January 11th, 2010

Today begins a four-part series on friendship.  For the next four weeks I will dedicate one post each week to exploring the many facets of friendship.
There are many kinds of friendship.  Probably as many as there are people in the world.  And I don’t claim even to begin to understand them all.  But throughout my life, my own friendships have tended to fall into one of two categories: immediate and intimate, or slow and superficial.  Perhaps I should elaborate.
Immediate and intimate.  I call these the summer camp friendships.  A strong bond is formed early and they develop quickly after that.  Intimate depths are explored.  I feel like I’ve known this person all my life, but yet wonder how I’ve made it this far without her.  Given the ferocity of the connection, and the intensity that develops over a matter of mere weeks or months, I’m always quite sure that this will be an enduring friendship; one for the ages, for certain.  And yet, the summer camp friendship almost always flames out.  You leave camp, or Yellowstone National Park, or your summer internship, and without the artificial trappings that birthed the friendship, it fades.  Perhaps you stay in touch via e-mail, or if you (and the other person) are very dedicated, a periodic phone call.  But ultimately you go back to whatever your normal life is, and that person just isn’t a part of it.  And you aren’t a part of theirs.  And the friendship that seemed so elemental to your life just a short while ago, has become nothing more than a BFF at the end of a letter written in four different colors of pen (if you’re 12 and just got home from camp) or an annual Christmas card or birthday phone call (if you’re 32 and BFFs are a little passé). 
Slow and superficial.  This category holds the majority of my friendships.  These are the friends from school and from work, the neighbors, the people you see regularly.  And you trade books, recipes, parenting tips, and birthday lunches.  These friendships are reliable and consistent and throw very few curve balls.  And everything is polite and pleasant and really there’s nothing to complain about.  But yet the friendship lacks that visceral connection, that feeling of simpatico.  You want to dive into the summer camp friendship depths – to confess your biggest dreams and frailest vulnerabilities.  But you’re afraid.  You don’t want to walk out on that limb alone.  So you continue to play it safe, and so does the other person.  You appreciate the steadiness of the friendship, but you yearn for it to be more.
And so it is that I have come to accept female friendship as one of the great challenges of my life.  I find intimacy that flickers and fades.  Or I find something on solid footing that never digs deep.  And I struggle with how to bridge the two.  Should I work to elongate the summer camp friendships into something more enduring?  Or should I take a leap with the everyday friends and hope I don’t cross some unstated line of propriety?  The fears either way can be paralyzing.  With regard to the former, it goes something like this, “What if it didn’t mean as much to her as it did to me?  What if she’d rather just leave it behind?  Do I seem needy and desperate if I try to sustain it?” And with regard to the latter the monologue goes, “What if she doesn’t want this kind of friendship?  What if I freak her out?  What if I put myself out there and she doesn’t reciprocate?”
Despite one or two valued and enduring friendships, it’s only been in the past couple of years that I’ve had any success with a happy medium.  I have a group of girlfriends from graduate school with whom the gradual evolution of the friendship has taken on more depth and significance with time.  Perhaps this is due to a greater level of maturity in our 30s than what I experienced as a teenager and younger adult.  Perhaps it’s because pregnancies, childbirth, career transitions, and all other manner of joy and strife have put us through the trial by fire which forges something true.  Like most of my friendships, I don’t entirely understand why it works or doesn’t.  But it seems to work.  And for that I am utterly thankful. 
I continue to wonder what other people’s experiences are in this realm.  And I wonder if it is something specific about me that has led to this set of experiences, or is it more universal than that?  I’m sure I’ll continue to search for the answer, even if the search continues to be fruitless.

21 Responses to “BFF”

  1. Jan Says:

    Gale, you really lay it out there! That’s impressive, and deserves a better response than I can give…but I just can’t answer the questions. Probably, because I feel I’ve had similar experiences. I will say, the friends I began making in my early 30s are the ones who are still there now, and even if the relationships aren’t particularl “touch feely”, those women are there when they’re needed. Can’t ask much more than that, really.

  2. Elizabeth Says:

    I, too, struggle with female friendships. I have a small clutch of truly wonderful friends whom I can truly open myself up to, but unfortunately most of them live in other states, sadly limiting us to frequent emails and phone calls. I suffer from the opposite problem of you: in my zeal to have those kind of friendships in my own town, I recklessly through myself into friendships, forcing friendships in that latter category you mentioned into a place where it probably should never go. Sometimes it works. But a lot of times I end up hurt or angry or just plain disappointed.

  3. Anne Says:

    So fascinating how we all have “patterns” when it comes to friendship. I totally know what you mean–and it struck me (while reading your post) how much friendships are (just as you’ve always said) similar to dating. The instant chemistry versus the comfortable longevity. And, like love, a combination is nice. With a couple exceptions, I’ve always found that the friendships that take awhile to develop are also the ones that last the longest. But the key is (in my experience) to allow yourself to be vulnerable, and to share. Very hard for me to do, but it’s often worth it.

  4. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I struggle with the same thing you do. In fact, I have had really only two friendships in my life where I trusted them enough to reveal the fragile and often ugly underbelly of my soul.

    Superficial is easy; the rules are pretty clear-cut and there’s really no danger of wandering outside the lines, but it’s also rather boring and disappointing, isn’t it? Most of my friendships are like this.

    Thanks for sharing so much of yourself, here. From one lonely soul to another.

  5. Jenny Says:

    I, too, struggle (and always have) with maintaing female relationships. Upon reflection, I have determined the immaturaties and jealousies of youth have played into it in the past but now I find that life situation, complications, transitions and just plain “being too busy with life” get in the way of forming lasting bonds. My 2 closest friendships are rather opposite in background…one being a girlfriend from college and the other being an ex-coworker from my time in DC. One lives here and the other out of state but they operate in much the same way. Its been through life’s obstacles that those 2 women have been “there” for me in every way, shape and form.
    However, like you, Gale, I often wonder if there are more of those types of friendships in store for me. I look at my mom’s experiences and see that many of her lasting bonds came from my younger days; friendships with other parents that grew from shared situations (school, ball games, clubs, etc). I am hopeful to think that when my children are old enough to be thrust into the realms of hectic schedules and school-aged situations, I will find other women to bond with that share those everyday struggles. But it that realistic??
    I am curious as to your opinion on how FB and other social networking opportunities play into friendship as well. While I am very thankful for the rekindling of past relationships, it seems that FB only furthers the “slow and superficial”. Thoughts?

  6. Gale Says:

    Jenny – Welcome to TDT and thanks for your comment. I too have heard many women my mother’s age say that their “real” friends were the ones they raised their children with. We are both still relatively new to this parenting game, but if our rookie seasons are a fair representation of what is to come, then I can only expect that motherhood will continue to be a wooly experience that forges strong bonds.

    It’s interesting that you mention FB. It is slated for Post #3 in my Friendship Series. It does introduce some confusion into these murky waters of friendship, and like you I sometimes struggle to determine whether FB is relationship friend or foe. Don’t worry, there’s more to come on this topic.

  7. Shelby Says:

    As one of the graduate school girls, I share your gratitude for our group. And, While my relationships with each individual are different, it’s a most wonderful blessing to know that there’s a supportive pack of friends during life’s ups and downs.

    In terms of specific relationships with individual girlfriends, mine have morphed over the years. People have come in and out of my life due to a combination of changing interests, daily activities, moves, etc. Maybe it’s an excuse for not trying harder to maintain them, but I think that the ebb and flow of friendships are a natural pattern that has left my life richer, as each person has helped me experience/see life differently.

    Gale, also, I am thankful for this blog. I look forward to reading it every M-W-F (though this is my first comment).

  8. Gale Says:

    Shelby – Thanks for stopping by, and for commenting. It’s an important truth that even within the context of a larger, supportive group, each individual friendship takes on a nature reflective of those two people. And one lesson that has been reiterated to me over the years is that we have different relationships for different purposes, and that we shouldn’t expect any one person to meet all our needs.

    You’re right that our friendships do ebb and flow along with life’s phases and locations. I struggle though, with letting relationship fade. Part of me believes that if the friendship was true that it should withstand such changes. But if I’m being honest (and practical) I accept that some relationship must be left to stand alone at particular moment in life, and not be forced into a time or place where they don’t fit.

  9. Nicki Says:

    Friendships are so hard with other women. So much gets in our ways and has to be culled out. With my children almost all grown, I find that I am making new friends with old friends from high school. It is strange but a wonderful thing. I also hold that those with whom you raise your children will always remain in your heart.

  10. kpsnagel Says:

    As one of your original summer nerd camp bffs, I feel obliged to comment…I find my friendships fall on a spectrum and are sort of compartmentalized (not purposefully, just ended up that way). I was struck yesterday at my baby shower when I realized that we had brought together my best friend from high school, a sorority sister from college, several former colleagues, lots of Junior League friends, a current neighbor, and a current coworker (all told spanning the timeframe from 1992-ish to the present). All play continue some role in my life, albeit some of them not as prominent as a few (or more than a few) years ago. I was pleasantly surprised how easily everyone was able to find conversation. I’ve noticed how people who had faded from everyday contact have become more a part of my daily life again as we start to have similar life experiences again (baby, anyone?). I like the cyclical nature of it all and am thankful for the variety and the opportunity to relive my girl scout days (make new friends, but keep the old…). So thanks for being one of my old friends who is still in my life, even if we don’t see each other all the time. I’m comforted knowing you’re there even if it’s several states away and I’m not entirely up to speed on the daily minutiae of your existence. Although the blog helps… :)

  11. Beth Says:

    I am very interested to see what you keep writing about females and friendships. I just ended a toxic one, and am so very thankful for the few close friends I have. Keep it up!

  12. Gale Says:

    Beth – Thanks for your comment. Friendship is such a rich topic and I’m excited to be exploring it. I’m sorry to hear of your recent “break up.” Toxic relationships – romantic or platonic – can really suck the life out of you. It sounds like you’re in a healthier place now.

  13. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    “I find intimacy that flickers and fades. Or I find something on solid footing that never digs deep. And I struggle with how to bridge the two.”

    Gale – I think you are describing something very universal here. It is most certainly not just you. I too am fascinated by the phenomenon of friendship and lament the fact that as we get older, the focus seems to be on other things – our romantic relationships, our parental relationships, etc. Studies on happiness have consistently shown that it is bonds, friends, that make us happier. I applaud you for taking the time to grapple with this exceedingly important – and largely inscrutable – topic.

  14. Bridget Says:

    Gale – I really admire your willingness to dive deeper. I love our “group” and the different friendships I have formed through it. Everyone brings an area of expertise to the table and probably not until now would I be able to appreciate having a group of friends with such diverse personalities. I have many lasting friendships from high school and college (and even one from summer camp) that are still close friends that I know I can count on for life and for that I am truly lucky. But, since these friends either grew up within a few miles of me (high school) or were made in the first few weeks of college (roommate and sorority sisters) I think I picked them mostly for our similarities. I wanted to be surrounded with people like me, part of a clique. In the past 15 years I’ve learned to enjoy people that maybe think differently than me. Have different upbringings, different political views, different family ideals and different hobbies. I’ve evolved to realize that when I have friends that don’t automatically think like me, they make me stop and think about my motives and beliefs before I talk. Our group of smart, sassy, educated, funny, trustworthy, motivated women has made me a better person. The give and take of the relationships I have with girlfriends has always been and continues to be an integral part of what makes my life fulfilling. Thanks for making me stop and take time to think about it!

  15. Gale Says:

    Bridget – Welcome to TDT, and thanks for your thoughtful comment. The quandary of similarities versus differences that you raise is an important one. We need to be able to relate to our friends, but as you suggest, if they are merely mirrors of ourselves, what do we learn? I think it takes a certain level of maturity to recognize that friends with whom we only partially overlap may make our lives richer than those with whom we share everything. I know that for me, as I struggle to continually broaden myself, input and influences from a variety of interesting people are invaluable assets.

  16. Bridget Says:

    Also, kudos to you on making the leap from superficial to intimate, as I think you’re accomplishing through your writing. That’s not an easy bridge to build.

  17. Gale Says:

    Thanks, Aidan. There’s an insecure girl inside of me who really appreciates this comment – the acknowledgement that I am not alone in my friendship fumbles and foibles. Writing this post was a little frightening, but I suspected that, as said, it is a universal conundrum. But due to the vulnerability at its core, it’s something we rarely speak of. Naturally, walking around with our frailties on our sleeves isn’t prudent or realistic for a variety of reasons. But I’ve found that taking these calculated leaps of faith from time to time can reap heartening rewards.

  18. Sarah Says:

    Gale, this is fabulous. I already can’t wait to read part 2.

    Friendships. This is something Jen and I speak of constantly. Just yesterday we were gabbing gabbing gabbing on the phone about how the qualities that we seek in a friend have changed significantly over the last couple of years. Since having kids, of course, but even more since having MORE THAN ONE child. Now, this doesn’t mean that we can’t or don’t want to be friends with moms who only have one child, or with women that are only moms, it’s just that what we NEED in another woman has changed since we’ve had multiple children. Honesty. Openness. Sincerity.

    I don’t need someone to stimulate my mind or speak a certain language. I need laughter. I need reliability. I need a shoulder.

    Okay, I know that this response is NOT specific to your post. It’s more of a vague reference to the fact that I totally GET what you are saying. But, IN SPECIFIC RESPONSE I would say that all those questions you asked? The ones pertaining to your fears? While I understand them, mine would be more centered around whether or not the people I was hoping to take a friendship leap with were the right people at all. The slow and superficial friendships I have are like that for a reason. The immediate and intimate friendships are the ones I long for, but I know that they are much harder to come by sans summer camp and free time. So, there DOES have to be a happy medium. But I’m no help in finding a way there either. What I find is that it is most difficult just to CLICK with someone on that intimate level. And surely it is the reason I spend so much time online. This is where I can click. And I don’t have to have all those fears. I can put myself out there. We can give (when we have time) and we can take (when others have time for us) and for now it works.

    (Phew, long-winded much? Sorry!)

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