Why do my female friendships fizzle out? | Friendship – Help US

The question I have immense trouble maintaining female friendships. I grew up with three older brothers, have a whole bunch of great longstanding friendships with men, and a few friendships with women from back in the day, but we don’t live near each other now. Every woman I’ve ever befriended since childhood ends up ghosting me.

I’ve been racking my brain about why these female friendships always fizzle out. I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong that would justify ditching me. In fact, I have supported these women over the years when they’ve been in tricky situations.

I spoke to a male friend recently and he said that the women who have cut me off didn’t have all the things I have: children, money, a rich husband, a successful career and a good lifestyle. I was shocked that envy may be the reason these friendships have failed.

I have high expectations for myself and have views about female independence, but have never commented negatively on my friends’ lives. I have sought to encourage them and told them how clever, attractive and funny they are. I don’t know what I can do differently. Can female friendships only function between absolute equals? Do I need to hide my success to maintain friendships with women?

Philippa’s answer Whatever is happening, it is doing so outside your consciousness. It might be of temporary comfort were I to say it’s not you, it’s them – but as this keeps on happening, I do think it is probably you. You aren’t doing anything wrong intentionally and, if you can do some detective work to find out what it is, maybe there can be change.

A lot of people find relationships with one sex more difficult than with those of the other. In therapy, if their problem is with women, I ask such clients to tell me how they experienced their relationship with their mother – or their father if men are the issue. Sometimes we can learn whether that relationship became a blueprint for subsequent relationships. We often find an early coping strategy or core belief, which helped someone survive childhood, might be holding them back in adulthood.

Maybe you have some unhelpful beliefs about friendship that you may have needed in order to get along with your brothers? Don’t add to these beliefs with yet another about equals and envy. Human interactions are complex and cannot be reduced to clichés about either gender.

If I envy a friend who has something I’d love to have, (in my case grandchildren or a kitchen island) it doesn’t make me want to ghost them. I’m more likely to want to hang around that island and play with those children. I might fade away from someone’s life if they made me feel I was lacking as a person. It’s unlikely to be envy that keeps women away, but it might be that you somehow make others feel inferior. Remember, people are neither their jobs, their relationships, their possessions, nor their children. They are valuable and equal whatever they have, or haven’t got.

From early on we pick up the clichéd folklore that girls gossip, bitch and are weak while boys are straightforward and strong. Both girls and boys internalise these messages. Society seems to value men more so, as a girl, if you are said to be “one of the boys” it can be felt as a compliment and make you feel superior to other girls. It might also be possible that as the only girl among three boys you may have fallen into thinking of yourself as special, which doesn’t go down well with other women.

The way you described helping women friends didn’t come across to me like it was the usual two-way exchange of mutual support. I’m not getting a sense of your sharing your own vulnerabilities with others, which is usually a part of close friendships. You may be coming across as somehow saying, “Be like I am, have my attitude, then you’ll have what I have.” Other people may hear this as: “Don’t be you, be me.” It is rare that someone wants to be fixed by a friend. Instead, we usually want to be understood. Maybe you can accept men as they are, but seem to think that women need to change. Or maybe you automatically, unknowingly, seek out female friends to whom you can feel superior. Some internalised misogyny might be being sensed by others.

Whatever it is that is happening to cause your problem, it is likely the result of your early environment. We’ve all soaked up stories where most protagonists are men and most women are at best side-kicks – no wonder there is unconscious bias that interferes with the way we relate. Recently, I peeled back a few more layers of my own unconscious bias on reading the novel A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes. To understand a female perspective in a deeper way I would recommend reading more fiction by women. Another way to increase self-awareness would be to try a women’s therapy group. The feedback just might be invaluable: groupanalysis.org.

If you have a question, send a brief email to askphilippa@observer.co.uk

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