I am an introvert and a loner by nature, an extrovert and a pack animal by cultivation. As a result of this mild and untreated social schizophrenia, I have always had a difficult time with the kind of friendship that I think women are supposed to have with each other. It looks easy in the movies, and in pictures of dressed up, duck-faced teenaged girls, but it’s not easy for me. There is something that stops me from closing my eyes and falling backwards into the arms of friendship, trusting that it will catch me. I think there’s supposed to be opening up, spilling, sharing and talking about everything from hot flashes to family secrets. I think I am supposed to be able to do that. In practice, not so much.
It is not for lack of example. My mother loved her childhood BFF, her college roommates, and her friend Joyce who she met for lunch and shopping every Saturday for more than twenty years. It isn’t because I like men better, because I don’t. I am automatically repelled and annoyed when I hear a woman say she “really gets along better with men.” I genuinely like women as a group, and I find them fascinating as individuals. It is something about me, something dark and closed off that has always made me uncomfortable and uncertain in the world of the close female friendship. I am always sure that I’m doing it wrong, saying too much, saying too little, or otherwise violating some feminine equivalent of The Bro Code.
This is not to say that I have not had such friendships. I am still friend with my best friend from elementary school, and one of my best friends from high school. I have had intense friendships that ended unremarkably or became gossamer-thin at graduation, or the end of a job. I have a number of female friends who are entirely virtual, who I have met through blogging or on Facebook. I am friends with co-workers, my sisters-in-law, my niece and my stepdaughter.
There were, however, some spectacular failures. It is this record of social divorce and emotional mayhem that makes me think that no matter how skilled I am at seeming “social,” I am really a fraud. I am an inadvertent but brutal criminal, luring other women into my den of apparent normality with humor and good listening skills only to eviscerate them when they get too clingy or exhausting.
There was one friend who was not at all like me. I believed, for a time, that her upbeat outgoing nature might rub off and make me a more cheerful and…normal person, an open person who could chat comfortably about sex, giving birth, and all of the other things that traditionally made me want to run away. I loved it that she wore jammie bottoms to the store, and when she bought a blonde, clip-on ponytail I bought one, too. For a time it seemed that I might become rather more Gidget than Margo Tennenbaum under her tutelage. Then I began to change, and I could not seem to assert my increasing comfort with my genuine, cynical, snarky, un-cozy self. I got resentful, I communicated badly, we grew apart and it ended. The friendship burned bright only for a couple of years, and those years were nearly a decade ago, but it still feels like one of those unexplained romantic breakups where it’s like you imagined that you ever slept together or spent Christmas with his parents. I wonder if it was all my fault, if there even was “fault” involved, or if such things just happen.
There was the woman with whom I worked on a project, and who I admired tremendously for her intellect and energy. We worked together well, we shared many interests, and I believed her to be a kindred spirit. I detached myself from the project because I was exhausted, and then it ended between us. She, assertive and fiery, continued to fight while I believed that my very soul depended on pulling back into the safety and quiet of my shell. We are still cordial, there was nothing dramatic, but again, I wonder what happened, and whether it was my fault. I feel that I misrepresented myself as her equal in dynamism and charisma when I was actually a fairly reserved and low-energy person, more comfortable taking naps than taking on The Man.
I wonder if these things happen to other women, who I imagine to be sitting together over coffee at this very moment, exchanging deep feelings and, I don’t know, sharing. (And caring). Is it normal that I can engage so deeply with another person and that I then develop a panicky need to have my own space, far from the madding crowd and unpressured by the thoughts, ideas or auras of anyone else? Should I hand out a standard disclaimer?
“Warning: in the event that bearer enters into a standard female friendship (hereinafter “friendship”) with Ann Nichols (hereinafter “the party of the first part”), she agrees to hold harmless the party of the first part for any failure to answer texts, e-mails or phone calls during periods of “alone time.” Bearer further agrees not to take this personally, no matter how entirely human and reasonable it would be to do so.
Okay, maybe not. Why, though, are there a million books and articles telling us how to negotiate the complications of romantic relationships but not many guidelines for friendships? How does a person like me balance the ease and exhilaration of making friends against the difficulty of being a good friend for the long haul, even if it means showing up when I’d rather burrow inward?
I have a new-ish friend, a woman who is better at this stuff than I am, and who is able both to accept my quirks and to tell me when I am veering into the unfriendly. I can almost believe that if I close my eyes and let myself go, it will be okay. I think that if I keep myself honest, and present, I can get this right.
Wish me luck.