Jill Filipovic on female friendships and the forces that break them

Jill Filipovic released The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness on May 2, 2017. Female friendships are front and center. (Image credit: Fora.)

Jill Filipovic released The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness on May 2, 2017. Female friendships are front and center. (Image credit: Fora.)

I have a friend, Alice, whom I’ve known practically since exiting the womb. Our moms were in a childcare class together while pregnant. We were born within days of each other; our parents enrolled us in the same pre-school, put us in front of the same TV to watch Barney, and gave us the same lectures about the merits of broccoli (though we only agreed to eat it with butter).

After going off to separate elementary schools, we reunited as sophomores in high school and became confidantes, lab partners, and Friday night consumers of Japanese Hibachi. Something we’d talk about -- especially once we parted ways for college -- was the meaning of friendship longevity. Was a platonic relationship worth something after it ended? Should we feel guilty about not keeping in touch with former friends of ours? Hurt that they weren’t keeping in touch with us?

Jill Filipovic, in her recent book The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness, devotes an entire chapter to friendship among women, addressing many of the questions I’ve struggled to answer when it comes to maintaining strong female bonds. Remembering her first best friend, a girl named Adriene, Filipovic writes:

“We met in second grade, both of us short brunettes who liked writing, soccer, and purple leggings...When I ran for student government in the fourth grade, she was my campaign manager; when I lost, she was also my companion at our favorite Mexican restaurant, where I wore a too-fancy dress and cried over my bean burrito.”

They “hit high school still inseparable,” weathering the trials of swim team and cheerleading try-outs, and then:

“She got boobs, and swiftly after, a boyfriend. Our relationship fell apart. I didn’t like the guy she was dating, and at sixteen, I didn’t yet have the sense to understand that she probably knew what she wanted better than I did. I was judgmental and critical, and she retreated. It was a long, slow, and painful severing of what was up until that point a lifelong tie.”

Filipovic’s first takeaway is that “if you’re not careful, men can cleave apart even the strongest female bonds,” but when she fast-forwards fifteen years, she explores a much subtler force that undermines female friendships: the emotional discomfort of watching your friend’s priorities shift, especially when that shift is directed away from you. Filipovic reflects on a close college friend who slowly dropped off the grid after getting engaged:

“We were used to spending so much time together that scaling back to even once a week, or once every two or three weeks, felt like a big loss. Intellectually I understood that [she] was being pulled in different directions, and that, with only so many hours in the day, it was reasonable that she wanted to spend more of them with her partner. But emotionally it was hard...I vacillated between missing her terribly and resenting her absence.”
From Rebecca Traister's 2016 New York Times article, "What women get from friendships that they don't get from love." Illustration by Clare Rojas.

From Rebecca Traister's 2016 New York Times article, "What women get from friendships that they don't get from love." Illustration by Clare Rojas.

It’s this internal tension that fascinates me: the need for closeness, the resentment that blossoms in its absence, and the often irreconcilable distance between understanding your friend’s new priorities and being pushed to the side because of them. 

Revisiting Adriene, Filipovic acknowledges that what fueled their separation wasn’t solely the entry of a high school boy, but the emotional landscape of jealousy and criticism that emerged in his wake:

“I was both jealous [of Adriene] and, being significantly less striking and significantly more bookish, left behind. I made some new friends, who she thought were snobby. Eventually, I went off to college in New York, and she got a job and stayed in our hometown. We haven’t spoken since.”

It seems that the forces within us -- judgment, insecurity, jealousy -- can do as much damage as competition from romantic relationships and busy careers.

When I look back at friendships I’ve cherished and seen dissolve, it’s often because instances of judgment, hurt, and envy clouded the caring relationships underneath. There's the friend whose choices I judged, leading to a rift; the friend who made cooler friends than me, and whose new social status made me feel inferior; the friend who prioritized work at times when I needed support, and whom I silently assumed must not care as much about me as I hoped.

It’s not easy to correct course when this kind of negativity seeps into any kind of relationship, but at least romantic ones come with protocols: couples can visit a relationship therapist, for instance, or decide to officially part ways through a breakup. But in friendships, Filipovic notes, there’s no model we can follow: 

Even though friendships between women are pervasive, definitional and life sustaining, there’s often little recognition of them. There are no anniversaries or milestones to celebrate, not even an assumption or understanding that friendships often outshine romantic relationships...There’s also no road map for them, especially as women age out of their twenties. They contribute more in terms of health and happiness than just about anything else in a woman’s life, and they can cause pain as deep as any heartbreak. They are socially, and sometimes personally, taken for granted.

Beyond taking friendships for granted, our culture often encourages us to allow friends to drift, as though letting go were a sign of maturity and self-actualization. I once had a therapist suggest I had “outgrown” a friend whose anxieties I couldn’t understand. And while I didn’t attend MIT, I still remember reading this “freshman year survival guide” that floated across my Facebook feed when I was 18. The first piece of advice: “Your friends will change a lot over the next four years. Let them.” Even Filipovic admits, “It’s a natural thing, friendships ebbing and flowing and adjusting.”

It’s an enticing philosophy: go with the flow, don’t force things, let it be. Perhaps, with fair-weather friends, there’s wisdom to giving in to the tide. But when it comes to relationships you truly treasure, you risk forging a distance that becomes too far to cross, as did Filipovic, who still thinks about her first best friend Adriene “with great affection and great regret.”

So where is the meaning to be found in receding friendships? Despite talking this question to death on the phone and over tea, neither Alice nor I have landed on an answer much different from Filipovic’s:

"Through the years, it has been our relationships with other women that have largely buoyed us into adulthood and that have shaped our experiences, our preferences, and our ideas about who we are.”

Losing friends hurts, even when the loss comes in the nebulous form of shifting personalities and new priorities. But perhaps receding friendships aren’t quite receding after all, so much as evolving to fit a new set of uncharted circumstances.

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Thoughts on your own evolving friendships? Comment below - I'd love to hear them.