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The Friendships of Women
The Beauty and Power of God's Plan for Us
By Dee Brestin
David C. CookCopyright © 2008 Dee Brestin
All rights reserved.
From Girlhood On, Gifted for Intimacy
When Elliot Engel watched his wife and her best friend say good-bye before a cross-country move, he found that their last hugs were so painful to witness he finally had to turn away and leave the room. He said, "I've always been amazed at the nurturing emotional support that my wife can seek and return with her close female friends.... Her three-hour talks with friends refresh and renew her far more than my three-mile jogs restore me. In our society it seems as if you've got to have a bosom to be a buddy."
The clock radio clicks on, mercifully playing "Morning Has Broken" instead of barking out today's market prices for hogs and corn in Nebraska. I shift under our electric blanket, curling my perennially icy feet against my husband's sleep-warm body. I peer out at the illuminated digits: 6:55 a.m. I hear our new puppy whimpering, eager to be lifted from her box, and the timed coffee gently brewing. Soon we will all be up, showering and dressing for work or school. But for now, I snuggle down, hoping to enjoy a few more moments of the morning's soft darkness.
Reality breaks through with the piercing jangle of the telephone. My hope and covers are abandoned as I rush to still its persistent ring. I have little fear of evil tidings as I anticipate the voice of one of my daughter's fourth-grade friends. I am not disappointed.
"What is Sally wearing today?" Michelle inquires.
"She laid out jeans and her pink sweater," I answer cooperatively.
"Oh." Michelle sounds disappointed. "I was going to wear sweats. Is she bringing her lunch?"
"She's not planning to."
"But hot lunch is baked fish and beets today," Michelle argues plaintively. I ask Michelle to hang on as I discuss these vital issues with my sleepy daughter. It is decided: Sally will bring her lunch, and Michelle will wear jeans.
Little Girls Are Closer Than Little Boys
When our sons were small, they had friends over frequently, but they seemed more absorbed in their activity than in each other. One friend, if he liked roaring up and down the driveway on Big Wheels or playing football, seemed as good as another. Never did I have an inquisition at dawn on what my son was wearing or if he was bringing his lunch.
Sally was much more likely to sit on her bed face-to-face with a friend, whispering and giggling. They were absorbed in each other. When Sally and her friend Gwen were six, they would often hold hands.
Sociologist Janet Lever indicates the differences I have noticed between our sons and daughters are typical. Girls, for example, tend to feel most comfortable with a single best friend; boys prefer to play on teams. Lever reports,
There is usually an open show of affection between little girls, both physically in the form of hand-holding and verbally through "love notes" that reaffirm how special each is to the other. Although boys are likely to have best friends as well, their friendships tend to be less intimate and expressive than girls'. Hand-holding and love notes are virtually unknown among boys, and the confidences that boys share are more likely to be "group secrets" than expressions of private thoughts and feelings.
Do you remember? I do.
When Donna Rosenow and I were in fifth grade, we took turns walking each other home after school, even though our homes were a mile apart. A standing joke occurred when we reached the door: "Now I'll walk you home!" Then we'd laugh and turn to walk the mile through the tree-lined streets of our small Wisconsin town. When we finally did part, our giggling and chatter resumed right after supper as we monopolized our respective telephones.
Girls are more demanding, empathetic, and confiding in their friendships than boys. They are closer. Zick Rubin, author of Children's Friendships, has noted, "Girls not only have a much stronger need for friendship than boys, but demand an intensity in those friendships that boys prefer living without."
When our daughter was nine, her friend Gwen passed her the following note in school.
CHEK ONE-YOU HAVE TO
Do you like me??????????
--Yes, and your my very best freind
--Your a good freind
--NO NOT AT ALL!!!!!!!!!!
COME ON NOW TELL THE TRUTH!!!!!
I showed Gwen's questionnaire to our eighteen-year-old son, John. I was interested in a male reaction. He read it over, brows furrowed, several times. Gwen's thinking was so foreign to him that he had trouble understanding her meaning. When he finally did, he said, "Good grief! Who cares?"
We do. As grown women we have mellowed and increased in subtlety, yet we still empathize with Gwen's questionnaire. We care about our feelings for each other.
The marketing departments of two large card companies, American Greetings and Hallmark, would appreciate Gwen's note. They've been zealously studying women for years. Their surveys have given them a preponderance of evidence that women, like little girls, care intensely about their friendships with one another. Armed with this knowledge, these card companies have developed extensive lines of friendship cards and e-cards targeted directly at women. With one of their cards I can tell another woman how much she means to me, encourage her when she's down, congratulate her on a job promotion, or sympathize with a divorce. You won't find a card line like this for men. "Men's friendship cards" would be a financial disaster.
Affirming notes are not just for little girls. Here is a note received from Sally's friend when both were in college. Sally is still receiving affirming notes from friends, as is typical of our sex! The following note from her friend Shelli was written in five different vibrant color markers, and Sally proudly displayed it in her room. I simply cannot imagine a similar interaction between college boys!
Dating back possibly as early as the third century, Chinese women developed the secret language of nushu, which literally means "woman's writing." This language was embroidered on cloth or written in fans or books that were then passed to one another. Nushu allowed women to communicate with each other in a society where males were often abusive to females. A young woman who had been taken from her mother and her sisters to be a concubine to a cruel man wrote to them in this secret language:
My writing is soaked with the tears of my heart,
An invisible rebellion that no man can see.
Let our life stories become tragic art.
Oh, Mama, oh, sisters, hear me, hear me.
Women long to be heard, to be understood, to be loved. That has not changed over the centuries. Did you know that when the Internet became truly accessible to the world in the 1980s, that men were the primary users? Do you know what changed that? E-mail! When e-mail joined the World Wide Web in the late '80s, suddenly women, fueled by their drive to connect, were willing to surmount the challenges of learning the new technology. Likewise, today in the twenty-first century, young girls are texting one another like crazy through their cell phones. Julianna, one thirteen-year-old, wrote me that she gets or sends between six and ten thousand messages a month. "I have unlimited texting," she wrote, "which is good!" Text messaging uses a language of acronyms that reminds me of the secrecy of the ancient language of nushu: LOL (laugh out loud), BRB (be right back) and—as my granddaughters sign their texts to their girlfriends in their Christian school—LYLAS (love you like a sister). Though parents may become concerned when they read about acronyms like MOS (mom over shoulder) or PAW (parents are watching), I believe that the primary motivation for girls is connection, not secrecy.
Driven to Connect
Studies show that generally speaking, the strongest drive for females is connection and the strongest drive for males is status. Attempted suicides for men often follow a loss of status: losing a job, a reputation, or a bankroll. Attempted suicides for women often follow a loss of a relationship: a suitor, a husband, or a best friend. Though it may seem surprising to husbands that their wives could be so devastated by the loss of a best woman friend, it is a frequent reality.
One of the first "women's friendship" movies to be released was Beaches, and women made it a box-office hit. After a rift with her lifelong friend Hillary (played by Barbara Hershey), Cecilia (played by Bette Midler) tearfully asked her husband, "What will I do without a best friend?"
Trying to comfort her, he said, "You've got me."
She turned away, tears in her eyes, saying, "It's not the same."
Psychotherapist Lillian Rubin wrote, "The devastation that a woman can feel at the demise of a soul mate friendship is akin to the pain of a divorce." We'll consider how to handle that pain later, but for now, we need to acknowledge that it is real. God wired us to be relational, and the side effect to that is pain when those relationships go sour.
We may also be the ones who cause relationships to go sour by clinging too tightly. If we feel a connection is being threatened, we may resort to dark ways of preserving it. You can see it better in little girls, who lack subtlety.
Little Girls Are Crueler Than Little Boys
Two little girls play well together, but when a third little girl enters the picture, it can become ugly. Little girls are territorial and know how to go straight for the jugular. Two will team up against one. "Patti and I were very popular in fifth grade, and we enjoyed the power of popularity," a forty-year-old woman reminisced. "Lynette wanted desperately to be a part of our circle. She would write notes to us asking if she could play with us at recess. Patti and I would exchange glances and then give Lynette either the thumbs-up or the thumbs-down signal."
After his first years as an elementary school teacher, a young male told me how shocked he was by his inside look at the world of sugar and spice: "I have problems on the playground with boys and girls—but they're so very different in character. The problems with boys are competitive ones, involving a disagreement over rules or fair play. I step in, referee, and basically it's over. The disagreements between the girls, however, become intensely personal. Two girls who were arm-in-arm the day before amaze me by suddenly turning on each other and screeching cruel and revealing insults in the earshot of all. Give me the problems with boys any day!"
Girls have a tendency, more than boys, to draw a close intimate circle and leave others out, hurting them deeply.
I'll show you the dark side of our gift for intimacy in chapter 3 as we consider the world of young girls, college girls, and sometimes even Christian women. We've become more discreet than we were as children: We choose gossip and betrayal over screeching on the playground. When one successful career woman heard I was writing a book on friendship and women, she said with deep cynicism, "Those two words don't go together." Some women have been so wounded by other women that they no longer pursue friendship with their own sex.
Our depravity is deep, our needs for attachment are strong, and we need God's wisdom and power to overcome unhealthy patterns. But in Christ we can overcome the pain, break the chains, and unleash a gift that will bless not only us, but also generations to come.
Overcoming the Challenge of Mobility
Other women have withdrawn because they no longer want to endure the pain of parting—and parting is increasingly common in our times. Becky expressed it like this: "Every time I get close to a woman, she either moves away or gets a job. I feel betrayed."
When Kathleen moved from Virginia to Ohio, she told herself, This is it. I'm not making any friends because it's too painful when we leave. "And that year," she commented later, "was the worst year of my life." Mobility is a challenge for our friendships, but pulling in like a turtle is not the answer. Your life will be cold, dark, and lonely.
Some friendships are just for a season, like annual flowers. Yet pansies and petunias have value, even though they probably will fade away and not come back. Gardens are delightfully brightened by annuals, if only temporarily, and when those flowers fade, different annuals then have room to grow. There is value in having "annuals" in our lives—and it is good that God prunes them out occasionally, for we are limited in our capacity for friendships. Yes—there might be pain in accepting that the one you thought was in your life forever was just an "annual," but we need to learn to simply be thankful for what God gives, and to accept what He takes away.
Sometimes the one you thought was there just "for a season" turns out to be a "perennial," loving you well year after year. Or, she may disappear for years, except for the Christmas card, and then be back, strong and lovely, flourishing in your friendship garden again. Two women whom I loved dearly as a young woman pretty much disappeared from my life when I moved away. There was no rift—we simply drifted apart over the ocean of miles. But when my husband, Steve, died thirty years later and I was missing his spiritual sharpening so much, I immediately thought of Ann and Sylvia—and how they also had been that for me. I wrote them, invited them to my cabin, and they came! We are now seeing each other at least yearly and connecting regularly through e-mail and phone calls. They are back in my garden, and I intend to be more diligent in caring for these lovely flowers.
Distance can end friendship, but that formidable mountain has been reduced by cyberspace. Many missionaries wrote me, thanking God for e-mail, like Miranda: "I used to feel so isolated here in Zimbabwe, missing my friends and family in South Carolina terribly. But now, with e-mail, there really is a connection across the ocean. I can bear my heart about a problem I'm facing and wake up to receive a fervent prayer back in response from my dear friend or sister."
In the past it wouldn't have been likely to find a long-distance friend, but today, because of cyberspace, it's happening. Just as the Christian dating service eHarmony is pairing up some particularly compatible couples, cyberspace can help us find compatible friendships as well. Phyllis Stone wrote to me of the particular loneliness of being a pastor's wife, and how God met her needs with a friend she found through the Internet:
Being a pastor's wife can be a very lonely position. Some women in the church who tried to become friends with me were only using me to get something from my husband. It's easy for pastors' wives to be manipulated and intimidated by the very people they are trying to serve.
I found Mary on a Christian pen pal site after posting a short blurb. It wasn't long before we found how much we had in common: we both love to write, work in social work, have husbands named Tom, have children who are high academic achievers, have a parent in a nursing home—and more. It has been five years and Mary has become my closest friend. We are soul mates! We e-mail at least twice per day and share everything from spiritual matters to what we're cooking for dinner! She lives in New York and I live in Kentucky. Since our friendship began, she has flown here several times and I have flown to visit with her and her family. She is now part of my family and I don't know what I would have done the past five years without her!
"The miles," Phyllis says, "have enriched our friendship because it has forced us to share our hearts through writing." In centuries past, letters between women friends sounded like love letters, so free they were to express their hearts. This expression has resurged in cyberspace. Though an e-mail isn't as elegant as a wax-sealed letter on parchment, it does have worth, and can be printed off and saved if valued intensely by the recipient. Phyllis did that and put some of their best letters, along with photos, into a "friendship" scrapbook she made for Mary. (It is women who scrapbook—longing to preserve the loveliness of relationships.) On the first page of her scrapbook for Mary, Phyllis wrote,
Secret gardens still exist and what comfort they bring to weary souls who long to stop and rest for a while. True friends always seem to find their way through the vines and into the secret places of our hearts ... and there they always remain. While some women create secret gardens, there are those of us who have built stoic libraries seasoned with the smell of mahogany wood and graced with books galore. True friends always seem to keep searching, knocking on the wooden panels, looking for the secret room hidden behind the library wall. And when the door swings open, and the heart is revealed, they are forever welcomed in the sweetest of fellowship.
Excerpted from The Friendships of Women by Dee Brestin. Copyright © 2008 Dee Brestin. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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