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Trial by Fire
January 18th, 2010

Today’s post is the second installment in my four-part series on friendship.  You can read the first installment here.

Sometimes I’d just like to throw a punch and get it over with. 

Not at you, clearly.  Well, probably not you.  Do I have any reason to be mad at you?  Because if I do then you had better watch your back.  But once I punch you I promise I won’t be mad at you anymore.

Actually, I take that back.  I don’t have the nerve to punch you.  And honestly, I probably don’t even have the nerve to tell you that I’m mad at you.  That is, if I’m mad at you in the first place.  Which I’m not.

So here’s what brings me to this question of fighting.

GAP has deep friendships.  They are friendships that have been forged over time.  He and his friends have shared athletic glories, professional accomplishments, and nights of folly;  mitigated crises, earnest discussions, and gut-busting laughter.  They have withstood each other’s long political rants and blustering hubris; bailing buddies out of jail, fights about girls, and fights about fraternity house roommates; time, distance, and the inevitable evolution into slightly different people than they were when they met.  GAP can go months without talking to some of his closest friends.  And yet, when they reconnect, the bond has not withered for lack of care and feeding.  It is that strong.

And as I watch from the sidelines, I envy him these friendships.  I think of my own friendships and wish they could similarly prove their mettle.  Because, while some of them are quite strong, I don’t think any of my friendships has been subjected to the same trial by fire that his have.  But why not?

Mostly, I suspect that as a woman I have learned to fight differently than he has as a man.  I think back to junior high and the way that we acted as girls.  Placid smiles veiled venomous gossip.  Sabotage and subterfuge and the elusive defenses against each were all well known to me by the age of thirteen.  Discrimination was swift and unjustified.  And more times than not my only course of action was to find my bravest face and wait for the next unsuspecting adolescent victim to fall so that I could rejoin the fray.

The boys, on the other hand, always had it out in the locker room, or on the football field, or in an alley somewhere.  And then it was over.  No grudges.  No backlash.  Done. 

But here’s the rub.  With age and maturity we women come to realize that these strategies and tactics are heartless, scathing, and not particularly productive (not that back-alley punches ever achieved world peace either…).  And so, mercifully, we leave them behind.  But they are the only arrows in our quivers.  What methods do we have left for dealing with hurt feelings or betrayed trust?  How, as adults, do we marry maturity and confrontation?  I’ve never done it.  Well, not very successfully anyway.  And so my usual tack is to avoid the issue in question until I feel the friction has subsided and then pretend that nothing ever happened.  Sometimes I’m able to let these things slide out of my memory.  But sometimes they linger longer than I’m comfortable admitting. 

So I am prone to wonder.  What would happen if I were forthcoming with my hurt or frustration or anger?  Now that the hot-headedness of adolescence is behind me such situations don’t arise often.  But from time to time one does still rear its head.  So what if I just threw that punch (metaphorically speaking, of course), and stated that I was angry?  Would my friendship withstand the conflict?  Or would it dissolve in front of me?  And if it did dissolve, was it much of a friendship to begin with?  And if it didn’t, does that automatically mean it is something of particular value?

Truth be told, I’m pretty sure GAP hasn’t thrown a punch in the ten years since we started dating.  And most of the other arguing was left behind in undergrad as well.  But the friendships that were formed and shaped before we outgrew the immaturity to fight are of a different caliber than those that have evolved since.  And I am left wondering, how do I bridge that gap?

10 Responses to “Trial by Fire”

  1. Elaine Says:

    In my opinion words can never be taken back and hurt feelings are never completely healed. A scar remains forever. Forgiving is usually easy but forgetting just doesn’t happen. When I look back at words I’ve said or wish I’d said, I never regret my silence but often regret my “honesty”. Voice your opinions but I believe great caution should be taken with personal jabs. The bruise left behind probably isn’t worth it.

  2. Anne Says:

    Hmmmm…good questions. It’s so hard to find that balance. If you’re angry (because someone hurts you), I worry that if you never say anything, that hurt will fester. That’s where grudges come from, and they aren’t pretty. And while I sometimes envy men’s ability to let things roll off their backs, I also think women have developed a means of taking care of each other’s emotions that isn’t half bad.

  3. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Such interesting questions. Personally, my closest friendships are also the oldest ones, the ones that have survived some turmoil – both within the friendship and with each of our lives. But as I’ve gotten older, I have also found that I need fewer friends in general. I am happier being alone or in the company of just a few special people. Maybe I’ve been worn out by the style of adolescent female friendship that you describe so well?

  4. Elizabeth Says:

    I think you’re right: women and men fight differently. You’re also right when you say that women, in their efforts to change from their junior high tactics, often find themselves without any other type of “arrow in their quiver.” Personally I hate conflict, and I’ve done a lot of work to become more comfortable with it. My therapist once told me what you surmise, that if you take the risk of confrontation and the whole thing falls apart so easily, it probably wasn’t much of a friendship to begin with. What I’ve found difficult, though, is that my attempts to be direct with other (females) is not often met with the same directness. I recently “broke up” with a friend after months of not talking, and when I tried to bring the issue to light, she said, “I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about.” On the other hand, like Elaine said, there’s often a “right way” and a “wrong way” to handle being direct. I’ve had some people try to be direct with me in ways that just came out as mean and hurtful. So you’ve got to be careful.

  5. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    Another thoughtful post stuffed with compelling practical and philosophical questions.

    “How do we marry maturity and confrontation?” I don’t pretend to know, but it seems this is a keen question to ask. Personally, I have learned to confront diplomatically. I can’t zip my lips if I feel something must be said. But this is tricky business. And I find the patent differences in the arts of female and male friendships to be fertile territory for further exploration.

    Again, you have me thinking. Again, thank you for that :)

  6. Lori Says:

    So as I was reading this blog, I had the movie “You’ve Got Mail” on in the background. I’m assuming that most people have seen it, so I won’t waste time recounting the premise of the movie. Meg Ryan’s character claims that she would give just about anything in order to be able to “just once” speak what’s on her mind when conflict arises; however, when she is able to do just that, she instantly regrets it.

    I, too, am a person who avoids conflict at all cost (although fighting for what is right for my son is a whole different ball game) and I pride myself on my efforts to not pass judgement on others. I have one incredible friend and many good acquaintances. I have been blessed to have “Baum” in my life for over ten years now and we have experienced just about everything life can throw at us – marriage, divorce (parents not either of us), living in different countries, college, post grad work, kids, new jobs, loss, success…all the good and all the bad. There have been times we spoke basically every day and times when weeks, even months, would pass. Despite all of that, I have trusted Baum with all of my thoughts and emotions and she has shared that same trust. We have not agreed on everything, but we have NEVER said words “in honesty” that were hurtful or that we regretted. I feel honored to have that relationship with her and hope that a few of my acuaintances develop into something resembling my friendship with Baum.

    So, to answer the question at hand: Honesty should never be hurtful or cruel. Honesty sould always be in the best interest of the person it involves as well as yourself. I believe that friendships, especially close friendships, are a blessing and should not be taken for granted. Maybe I’m naive, but that’s how I try to live.

  7. Gale Says:

    Lori – Welcome to TDT. And thanks for taking the time to offer your thoughts on this topic.

    I know that scene from You’ve Got Mail quite well. And I relate to her in it. So many times I’ve replayed a scene in my head and been witty, eloquent, and poignant. But rarely did it go that way in real life.

    You’re lucky to have a friend like Baum. Such friendships are not to be taken lightly. And it sounds as though you fully recognize that. Honesty can be fraught with peril if handled carelessly. But it can be fruitful if handled delicately. Congrats to you and Baum on navigating this complicated path successfully for so many years.

  8. Nicki Says:

    I do think that there is still a gender gap in how the two genders handle conflict and confrontation. I know that my feminist roots would say I am crazy but I do not think I am.

    I prefer to not be confrontational but do not back down from it. This has taken me a long time to come to but come to it I do. Unfortunately, my confrontation feelings mean that I do not charge in. I consider what I am going to say, going to do very carefully when about to confront. I look at all possibilities so I can be ready for what happens next. The planning freak in me must come through.

    I love these words and am very happy to have come by to read today. I cannot wait for the remaining entries on friendship.

  9. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    Holy Cow, I am going through this RIGHT now with a friend of mine. She talked behind my back, behaved like a hypocrite, and I expressed my anger. We are 40 years old; I did not yell, I didn’t say anything mean, but you know what? She cannot handle that I expressed my anger.

    Apparently, I am just supposed to swallow it and never show it and not talk about it.

    What the heck??? This is stinking ridiculous! You are right though…what *do* we do?

    I’m not sure if the friendship is going to survive. It’s just…suckage.

  10. Facebook Friend: An Oxymoron? « Says:

    [...] Posted on January 25, 2010. Filed under: Childhood, Psychobabble, Relationships, The Friendship Series | Today’s post is the third installment in my four-part series on friendship  For the first two posts, click here and here. [...]