Why female friendships can be so nasty

Most of us are used to leaning on our friends in good times and bad, but according to Kelly Valen, author of The Twisted Sisterhood, female friends aren't always on your side.

Most of us are used to leaning on our friends in good times and bad, but according to Kelly Valen, author of The Twisted Sisterhood, female friends aren’t always on your side.

Q: In what ways are female friendships commonly destructive?

A: For my book, The Twisted Sisterhood, I heard from more than 3,000 women, ages 15-86, and I heard it all – everything from incessant judging, back-stabbing, status-jockeying, and exclusionary games on the mothering, schoolyard, and social fronts, to gratuitous gossip, one-upsmanship, and purposeful sabotage at work. Eighty-eight percent of these women believe that negativity and meanness plagues the gender to some extent; an almost equal number say they’ve suffered genuine emotional wounding at the hands of another girl or woman. On the other hand, 90 percent of my survey reported having at least one girlfriend to turn to — their friendships are incredibly important to them. While women can be so demonstrably good for one another, we also need to work at curbing the dark, destructive tendencies that only beat us back.

Q: Where does that destructive tendency come from?

A: All sorts of theories abound: evolutionary, psychological, cultural, patriarchal. Still, most experts agree that our competition, negativity, and other ugliness can be traced back to our insecurities and the perceived superiority of another female in some way — whether it’s physical beauty, intellect, job, trophy husband, happy, cute kids, whatever has the capacity to threaten you or make you feel that you’re falling short or don’t quite measure up. These feelings can start to fester in a girl as young as four or five years old. It’s for this reason that my book discusses the importance of engaged mothering, healthy role modeling, and ways we can grow our girls to be more confident — so they can avoid the self-defeating comparisons and resulting self-flagellation. Confident girls are not only less likely to be aggressive with their own; they’ll be more resilient and able to meaningfully withstand the aggressions that will invariably be hurled at them in life.

Q: Can you tell me about your own experience with less-than-supportive female friends?

A: I’ve been lucky to have wonderful, loving, intimate female relationships at different times in my life. But, alas, I’ve also experienced the inexplicably awful with women. In 2007, I wrote an article for The New York Times about a hideous let-down and betrayal by my sorority sisters in college and how it impacted my ability to feel close to women and trust them for years afterward. This anxiety was compounded by the gratuitous meanness and other nonsense I saw among adult women and, later, my young daughters’ peers. I’ve never understood how, for example, a girl or woman could badmouth a good friend in her absence, bond over it with another female, and then play nice to her face, and yet it’s been that type of sad ritual I’ve seen all too often within the gender.

Q: Can you pass on any advice/tips about cultivating positive relationships with other women?

A: In the final chapter of the book, [I explore] everything from being more inclusive and expanding those safe, smaller clusters of known-commodity girlfriends to paying attention to what your daughter is texting and posting on Facebook and calling her out when she’s mean-girling someone, to curbing the gratuitous toxicity at work.A lot of wonderful, well-intentioned, highly social women lack self-awareness about their role in fostering the negative aspects of our culture. If you think about it, much of the unhealthy behavior is borne, literally, of habit, reflex, boredom, jealousy, or sport. Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re doing it! Some might call me naive, but I don’t have such a grim outlook on humanity or females that I think we’re necessarily wanting to cause so much harm to one another. Many of us simply don’t realize the influence and power we wield. We don’t appreciate that our careless whispers or outright nastiness can and does take a harsh toll on self-esteem, confidence, and ability to thrive and reach full potential in life. Imagine the possibilities with a more supportive “sisterhood” at our backs, where we needn’t worry about the minefields of judgment and other petty sideshows that only drag us down.