Toxic Friends: The Antidote for Women Stuck in Complicated Friendships

Toxic Friends: The Antidote for Women Stuck in Complicated Friendships

by Susan Shapiro Barash


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A woman can always count on are her friends—right? But what if those friendships are hurtful, harmful, even toxic? Susan Shapiro Barash explores the ten types of female friends and shows you why and how women get stuck with the worst kinds, the ways to get "unstuck, and how to recognize a true friend."

For example:

• The Leader of the Pack—it's all on her terms

• The Doormat—and why you're the one paying the price

• The Misery Lover—she wants to feel your pain. Really.

• The User—and why you seldom see her coming

• The Trophy Friend—and what you gain from each other

Provocative and fascinating, Susan Shapiro Barash looks at the bonds (and bondage) of female friendships in a new light.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312649425
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 09/14/2010
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 782,912
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Susan Shapiro Barash is an established writer of nonfiction women's issue books. She teaches gender studies at Marymount Manhattan College. A well-recognized gender expert, she is frequently sought out by newspapers, televisions shows, and radio programs to comment on women's issues. She lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt




The Leader: Ruling the Pack

 - Does this friend feel more powerful to you than other friends?

 - Would you go to extremes to be in her good graces?

 - Do you depend on her plans for your social life?

 - Does she try to control you at times?

 - Have you always been attracted to friends who call the shots?

If so, your friend is a leader, and you are part of her “group.”

“I’m always in charge; I tell everyone when and where and I decide what’s in and what’s not,” began Eliza, 31, who lives in the Midwest and is a telemarketer. “It sounds easy, but it’s a lot of pressure. I don’t want anyone else to take my place, but I also find that everyone’s social life revolves around me and it’s tiring.

“I’ve been this way since grade school. I remember everyone thinking I was the prettiest and smartest girl by first grade, and everyone wanted to be my friend. It was flattering, but I remember wondering, Wow, what do I do next? I had a boyfriend by fourth grade and he gave me a bracelet. All the other girls were impressed. For years, my birthday party was the big deal in our small town; every girl wanted to be invited. I was picked to be on everyone’s team whether it was for a spelling bee in third grade or for a pep rally in high school. By then I was the girl who had a steady boyfriend; the captain of the fire twirlers. This went on in college, too. I guess I know how to be a leader and I’m sort of bossy, because I can be. I definitely make rules. If someone in my group dates a guy I think is a jerk, she starts to doubt him.”

What we learn from Eliza is that she not only relishes being a leader, but she also believes in an absolute monarchy—and doesn’t seem concerned with her “friends,” whom she lords over. She has been at it for so long that it doesn’t occur to her that a leader can lose her footing and be replaced. And therein lies the thought process of many a leader—it can be a lot of responsibility leading women around.

The leader is the friend we feel we must have, the one who can make or break our social lives. Being the leader renders one a “winner”—she is strong and outspoken; she understands her potency. She is the one who gets us invited to parties and makes the decisions for herself and for her friends. Women of all ages know instinctively that crossing the leader is always a bad idea. She wields influence and control; within groups of friends, she is the lynchpin. This type of friend is familiar to us by high school, as we are reminded in the feature film Mean Girls when Rachel McAdams’s character, Regina George, pushes the followers of her group, The Plastics, to do her bidding. Her latest prey is Lindsay Lohan’s character, Cady Heron, newly arrived on the suburban Chicago scene after having been raised in the African bush by her zoologist parents. Cady’s quick assimilation into the fast lane and a fight for the role of leader ensue.

The Slippery Slope

Since leadership has eluded women in our society for centuries, it makes sense that “the leader” among women friends is a title that is not easy to attain or sustain. A leader in a group of friends may have traits that reflect those of a female leader in government or in the workplace. After all, it’s a rough climb to the top, with obstacles at every turn and harsh judgments for those women who desire to lead in any arena. However, a group of friends is singular in its mission, comprised of several or more females who seek one another out for companionship and connection. A leader, more than other types of female friends, views her role as a job that she hopes is manageable, without foul play among the ranks. Women feel rewarded for belonging to a clique or a clan; this social support offers security and assuages loneliness.

As we mature, the longing to be a part of a group persists, as does the leader’s ability to assign us roles. The leader identity, minus the high school mentality of Mean Girls, is apparent in the HBO series Big Love. This drama about a seemingly righteous man who is also a polygamist with three wives (called “sister-wives”) and three sets of children features Jeanne Tripplehorn as Barb, the first (and only legal) wife, who leads the other two, Nicky, the second wife (played by Chloë Sevigny), and the third, youngest wife, Margene (played by Ginnifer Goodwin). What is so fascinating is how the two younger wives manipulate each other; they’re cloying and incisive. But these women also genuinely yearn for a connection to each other and for Tripplehorn’s character, Barb, to lead. Even when the leader annoys us or exerts too much dominion, we are drawn to her.

Inner Sanctum

You’ve worked hard to cultivate your assemblage of friends these past fifteen years since college, and you’ve been the ringleader. The dynamic has changed over time, and not everyone’s lives are parallel anymore. There are those who are married with children—some of these mothers are working and some are not—others are preoccupied with their careers, and some friends are getting divorced. In this diverse group, what holds everyone together is devotion and reliance. In fact, when articles on toxic friends and breakups among women run in women’s magazines, you thank your lucky stars this isn’t part of your life.

That is, until recently, when you invited a new “member” into the group, and it stirred up a few problems. It seemed the right thing to do, although without your reaching out to her, she wouldn’t have stood a chance. It now seems she’s become divisive and is excluding you. This woman has invited the others in the “group” to her home, and you haven’t been invited, and it’s come back to you that she’s said a few unkind things. The worst part is that you consider her a friend. And she’s so charming that no one would believe she was trying to exclude you anyway. You decide to buck up and try harder to win her over.

Narcissistic Tendencies

The above example shows us how a woman who has worked hard to be the leader is exposed to a withering of command. This has been reflected in television shows, quite often as of late. In the reality television series The Girls Next Door, Hugh Hefner and his three girlfriends show us something identifiable and titillating about women befriending one another in a select group and competing at once. Holly is the leader, representing Hefner’s “wife” of the three. Despite Holly’s rank, she’s still willing to scheme and undermine the others. This proves that one’s role as leader is frequently precarious and always highly touted. In the 2007/2008 season of Desperate Housewives, actresses Marcia Cross and Dana Delaney (new to the 2007 season) had “their claws out for each other,” as reported in Star magazine. Apparently, Cross and Delaney bickered “on-screen” and off, and in true form for those with a leader mentality, over which actress has more screen time.

The Crowd Pleaser

When we consider the leader’s desire for recognition, to be the outstanding one in the crowd, we have to ask if her influence over her friends is pure. In a culture in which the individual is recognized for her talents and thoughts, groups of friends are, nonetheless, often formed based on shared attitudes and belief systems. Even if the leader stands apart from the group by definition, she represents a collective point of view. If a group of young women decides to boycott the prom, the leader is at the head of the opposition. If someone is going to be singled out, the leader determines who she is and how she will be treated; when a new “member” is allowed in, the leader orchestrates this change in the ranks. If this all sounds sophomoric and callow, consider Janine, 37, who lives in Santa Fe, where she is a chef and the self-proclaimed leader of her social circle. She described her leverage and how if she alters her behavior, her friends will do the same.

Anything that’s social for me is about my being ahead of my friends and having a kind of attitude. I don’t want just one friend; I want at least four or five women, who have to be at any event after me. These are my closest friends and I want them to think they’re missing out on something if we don’t do things together. At times I’ve encouraged these friends to be unfriendly to other women, and no one can bring a new friend in. It works best this way. Since I’m a chef, we’ll meet at the restaurant where I work and we’ll decide what happens that season; if we’re going to go to every party in town, if we’re going to buy theater tickets . . . If someone seems to have a lot of ideas, I’m wary. We also have to tell one another what’s going on, offer support if someone is going through a tough time or getting divorced or breaking up with a boyfriend.

In Janine’s experience we see a very deliberate manner regarding her place as leader. This identity is a large part of her life, and needing friends appears to be about enhancing her position. Little is mentioned about how her friends mold her perspective, but much concern is expressed for her status.

Part of the Herd

When leaders describe the benefits of their stance, many times they omit the essentials of friendship: concern, caring, and intimacy. These qualities are not always at the forefront of the leader’s commitment to her friends—she is too busy keeping her position intact and leading the herd. As Dr. Claire Owen, psychology professor at Marymount Manhattan College, points out, superiority is a part of the interaction among friends. “When a woman has been taught to reach for her own individual best, it can be complicated, and unfortunately, this might not always be positive for her friends.”

Consider Deana, 34, who works full-time in television and lives in a city in the Northeast. Although the leader among her group of friends might be annoying, she also takes care of Deana’s social life.

I admit, where would I be without her? She is the one who gets me going, and it adds something to my life to meet her and our friends on these appointed dates. We’ve been doing this for years, and I’d say this friend is almost a facilitator. I end up not thinking for myself, or wondering where I’ll go on holidays—it’s all taken care of, and with my busy schedule at work, that’s fine. She’s the common denominator, and she also has the advantage of planning what she wants. I’m lucky I can afford what she plans; some of our friends actually can’t. Then she has to shuffle around some, but this friend tends to stay with her plan, and if you’re strapped, you bail out. I wouldn’t want to be her, but I’m grateful every Christmas and lonely New Year’s that there’s someone like her, who puts it all together, bossy as she is.

The Disciples: Drawn to the Leader

In the following chapters we will observe how deeply other types of female friends are affected by the leader, particularly the sacrificer, the mirroring friend, the user, and the trophy friend. A woman sought by the leader might discover that this aspect of female bonding is ephemeral and depends upon what the leader’s priority is. For instance, if the leader is planning a bowling night and you are the only one of her devotees who bowls, she will focus on you for your expertise (thus she is also a user to a degree). As many of my interviewees described it, one day a woman feels chosen by the leader, but when her favor turns to another, it can be disheartening and incomprehensible. The leader may also have her cohort, her closest friend, and beyond this, her members. And there are those leaders who are sensitive to each woman’s needs, and they are appreciated for this.

Leadership Qualities

  Earning the trust of the group

  Being honest with your friends/followers

  Adapting to the changing requirements of the members

  Being in tune with each friend’s feelings


Leadership at Risk

  The leader puts her needs ahead of her friends’ needs

  She is willing to lie to get ahead

  She hangs on tightly to her original take on things

  She is a user or a trophy friend

While women are aware that the leader achieves her title through social currency, popularity, and personality, this doesn’t affect their desire to belong to her club. The leader is usually outspoken and has a take-charge attitude; she might feel entitled as well. Women know this and accept the tradeoff as the “price” of enrollment. The leader surrounds herself with assorted types, who do not always reflect her characteristics. Consider Avery, 49, who described being the best friend to a leader as a chancy business. She lives in a Southern city, where she works at an architectural firm.

My friend, who is always in charge and practically blows a whistle, takes us all to Arizona for a road trip each year. At first I’m quiet and say very little, just go with the flow. But these women aren’t really my friends; I only go because she organizes it and invites me and because she and I are so close. By now I know what to expect, and we’ve become her group—not our group, but hers. I’m not the one to put something like this together, to walk into every hotel and museum ahead of everyone else and to pick which store we should shop in and what kind of clothes to find. Still, in my job I’m competitive and I’ve done well; I’m no shrinking violet.

So I end up getting sort of stubborn as these trips go on—even though I go every year and I always am up for it in the beginning. I drag behind and stay quiet the first week, but by the second week, I get obstinate, and I stop being so easygoing and sharing this and that: my sweatshirt, my books, my CDS. I see this pattern—I start off so that anyone can borrow my pashmina, but after a while, I hate anyone who does. I get resistant. But I don’t turn her down when she invites me anywhere; she’s one of my best friends.

Em, 27, who is the mother of three and works part-time as a nurse in a Southern town, takes another approach to her relationship with her friend who is in command. Em’s view is that her friend does whatever it takes to protect her role, and it has been this way since high school.

I’m someone who gets along with everyone, but my one friend, since we were 12 years old, always wants to be the important one. When we were younger it worked, and she made us all afraid enough to look up to her. But I don’t get how she can be that way now, when she’ll lie and cancel plans or not even show up. She’s like this now because the rest of us in the group are mothers and she doesn’t have kids and I think she’s worried about it. This brings out the worst in her. We’re all Hispanic and it’s part of our culture to marry early and have kids young. Some of us split with our husbands—it’s more common than not having been married yet, like this friend. I’ve been with my husband for ten years, and that’s a long time. This friend doesn’t like that, either; no one else in our group has been married this long, and she thinks I’m showing off. Her attitude is that she’s supposed to set the rules, so I don’t tell her as much as the others—I say more to the friends who have kids too.

If this friend could be more honest with me and the rest of the group, if she didn’t seem jealous, if she could level with me and face her feelings, we’d all be better off. I stopped calling her for a while, and still she didn’t face how she acts. The others also try to avoid her, and then we feel pressured to see her. She doesn’t say a word; she acts like none of this is happening, as if things are like they were ages ago.

When Em speaks of the leader as someone who lies and won’t level with her, she’s describing a woman in denial. While most leaders with whom I spoke for this chapter were keenly aware of their obligations and the image they present to their core group, Em’s friend doesn’t conduct herself in this manner. Instead, she sounds ungrounded; it’s little wonder the women are distancing themselves and her supervision is waning. In “Denial Makes the World Go Round,” an article that ran in The New York Times on November 20, 2007, Benedict Carey described “willful blindness,” a form of denial in which “the person keeps the topic off limits, perhaps even to himself.” Carey wrote that the use of denial in our interactions with others is both “potentially destructive” and “also critically important to nourishing close relationships.” Apparently, denial began as a defense against “early humans’ hypersensitivity to violations of trust.” This applied to “small kin groups,” in which falsehoods could result in a real danger to members. When we consider how life revolves around the leader, Em’s frustration with her friend, who is not only irresponsible but also denies that she is insensitive, is understandable.

The Scenario for Leaders

According to a study by Cheng, Bond, and Chan, women are more intimate with their friends and more willing to share their feelings than are male friends and acquaintances. While this is a familiar concept, what is interesting to note is how a close circle of female friends operates unlike paired friendships. Often enough within these factions, there are issues of competition and self-confidence, a caste system and subgroups. In listening to women for this chapter, I learned that the initial link for women in a clique or a clan is most frequently a shared lifestyle (more on this in Chapter 8, “The Mirroring Friend”). Hence, when the commonality is no longer there, the group may dissipate of its own accord, and because groups are appealing, the members will find new groups to support their latest interests. For the leader, this may be disconcerting. She would prefer to keep the group intact rather than to find or create another in order to rise to leader once again.

The Leader Is Not Invested in Self-Disclosure

Being in the shoes of the leader isn’t always as satisfying as it appears to the other types of women who form the clique. While she is set apart from the herd mentality, she is also responsible for her group, for their attitude toward one another and toward those outside the group. In the classic late-nineteenth-century ballet Swan Lake, Prince Siegfried falls in love with Odette, who is a swan by day and a young woman at night, the result of a spell cast upon her by an evil sorcerer. When Odette leads the other swan-maidens (also prisoners of the sorcerer) in a dance, it ends tragically for her, and her demise rattles the swan-maidens. Thus, what affects the leader affects the followers. In today’s world, there are several common scenarios:

Our Mother’s Influence. As is almost always the case, our mother’s example has a penetrating effect upon how we are to our friends. If she was a front-runner among her friends, the daughter may follow in her footsteps. If a mother was more reticent, the daughter might rebel and be outspoken, or she might be the quiet type too.

Chrysalis to Butterfly. Morphing into a leader is possible after a personal experience or epiphany. For example, someone with newfound power can become the leader and change the dynamic of the group. She may even attract new members.

A Heavy Load. Enough leaders become exhausted, whether they are good or bad leaders. Since being a leader is exalted, it can be secretly burdensome. As one leader explains it, “I take charge, whether it’s getting tickets to a concert or organizing a shopping excursion. I never get a break.”

Varied Expectations. Not all leaders are the same. Some merely stage their friendships for the sake of the recognition they gain. Others are truly invested in the friendships and desirous of the results of these connections.

The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy had the charisma to bring people together for a common cause. Although she led several men down the yellow brick road, this leadership quality would have applied to women as well (if any had been around). Women feel it is almost a calling to organize and gather their friends.

Tribal Friendships

In Rebecca Wells’s Southern tale Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, we realize how deeply etched is the role of each woman in a group of friends that has spanned forty years. The pronounced leader is Vivi, who is dramatic and vivacious, and was the beauty of the Ya-Ya’s when they were younger. Vivi’s secret and sadness is contained in the sisterhood, as the members buoy one another and absorb one another’s triumphs and losses over the years, bonded by their deep roots to the South and their common values. Women with whom I spoke described a similar attachment to their group of friends; again, this is predicated upon the tone of the leader. The theory of homogamy, finding an eligible partner based on similar race, age, education, social class, and religion, which applies to marriage, can apply to female friendships as well, particularly in clans. Although one would assume that less conflict would occur in these friendships built on familiarity, this is not always the case.

In large cities and small towns alike, women detail their attachment to their group and the leader’s significance therein. Various factors can inspire groups to form.

Society and Money

Darcy, 48, who is an attorney practicing in Washington, D.C., believes she is a leader among women in terms of lifestyle and accomplishments.

The common thread is that we’re all driven and successful, and we live that life. Our friendship is crisis proof because there’s a sense of loyalty and understanding. At least, from my perspective, since I’m the one everyone listens to and who makes all the plans. Definitely we have this need to be intellectually exciting. And we talk about the real story; I don’t want to hear how everyone’s life is so perfect and there are no struggles. So we talk about how hard it is to have kids and jobs. Some of us have husbands too. We talk about how hard-earned our degrees are and how hard our jobs are. We all want this, that’s the thing—no one wants a boring life.

Although Darcy defines her followers as being bound by their ambition, Leslie, 41, who lives in a Midwestern city where she is a full-time “socialite,” has purposely chosen this route.

My friends and I go to lunch a few times a week. We try not to gossip, and if anyone has a problem, we’re supportive, but mostly we are fairly closed about our personal lives. I buy tickets to charity events, and I’m interested in both the arts and in raising funds for medical research. I knew for years that I wanted this instead of a career, and none of my friends work; it’s not what we do. I end up being in charge because I put tables together and do so much charity work. I don’t know that I aspired to this, but I admit I never wanted the stresses of working outside the home. I know some women might look at this and say we’re frivolous, but it’s work, raising money for causes and getting your friends together in a way that everyone is happy.

Motherhood as the Link

Grace, 34, who is a working mother of three and lives in Southern California, is beginning to doubt that she can suit the needs of her coterie.

I have pockets of different friends, and I play different roles within them. I’m involved with a book club with the mothers in my neighborhood, and I consider these women my friends. All our kids go to the same school, and in the beginning, I was the organizer and had the qualities of being a leader, because I’m witty and solid. Things were fine until I made a decision about my girls that didn’t fit with the attitudes around here. Then I lost some friends, if they ever were friends.

But as a working mother I have my own ideas about raising children, and I’ve allowed my daughters to come home from school alone. Even the working mothers find this horrifying, although they’re intrigued. So when I announced that there’s too much hovering, I was no longer popular and lost any leadership role I might have had. One mother even commented that I’m never at the school and don’t know what’s going on. I realize how being a leader means the other mothers, who might or might not actually be your friends, have to approve every step you make, and I’m too independent to be that way.

What Grace’s story drives home is the fact that among working mothers as well as nonworking mothers, there is a code and expectations; when she broke a “rule,” it was met with dissension. This is serious enough for Grace to feel that her leadership is in jeopardy and that her membership itself is threatened since she no longer echoes her friends/fellow mothers’ point of view concerning child rearing. In such instances, it is a common goal that defines the friendships, rather than friends congregating because they are drawn to one another as individuals.

Comfort Levels: Single Women

As reported by the U.S. Census, 53.5 million women in America are single, consisting of those who are divorced, those who never married, and those who are widowed. Each of these populations has an individual identity and a distinct impression of how the world views them. Hence, a leader among these subgroups is valuable, despite changing social attitudes of the past forty years toward women who are without long-standing partners or husbands. Women who fall into these categories have described a residual defensiveness, since the bias against single women has dissipated but still exists today. When The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted in 1970, Moore’s character, Mary Richards, a single woman who was neither divorced nor widowed and who evolved into a career woman, represented a new slice of life for American women.

Natalie, 44, who is an office administrator and lives in a Northeastern city, described how her singlehood was telling in terms of her place as a leader.

During my divorce, I really found out who my friends were. I had a fairly comfortable life before my husband and I split. I was sort of a social queen, someone who had parties and entertained. I watched it all slip away, and it was upsetting, but there was nothing to do. So I got a job and became realistic. I was dropped by some women, and one of my closest friends became the new leader. I doubt I’ll ever have that kind of life again, and I won’t have one group of friends like I had when we were all married and living the same lifestyle.

I decided to be smart about this. Now I’m with women who are also divorced—women from my gym and from my office—and we’ve all got battle wounds and we have a leader. I listen to her because she’s the prettiest and gets boyfriends, and being her friend is worthwhile. I couldn’t be a leader here; it’s all foreign to me. I’m happy to follow, especially having been the go-to person in my own time. This divorced world is so different from the married world, and she’s a survivor, so she gives me hope.

While Natalie is content to relinquish her once-cherished position as leader, she is also someone who appreciates a new leader in her new stage of life. For Mary, 37, who is a single mother of two and lives in a rural area, where she works as a massage therapist, a woman’s support group has given her the opportunity to become a leader.

I was on Xanax after my husband died, but I pulled it together when I met other widows and divorcées at a local church. Some of these women had been wallowing in their misery for months, for years. When I got there, I was the one who was more collected. I thought we should pass around any single, discarded men, and it was very successful. Everyone had a sense of humor; we kept a chart. If someone had ended up with a real love affair, it might have shaken things up. But it didn’t happen, and that sort of bonded us together too, the idea that every guy was worth a few dates and that was it. It’s more a game and we’re all in it—it makes us a group.

Eventually I didn’t have to be medicated to get through the days. Instead I concentrated on my new friends. I’m the one who gets us all together, plans dinners and spa days. One of the women is a whiner and one is spoiled; one is all about money. But they all seem to like that I’m here, planning what’s next.

What is notable about Mary’s attitude and involvement with her followers is how much she relishes the opportunity to be held in esteem. Although her friends are younger women, her interview brings to mind the television series The Golden Girls, which ran on NBC from 1985 until 1992. This comedy that followed the antics of four older women garnered the attention of the American public and, in terms of female friendship, exemplified the struggles that ensue when several types of women are united. Starring Bea Arthur as the leader, Dorothy, a strong-willed, amusing character who could be slightly mean-spirited at times, it also featured Betty White as Rose, the vulnerable blonde; Rue McClanahan as Blanche, who is sex starved and egotistical; and Estelle Getty as Sophia, Dorothy’s mother, an annoying woman who sometimes schemes to get her way.

The Hierarchy of Working Women

What women in business and politics have in common is the dearth of females in their position and, in enough situations, a lack of support from other women. Only ten women have run Fortune 500 companies (including such notable women as Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay; Andrea Jung, CEO of Avon; and Claire Babrowski of RadioShack), and this, of course, is the problem. The road to such achievement for women is arduous, and one wonders if early experiences as a leader among friends impacts their later success. Although we know that Oprah Winfrey’s best friend is Gayle King, beyond this, not much information is to be gleaned concerning powerful women and their friends and how those relationships mix with their careers. Everyday women, however, who are immersed in their careers speak of female friends as having to “fit” with their finely honed lives. These women also describe themselves as leaders by nature. Consider Lauren, 35, who works as a finance manager and lives in a rural area. Married with three children, Lauren feels that her work life is entwined with her personal life.

I’m the boss of five women, and we’re also friends. We work in a very corporate structure and spend time together after work as an extension of our day. Work is the way we relate, and I can’t really identify with women outside my work world. Sometimes there are subtle jealousies, but mostly it’s a group that I put together and keep together. We hang out, and I’m the one who is the peacemaker and also the one they sort of look up to. I have kids and no one else does, and I’ve supervised these women at work for the past few years. I doubt we’d be together if it wasn’t for our careers, but we are and it’s a big part of our lives. I can see how there could be some petty fights or backbiting, and I won’t have it. It’s really against my rules, and this all feels familiar to me. I was like this back in college, when I was in a sorority, and I’m like this with my own sisters.

I’d say I’m the leader in my work crowd by choice—no one else seems to have the time. When I’m off work, I know the stay-at-home mothers are a tight-knit crowd and I avoid them; I stick with what I know. My life outside my family revolves around work, and that’s where I’m the leader. I’ve always been the the organizer among my friends, the one who makes the decisions. I don’t know if I’m genuinely liked, but I’m genuinely respected.

Lauren described herself as a referee who gets some positive results. In contrast, Suzanne, 33, who is an attorney in a Southern city, admitted she spends time feeling uneasy with her work friends and views herself as a follower, not a leader.

I’d rather stay with this handful of women lawyers than walk away and be relieved of their company but nervous about where I stand. I don’t trust the woman who heads up the office and is a kind of social director too—she makes me so unhappy. So I put up a front that I’m ready for anything and that I look forward to social events. She knows I’m a hard worker, so this is about the other part, where it’s obligatory and supposed to be about friendship. That includes when we go for drinks or holiday parties. I wouldn’t cross her, and would always befriend her because it’s work. But I know I don’t have any feelings for her and I’m operating out of fear. I just do what she suggests socially and workwise, and I feel that this way, I’m keeping my job.

In my personal life, I wouldn’t tolerate this, and I’m more of a loner. I have stayed clear of cliques and clans because they never work for me. What’s so ironic is that it’s right there, every day, at my office, where I have no option.

Posing as Friends

As we have witnessed throughout this chapter, the friend who is the leader has a moral responsibility to those she leads. Yet in realizing the plight of both Lauren, as the leader, and Suzanne, as the follower, we see an intimidation factor based on prestige, acceptance, and need. In this way, some groups of female friends become an adult playing field for bullying and fear tactics, orchestrated by the leader of the pack.

Bullying and Conquering

But what about the female in a powerful position who is friendless and a bully? This unsettling alternative is shown to us in the feature film Michael Clayton, in which Tilda Swinton plays Karen Crowder, a heartless litigator for U-North, which is fighting a class action suit. Swinton’s character’s career depends upon a victory, while George Clooney’s character, Michael Clayton, is a “fixer” at the firm that believes they will win the case. As I watched Karen Crowder epitomizing the female loner whose pure ambition and aggression careen her forward (she is willing to lie, cheat, kill, and bribe to sustain her position), she seemed rudderless, yet, until the end, strong somehow. Michael Clayton, in contrast, is surrounded by family and friends, at work and outside of work, albeit a flawed bunch. But does Swinton’s character have to be so tainted by the system, to be virtually without one woman in her life and without scruples? Is the message that women in power do not get a constituency but go it alone? What does this say about the corporate world and a woman’s place in it? Might we have pitied this character had she had a group of female coworkers whom she solicited for help with her plan, rather than operating so independently?

Whether a leader is trustworthy or not, either way, she is in the driver’s seat and has to have followers. If an aggressive female can create insecurity among the other women, she nonetheless requires the other women and, to this end, might play them against one another. As Rachel Simmons writes of female aggression in her book Odd Girl Out, “alternative aggression” begins when girls in school bully one another, and has a direct consequence on one’s self-esteem that can last into adulthood. Dr. Ronnie Burak, a psychologist, notes that a leader who utilizes a fear factor is resorting to an immature behavior of “watching your back,” reminiscent of adolescence. “Women can be very disturbed about the workplace or about other mothers at school or about old friends, and how one woman in particular rules the roost. When you make yourself feel better by making the members feel worse, it’s counterproductive and cruel,” she remarks.

Antoinette, 47, who lives in upstate New York, where she runs a division of the company she works for, has developed a practical approach.

I’m fully aware of what goes on, but this is a work environment, not the Girl Scouts. When there is backbiting or the women in my group aren’t being kind to one another, I stop it at once. I’m aware of my position at all times, and I know I’m respected, if not beloved. But I have a business to run, and I can’t be sidetracked by what happens among the women. I try to be everyone’s friend and I try to show that I care for all of my staff. We have to be friendly since we have no time for any friends outside of work. On the other hand, this isn’t a touchy-feely atmosphere. If there were no women here, I’d be as focused and ready for success as I am with the women who are hired. I’m in charge—they call me “General” and I don’t mind. If I see that something isn’t working, I call it out. I do put myself first, but I’m also aware of my obligation to the other women in the company, and I want to be more than a boss, if it works.

Heading the Pack

If the leader describes a lifelong complexity in her role among her friends, those who follow may realize that being part of a female chain of command can limit their options. Friendship itself is defined broadly as it applies to a leader, since women often congregate based on a mutual need, as exemplified in Natalie’s interview. Simultaneously, we have the determination of some leaders to always be in charge, as expressed by Eliza, to the point where friendship seems secondary to the position. For those of us who shadow the leader, Em’s experience is the one that resonates. Their stories remind us of how multilayered the system is for the leader/follower.

What Models Do We Have?

While being a leader is heady stuff, leaders themselves can be insecure and weighed down by the position. However, few are ready to relinquish the prestige, and as reported, some women are at it their entire lives, shifting into whatever kind of leadership role each stage demands. Renata, 62, who lives in West Virginia, has had the same friend as queen bee since they were in their early twenties. Twenty years ago, Renata “defected.”

I had this friend who told all of us in our hometown what to do. For years we all listened. We listened when the kids were small and she thought the girls should take ballet classes. And when the kids were older she told us the boys should learn chess. She told us all how to run our lives and what shows to see when we traveled to New York, where to shop and where to eat. Finally, when I was about 40, I realized I didn’t want her advice or to have her running my life. All of my friends flocked to her, and whatever she suggested or whatever arrangements she made for all of us seemed fine. Not to me. I wanted to be independent, so I pulled away. I felt her distance, and the others all treated me with the same distance, acting like her. I didn’t care; I wanted to make my own plans and my own decisions.

Led Astray

There are those leaders who can coax their followers into thinking in a specific way. Or the women identify so closely with a particular group that everyone mimics the attitude of the leader. For instance, Samantha, 37, who lives in a suburb of an Eastern city and is married with two children, regards her group of stay-at-home mothers as admittedly “clannish” and unfriendly toward working mothers.

Maybe it’s my ego, but I have always been the one taking charge. I do it now through mothers I know. I’ve chosen not to work, and I want women who have made the same decision to feel good about themselves. I’ve always enjoyed seeing people rewarded by my plans, and now it’s the mothers in my neighborhood. We have a lot to focus on. I feel like I’m taking these women to another level, looking at our roles in a way they might not have done on their own. I think of it as a job, and these women sort of work for me. I was a leader in high school; I was a leader in college and with my friends when we were first married, before we had kids. My mother was a leader, and that helps, plus I’ve had all this practice.

Samantha admitted that she has convinced some of her “followers” to be unfriendly toward the working mothers.

What makes being a leader of nonworking mothers a bit different is that we’re always aware of the other group, the working mothers. So as mothers we’re divided, and that’s fine. I think it’s okay to be so involved that you see the working mothers as adversarial. I believe in what we stand for.

Corrine, 42, who lives in New Jersey, belongs to a group of women that has opposed a neighbor’s addition to her home.

First of all, there are only women involved with this issue that has to do with our town—and I’m not sure why that is. Then, the women have become enemies over it, because one set is against the addition and the other is in favor of it. In each group, everyone is close now, joined over disagreeing with the other group. I think the women in charge believe they’re running for office. It’s gotten so ugly and out of control. I actually wonder why I’m even doing this; it reminds me of high school.

Leaders Versus One-on-One Friendships

Interviewing women about being the leader of a group or a clique raises questions that do not apply to one-on-one friendships. The friends/followers have high expectations of the leader when it comes to understanding and decision making. Women not only have larger groups of friends than do men but are also more affected by any negative occurrence within their clique. A study by Cunningham and Barbee points out the significance of “perceived support,” meaning if a woman believes that she has assistance from her friend, whether this is the case or not, it improves her health and provides a sense of belonging. The climate of any group of friends is determined by the leader and her followers combined. While Julia, 45, who works in public relations and lives out west, realizes it would be easier to lead if her friends were more amenable, she also savors the post.

I’m primed to run everyone’s life, and my friends usually love it. I throw the parties, I pick up their kids at religious school and take them somewhere fun to reward them, I have all the ideas. How can it be that I’m also the one who works full-time? To top it off, there’s one friend in the group who drains me, and it’s not that I don’t stand on my head for her. I have to—it’s my job, the one I signed up for, to look after everyone. She’s just miserable, and until she gets a new husband or a raise, it isn’t going to improve. So I keep her happy and I’m exhausted. Then I remind myself I’m the one; I’m the sergeant in this army.

The Skinny on Leaders and Followers

As the experts quoted in this chapter note, negative leadership can be intimidating and counterproductive, yet women often seek out a group with a leader nonetheless and will make excuses in order to belong. It comes as little surprise that 60 percent of the women with whom I spoke for this chapter were pleased with their position of strength as the leader. In comparison, 40 percent of followers felt they had a well-balanced attitude in belonging to their group, and that being the leader wasn’t something to which they aspired. Of the followers, 40 percent were reluctant to leave a group despite their discomfort with the leader’s style, and 40 percent reported a dependency upon their leader. Only 20 percent were willing to leave the leader and forfeit the friendship.

In such situations, we have to ask ourselves the salient questions:

Do you and your friends spend too much time trying to please the leader?

For some women in the group, it will be easier than for others to be in synch with the leader. If it doesn’t work for you, it’s time to reconsider what this relationship means to you.

Are you secretly relieved when the leader has the flu?

If your leader is intimidating, it’s time to rethink why you are her friend and a member of the group. If you are pandering to her and it makes you uneasy (enough that you’re actually happy she’s sick), it’s time to stop.

Do you suspect the leader of being less than fair or genuine?

Close to 70 percent of my interviewees did not care about the leader’s attitude as long as they were included. But if your friend is the leader and you are in the 30 percent who do care, it is wise to rethink the relationship and perhaps discuss this with her.

Does your leader feel competitive toward another group of women?

Forty percent of followers said that their leader and group of friends were rivalrous toward another faction of women. If this is not comfortable for you, it’s worth considering another group that better reflects your philosophy.

Is the leader a winner in a way that appeals to you?

If the leader offers a positive experience, then it’s a good idea to stay in her group and enjoy the merits of belonging. When women who seek a coterie of women admire the leader, there is a high level of contentment.

Copyright © 2009 by Shell Toss LLC. All rights reserved.  For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.

Table of Contents

Questionnaire ix

Introduction: The Fascination with Our Female Friends 1

Part 1 Those We Tolerate: Romanticizing Our Friends

1 The Leader: Ruling the Pack 17

2 The Doormat: High School Onward 46

3 The Sacrificer: Blind Spots 71

4 The Misery Lover: Down and Out 91

Part 2 Those We Ditch: Trial by Fire

5 The User: Self-Serving Friends 113

6 Intimate Frenemies: Idolspizing 135

7 The Trophy Friend: Conquest in Motion 161

Part 3 Those We Keep: The Evolution of the Female Friend

8 The Mirroring Friend: Circumstantial Bonds 185

9 The Sharer: A BF in the Making 207

10 The Authentic Friend: The Real Deal 229

Conclusion: Spinning Friends for a Lifetime 251

References 263

Acknowledgments 270

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