What do healthy female friendships look like?
June 23, 2023 6:01 AM   Subscribe

I realised years back that I was attracted to men who weren't very nice to me or emotionally mature. Luckily I managed to overcome that. But I'm now realising that I do something similar in female friendships, because I don't have a clear picture of what healthy female friendships can look like. Can you give me some examples of non-toxic, nourishing relationships between women--either in media/literature, or from your own life?

Since a very young age I was a stand-in best friend for my mum, as her very close sister died around the time I was born. My mum loves to gossip and speculate about people and their motives, she reads a lot into situations she has no idea about and takes things personally when they might have nothing to do with her. I was a sounding board for her problems, including with my dad and other family members, and I grew up thinking this was normal.

Throughout my teens and twenties, I seemed to end up in friendships with similar people. I have a hard time reaching out and making friends, so often I would become friends with those who were friendly to me. These women have often wanted to get intimate and talk about very personal topics very quickly, and I somehow end up blurting things out that I wasn't sure I wanted to share. They express frustration about e.g. common workplace annoyances, or a colleague who may or may not have bad intentions, and I respond the same way I would with my mum: offering empathy and advice. I think I want to make them happy so I try to mirror their behaviour? They wouldn't know that I feel emotionally overwhelmed by the drama.

What's good is that I've recognised these friendships in my life and have moved on from them. I still have one close friend from university who doesn't fit these patterns at all, but she has been overwhelmed for a long time with a high-needs partner and child. When I see her (rarely) I do a lot of babysitting while she rests. I would love to make new friends now, and I'm excited to go out and join groups related to my interests, like a local women-only choir and book club. But I'm a little worried about getting swept up into a toxic friendship. I think I don't really know how female friendships operate when the main topic of conversation isn't the feelings and behaviours of the people close to you. How can I make sure that I enter the relationship as a healthy friend, myself? What should we talk about? How do you develop intimacy without revealing personal details about yourself?

This question is a bit jumbled, but what I'm really looking for is this: can you show me how healthy friendships between women work, by giving me examples? This could be a scene from a movie, a book, or an example of how you, a female-identifying person, spent time with another woman recently. I'm late 30s and childfree by choice for context, though I have no problem being around kids.
posted by guessthis to Human Relations (12 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Healthy relationships, to me, mean boosting rather than negging, looking for the best in each other, wanting the best for each other, while also making room for us both/all to be human and make mistakes. It means being willing to forgive those mistakes in my friends and myself, making apologies and amends when needed, being open for apologies and amends when they come my way. The core practices for me, of healthy relationships of all kinds, are self love, self acceptance, and daily meditation, which helps me be honest and present with myself.

Here's an anecdote from my life that I take as a sign of health and healing for me: A couple of friends are going through a tough time with their kiddo. I found myself thinking about all the ways I'd do it differently (better, my brain dreams) in their shoes. Then I realized: If I were in their shoes, I would be doing it the way they're doing it, because I would be them, and they're doing the best the can. Ahh, what a relief to be able to love and accept them just the way they are, and to release myself from some imagined need/desire to be better.

Just by asking your question, you're headed in a good direction!! Check out bell hooks's book All About Love -- it was a game changer for me.
posted by spindrifter at 7:00 AM on June 23, 2023 [8 favorites]

By not engaging in gossip and drama you are making yourself a lot less attractive as friend for people who enjoy these things.

That may entail saying things like ‘let’s not speculate’ or a bland ‘that must be frustrating’, both followed by a change of topic.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:47 AM on June 23, 2023 [9 favorites]

I think a common interest or activity really helps, especially in the beginning.

I’m a cishet woman and I strive for healthy female friendships.

Recently, I have:
Scheduled semiprivate swim lessons for my kid, alongwith the child of a good friend. During swim lessons, the other mom and I sit and chat about our kids and the books we’re reading.
Participated in a WhatsApp chat for moms that I got involved in a few years ago.
Met up with an old coworker for brunch at a cheese place. We talked about travel plans, the challenges in our relationships, and American female beauty standards & what we do to “keep up” and how frustrating it feels (but also fun).
Got takeout dinner with a childhood friend and her mom, who were coming through town after supporting the grandfather through hospice/passing. I had sent them flowers and snacks/food via instacart, and they bought my family the takeout dinner. We talked about loss, hospice, and family dynamics during that time.
posted by samthemander at 7:50 AM on June 23, 2023 [1 favorite]

I think you are very wise to ask this question. I'm cis-female, have male- and female-identifying friends, and haven't used a specific technique with my female-identifying friends as opposed to my male-identifying friends.

I don't think there is a blueprint for a healthy friendship but I think it's wise to be aware, and politely distance oneself, when you feel like the person is doing a lot of emotional dumping on you early on into the friendship - as you have noticed with some people. I feel like that's a red flag and a good reason not to become closer to that person. I don't mean anything dramatic, just don't reach out, or respond in a polite but lukewarm way to their overtures. If they launch into some really emotional oversharing, don't mirror and don't be too sympathetic - be a little distant. "Yeah, that sucks. Hey, did you hear about the [random uninteresting piece of news]". Don't give them what they want. I met a person recently, a friend of a friend, who spent an inordinate amount of time complaining about her colleagues to me, and that was a red flag to me. I don't need to do anything dramatic or never ever speak to her again, but I don't feel any need to deepen our acquaintanceship.

When I think about my friendships - I'm not saying I'm perfect at friendships at all, but I do pay attention to them - there are certainly people I feel refreshed and energised and positive after talking to, and people who make me feel sad, tired, angry or inadequate. I try to pay attention to those feelings. I pay attention to how evenly balanced our interactions are: like, do I feel like this person is coming to me for validation or does this person actually like me and want to spend time with me? When we interact, is one or the other of us doing the lion's share of the talking? Am I interested in what this person has to say; does this person seem interested in what I have to say? People aren't perfect, no relationship is without its ups and downs, and I have close friends whose values occasionally misalign with mine and I'm sure we irritate each other sometimes but we still find an overall positive value in the time we spend together.

I haven't finished watching Ted Lasso, but I think the friendship between Keeley and Rebecca is a really positive depiction of female friendship. They boost each other up and are there for each other when times are tough. But actually I think that show has really nice representations of friendships across the board, really - I wish Ted were my friend.
posted by unicorn chaser at 7:56 AM on June 23, 2023 [8 favorites]

You might enjoy Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, a nonfiction book about friendship, not exclusively but mostly female friendship. Roxane Gay's review describes it as "part frank manifesto on how to nurture the important friendships in our lives in good times and bad."
posted by phlox at 9:18 AM on June 23, 2023 [2 favorites]

Some of it is realizing that all relationships are different and different friendships nurture you in different ways. They might all feel different. It sounds like what's helpful for you is thinking about what you might want in a friend now -- someone to do certain activities with, not to gossip or share heavy emotional drama with. So if you do meet a woman in choir, say, and go out with her for coffee, does she talk about the songs she's excited to sing or the musical or creative projects she's got going (and ask about yours) or does she gossip about the choir director? Notice that and choose who you go for a second coffee with accordingly. And you can help, too, by talking about the things you want to talk about, and not emotional drama and gossip.

In my own life, I have some friends of all genders I mostly invite to group activities (last night we hosted a songwriting contest, for example), some (mostly old) friends I see regularly and talk about all kinds of topics with and who show up for me in difficult times, some friends who provide and exchange serious/heavy emotional support, and some friends I do one on one activities with (like my friend where we have a weekly date to do an online drawing class together). I think it helps to develop a range of friendships, both to stop you from overinvesting in one single relationship and to help you see that healthy friendship can take a wide range of forms.
posted by shadygrove at 9:25 AM on June 23, 2023 [1 favorite]

I think that the big thing (for me, at least) is that if you’re not spending time gossiping about what’s happening in other people’s lives, that frees up time to talk (and listen) about what’s going on in your own lives. I’d say the vast majority of time spent with my female friends is chatting about things that have happened in my life since I saw them last; how I felt about those things; laughing about the funny ones together; getting ideas or sympathy or empathy for the difficult things; saying out loud interesting or funny or odd thoughts that have been rattling around my head etc.

It doesn’t have to be a full-on counselling session, I’m not begging for sympathy or astonishment or drama, but there’s joy in sharing what’s going on for you and finding out what someone you like has to say about it. It’s more like swapping interesting anecdotes and sharing our thoughts on them, but in a more everyday, even-keeled way than “OMG you’ll never believe what happened, this is awful my life is falling apart and I need you to help!”

Having a shared activity is definitely a good starting point for new friendships as you have some ready-made stuff to chat about.
posted by penguin pie at 10:10 AM on June 23, 2023 [3 favorites]

I think the answer to that will vary depending on different women's value systems, but in all cases I think alignment in value systems, including what one expects and wants in a friendship, is key.

For example, my core pillar in my friendships (including with other women) is loyalty and unconditional support. What I mean by that is: obviously no one should support things that fundamentally clash with their values, but if that situation arises, then our friendship is going to either end or de-escalate significantly. Within the context of a close friendship, I both offer and expect unconditional support. So my healthy close friendships with other women are ones where we share those values.

I had to end a friendship with a woman I was close to because we had a conflict that revealed incompatible models of friendship. To her, being friends meant not only supporting each other but also holding each other accountable, which meant providing critical feedback when she felt like it was warranted, without me asking for it or welcoming it. To her that was a form of caring for someone and being a good friend. That is not acceptable to me in a close friendship because that does not align with my value system and desired form of friendship, so we could not remain friends -- my value system did not work for her, either.

To give a pop culture example, most of the friendships in "Sex and the City" would not meet my criteria for "healthy close friendship" because there is unsolicited judgment, whether over affairs, or going back to toxic exes too many times, or whatever. In my version of friendship, Carrie's friends support her unconditionally even if she goes back to Mr. Big twenty times and he makes her unhappy, even if she resumes their relationship when he is married, etc. They would never say or do something that could be described as "tough love" or "for her own good."

The other important pillar of healthy close friendships for me is mutual interest in each other's inner worlds that is cultivated and builds upon itself over a long time. So that means not just talking about what is happening in our lives, and not just how we feel about it, but helping each other explore why we feel that way and identify links and patters with our past experiences, being compassionate ongoing witnesses and mirrors to each other's experience.

Generalizing from that, I think for me a healthy friendship with other women boils down to -- do I trust them, and do I feel safe with them, and do we have deep interest in each other's interiority?
posted by virve at 12:56 PM on June 23, 2023 [2 favorites]

I was in a bad relationship for a while, I knew it, I just couldn't pull the trigger on getting out. It wasn't abusive, just very lonely.

My best friend caught me crying one time and I apologized for always complaining about it because I knew how to solve the problem and I just couldn't do it.

She just hugged me and said, "I love you, I will always be here for you, I just wish he treated you better because that's what you deserve."

Supportive, caring, not rubbing my face in it, just wishing better for me and telling me I deserved it and I could have it.
posted by magnetsphere at 4:10 PM on June 24, 2023 [2 favorites]

You say you feel "overwhelmed by the drama" when people tell you about problems they are having with others in their lives, but the thing is conversations in that vein are standard practice in friendships. I'd like to suggest that if you're feeling overwhelmed by a friend's talking about their problems with others, that you remind yourself that your role as a friend is not to solve your friend's problems, but simply to support them by listening to a reasonable amount of what they say, and offering whatever helpful insights and practical suggestions you can. Note that I said "reasonable amount of what they say". If the person is simply being a mean-spirited gossip, if they're ranting/whining non-stop, if they refuse to do anything constructive about their problems, or if they expect you to solve their problems for them, you have the right to set appropriate boundaries with them, or to walk away from the friendship altogether.

Now, as to what healthy friendships between women look like. To start with, they're equitable. In my friendships, we both genuinely like and respect one another, and enjoy each other's company, and neither of us expects to get more out of the friendship than we are putting into it. The material/practical things we often do for each other are usually spontaneous gestures, as we don't ask much of each other. We usually only ask each other for tiny favours, or when we're in genuine need of something we just can't do for ourselves. We're considerate towards each other. If we have chronic problems we try to avoid going on and on and on about them, because it's not fair to expect a friend to listen to endless complaining. We respect each other's privacy and don't try to force confidences. If the other person isn't ready or willing to talk about something, we back off. We understand when the other person is crazy busy or needs space, and we look for ways to help the other person out. We tease each other, but the teasing is never insults masquerading as humour. We're honest with each other, but in a kind, supportive way. My friends all have their flaws and foibles, just as I do, but I believe them all to be reliably and consistently good people, who are generally honest, who have generous, caring hearts, who do their best to behave well and treat others well. Our friendships are a secure place where I can think aloud without being misjudged or attacked, where I never have to worry about being taken advantage of or betrayed.

I used to have problems with my friends. During my teens and twenties and early thirties, I had to end a total of seven long-term friendships for some combination of the following: they treated me like an indentured servant, they were verbally/emotionally abusive, they were controlling, they were invasive, they had issues with entitlement and jealousy, they were very negative and self-pitying in a way that made them unpleasant to be around, and/or they had a worldview/treated others in a way I couldn't countenance (in one case it was all of the above... what was I thinking to let that narcissistic monster latch onto me). I was a very angry teenager and young adult because I didn't recognize the patterns of abuse for what they were, or know how to set healthy boundaries with others, and consequently was taking a lot of shit from various people. In my thirties I began to get better at pruning the friendship tree, and at forty I resolved that from then on, I would allow no one to remain in my life who didn't treat me with basic respect and courtesy (unless forced to by logistical/legal considerations, sigh, in which case my policy would be to minimize my contact with them and bide my time until I could get them completely out of my life). I also improved my own behaviour somewhat, mainly by becoming less rant-y, more tactful, less argumentative, and by learning how to keep myself from becoming emotionally over-involved in my friends' problems. I'm 49 now and haven't had any significant conflict in any of my friendships for many years.

It's possible to build great friendships if you are a good friend yourself and choose your friends wisely. But it doesn't happen overnight, so don't expect too much too soon. I met my two closest friends in 1989 and 1998, and we weren't even what you'd call friends for the first few years of that time -- just schoolmates and work colleagues. So... just go forth and mingle and be open to getting to know people, and let things develop naturally over time.
posted by orange swan at 1:15 PM on June 25, 2023

You might be interested in the book "You're The Only One I Can Tell" by Deborah Tannen. "In this illuminating and validating new book, #1 New York Times bestselling author Deborah Tannen deconstructs the ways women friends talk and how those ways can bring friends closer or pull them apart. From casual chatting to intimate confiding, from talking about problems to telling what you had for dinner, Tannen uncovers the patterns of communication and miscommunication that affect friendships at different points in our lives."
posted by conrad53 at 10:12 PM on June 25, 2023 [2 favorites]

Ooh this is a really good question. I have a similar mom and my childhood was spent playing a similar role. As a result of the fuckery, you seem to have gravitated towards people similar to your mother. For me, 'run away screaming' is my most immediate, unconscious, knee jerk reaction whenever someone starts complaining about their personal problems to me. I have to force myself to pause, breathe, remind myself this is not my mother and I am not a small child, and then I have to "artificially" choose to be an available, steady support to my friends in their time of need - against my instincts. And that's the same as you being unconsciously drawn to people who are just like your mom, and then having to pause, breathe, remind yourself to step away from insta-intimacy/codependent friendships, to "artificially" choose to move closer to people who are slightly harder to get to know in the beginning - against your instincts. Right? This is actually something we have in common.

Here's another thing I suspect we have in common: I would bet that you have friends that you don't even know are your friends. Bear with me while I explain: I currently have a bunch of (um, nine-ish?) very close friends - these are people I'll always make time to see/keep in touch, from organizing monthly hangouts to buying plane tickets just to see them in person because they live on the other side of the country. Here's the interesting thing: six years ago I would say I had just one close friend. Here's the even more interesting thing: six years ago, I had already known the rest of these very people for more than a decade and had been regularly hanging out with them the whole time. I was oblivious to the fact that my acquaintances were, in fact, my friends. I had labeled ONE person as "My Friend" inside my head. Everyone else was just... people? Nice, interesting people. Who I met up with sometimes. Who were nice enough to invite me for dinner (and so I nicely returned the favor). One was "That Funny Guy From My Kid's Preschool." Some were "My Husband's Awesome Coworkers". One was "Someone I Enjoy From My Writing Group". When I got divorced about six years ago, they... stuck around and showed up and helped me get through a tough time. I suddenly realized that they were "My Friends". It was big WHOA moment, let me tell you.

I suspect you will have a WHOA moment yourself if you sit back and *genuinely* try to notice who is around you? who still lights up when you interact with them? With whom do you feel like no time has passed even if it's been years since you last saw them? Who are you running into pretty often and smiling at, sharing a little chat with, and then moving on? Who in your life do you consider to be not YOUR friend but actually your sister's friend, your dad's friend, your roommate's friend, etc., but you do casually hang out with them sometimes as an accessory? Is there a couple of people that somehow, you get invited to a lot of the same gatherings as them? How about coworkers who smile at you, or people at the gym who nod at you, or people at the coffee shop who know your order..? LISTEN: YOU GOTTA EDIT THESE PEOPLE'S LABELS! I promise you that at least some of them actually like you and want to hang out more!
posted by MiraK at 9:39 AM on June 30, 2023 [1 favorite]

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