we were 11, but in the last year or so something has shifted. She got a new job, and then she got a boyfriend, and then they bought two fish together and called them "2018" and "Lana Del Rey". I was living in the room above Leah at the time, and sometimes I could hear her feeding them. I would lie really still and listen to the low hum of the fish tank and think dark thoughts about how full and happy her life was without me in it. Around the same time her boyfriend bought them a bigger tank, I moved back in with my parents.

So when Leah called me and asked me to come over, it was a rush. I held her while she cried and asked in a sensitive voice whether she had confided in anyone else yet, and when she said "no" I felt needed, and kind, even pure.

This weird, possessive behaviour is a relatively new thing for me, but I have always enjoyed the claustrophobic intimacy of female friendship. All of my relationships are over a decade old, and they're founded on the shared mythology that you love each other more than all new friends, and definitely more than you could ever love a partner. Watching these friends get engaged/become employed/talk at length about how much they want to move to Margate has made me realise this mythology might be a bit flawed. It's not just that I'm bored: I'm actively unhappy that they’re happy. I feel these women are most themselves, most mine, when they are calling me crying. So I've started to look forward to them calling me crying.

Most of us feel fiercely proud if we've managed to sustain very close, old friendships. But the very intensity of those friendships might actually be making us mentally ill. As women, we have been socialised to trade confidences: to really know and be known by another human, we have to offer up our most private thoughts and experiences. That ability to share pain is part of what makes female friendship so precious – you feel your friend is tangled into your guts in some anguished, formative way, because your closeness is predicated on making yourselves vulnerable to one another. Dubbed "co-rumination" by psychologist Amanda Rose, this sharing and revisiting of problems together is proven to trigger depression. Rose found that while girls who co-ruminated enjoyed closer relationships with their friends, they were also more susceptible to emotional disorders.

If the closeness of your friendship is dependent on shared pain, there's also the danger that you might start manufacturing that pain to keep the relationship going. Leah and I probably both enjoyed that day of crying together a bit, because it was a shortcut to an intimacy between us that had lately been dying. A kind of cheap hit. Speaking to me over email, Amanda Rose explains that in your mid-twenties, as friends start to find happinesses outside one another, "one or both friends may try [to] generate or exaggerate problems to talk about in order to maintain the friendship, and doing so certainly could elevate their risk of depression and anxiety".

Rose calls this a "worst case scenario", but I reckon it's pretty common. Mila*, a photographer in her late fifties, tells me that when her best friend put her down as her emergency number before she had an operation, she started fantasising about getting the 3AM call: "I was quite excited and actually wanted something bad to happen to her so that she would need me. More than her family, more than her husband, she thought the person she needed in a crisis was me. It was hugely flattering."

The idea that you and your friend can be everything to one another is so seductive it tends to become a part of your identity. The role you play in that friendship might mean suppressing significant aspects of yourself, but you don’t know who you would be without the friendship, so you stick to that role. Morgan*, 31, tells me that the intensity of her relationship with her friends made it difficult to express her sexuality.

"I sort of see my early friendships back home in Australia as romantic. Not in the sense that they were sexual, but that they were so full on. I get very defensive, and find it difficult to acknowledge any problems with my teenage friendships, because they were so formative – but I guess there was homophobia. I remember hoping I wasn’t a lesbian, and when I had a sexual experience with a girl I couldn’t tell anyone. It makes me sad that I’ve carried that into my thirties, and I think it’s got something to do with the hold that those friendships have over me.”

Psychologist and author Carol Topolski tells me that holding onto this kind of friendship might also be a way of avoiding growing up. "The safety of the familiar is very compelling," she says. "Losing a friend requires a kind of mourning. You’re losing someone who represents a significant part of your history." Morgan explains that level of closeness as a kind of prolonged adolescence: "I was obsessed with them. I still am. I had this one friend who could just absolutely make me lose my shit. I can't laugh like I laughed then. She completely got under my skin – I don’t think anyone else could ever make me feel that way. I suppose it wasn't sustainable. That's partly why I moved to the UK."

Photo: HEX LLC. / Alamy Stock Photo

There's a kind of shame attached to being the friend who can't let go. It's as if the lights have gone up and all the intricate, unspoken threads that bind you together are revealed for what they've always been: suffocating and objectively mad. Suddenly you’re confronted by how much, and how desperately, you want.

But when I ask Morgan whether we need to change our expectations of female friendship – expect less – she says no: "I hate that. We shouldn’t have to shun those human qualities – like loneliness and wanting to be needed – that's how human relationships work. If you have deep friendships they should be raw. You should depend on each other."

In the interests of resolution, I give Leah a call. This time I cry, and then we do a bit of co-ruminating about our friendship. "Yeah, I did know that some part of you didn’t want me to be happy" – the phone line keeps cutting out because she’s speaking to me from a ferry, where I’ve interrupted her holiday with her boyfriend – "But I got to this stage where I was afraid that being the 'sweet', 'nice' friend was all I would ever be. It was a conscious decision to try and be more."

It’s a nice conversation. In the end, we lose connection, but she texts me a few hours later to tell me one of the fish is dead.


*Some names have been changed.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.