‘Female friendship in your 30s can be a comfort – it’s also tiring’: women on the pressure they feel – iNews
Female friendship has been at the centre of women’s lives for as long as there have been women.
For centuries when women were marrying for economic reasons (thus less likely that marriage might be emotionally fulfilling), they found support and intimacy in female friends. Nowadays, while marriage is for most people about much more than bank accounts, it’s still the case that many women’s most formative relationships are those with their female friends.
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I love a romcom, but the stories that really stir my soul are the ones about female friendship; from Thelma and Louise to Lena Dunham’s Girls to Jacqueline Wilson’s pre-teen classic Bad Girls.
Sally Rooney’s novel Conversations with Friends, which is being filmed now for BBC3, is compelling precisely for its study of a changing female friendship, and the forthcoming reboot of Sex and the City will probably celebrate friendship more than romance, just as the original did.
Even in the most recent series of Love Island, the highlight was Kaz and Liberty’s friendship, their romantic ties paltry by comparison. When I think of the best and worst moments of my life so far, women have been there with me.
Research from Stanford University shows that women, possibly more than men, need to maintain those intimate connections. Friendship increases serotonin and oxytocin, the bonding hormone, which might help explain why women, on average, have lower rates of heart disease and longer life expectancies than men.
But female friendship can also come with a downside. There is an unspoken pressure to be “a good friend” to the point where it can be overwhelming. I am in my thirties and have found that women feel they want to be available to their friends, particularly at a time in life where many of us are making big, complicated life decisions, veering off on different paths, needing championing and help with it all.
“Female friendships as a single woman in your thirties can sometimes be intense,” Sophie, 36, tells i. “They’re a source of comfort and joy but they can also sometimes be draining and quite tiring. Being a woman is so closely linked with being a good friend and providing support that we can really suffer if we feel like we’re failing to help everyone.
“I have always been led to believe that the sign of a good friendship is being available to your friend every second of every single day and being endlessly supportive and positive. But I’ve started to rethink this and adjust my closest friendships accordingly – for the benefit of myself and of them.
“I started to see that unquestioning allegiance is more like co-dependency and that some of my friends were expecting more of me than I could give.”
Then there are the more tangible things women often do that seem small but really take up a lot of brain space. Lara, 31, from Bristol tries hard to remember to send cards and notes to friends on anniversaries, birthdays, house moves, babies, engagements, new jobs, break-ups and everything in between.
“It’s lovely to send thoughtful notes and to receive them, but it shouldn’t feel like an obligation and I do feel bad if I forget,” she says. “I never find it tiresome if a friend needs urgent advice at 11pm, but I do find it tiresome when I think, ‘Oh God I’ve not texted that friend in a few weeks, I’d better do it now.’”
As a relationship therapist Simone Bose has observed this pressure in her female clients. “I’ve noticed people feel pressure to always be online, for example, because if they miss something or don’t ‘like’ something on social media or don’t encourage them in something, or congratulate them, they feel bad.
“There’s this pressure to always be available, or ready to support in some way. We need to give each other a break, to say, ‘I’m not online now but let’s chat on the phone at a good time’”
It might be easy to think that women “just need to stop worrying so much” but there is evolutionary science behind why women feel pressure to be a good friend.
Professor Robin Dunbar, author of Friends: Understanding the Power of Our Most Important Relationships, says there are gender differences in the dynamics of friendship.
“Men’s friendships are rather casual – here today, gone tomorrow with a kind of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ quality,” says Professor Dunbar, emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford.
“Women’s friendships are much more focused and personal – who you are matters much more than the group you belong to, and they are more intimate as a result.”
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Bose advises women feeling overwhelmed by friendship to try setting some boundaries. “Female friendship can be such an amazing source for feeling empowered and safe and secure in our lives, it’s a unique experience where you can talk about your deepest feelings and desires and it can almost be more intense than the couple dynamic.”
Bose has observed that there can be a kind of “enmeshment” with certain friends, which is when boundaries between two people become unclear.
“It can make some people feel very emotionally drained and sometimes I can tell that some clients have been emotionally draining their friends,” she says.
“Friendships are good but there also needs to be space for you. You’ve got to know when you’re going a bit too far, either in terms of being there for someone or needing someone.”
One 32-year-old woman I speak to says that when her closest friend was going through a break-up she realised she needed to step back.
“I took the train across London to see her several times a week for a month, I was late for work once or twice because I was on the phone to her, I kept cancelling dinners with my boyfriend and I took calls from her on my holiday,” she said. “I felt guilty that I eventually felt drained.”
Sophie has also been thinking about how to set boundaries. “My friendships are my biggest source of happiness and I love that women cultivate and prioritise friendships and want to be there for each other.
“But we do all need to get better at understanding that no singular friend can provide all our emotional support, or be everything to us, and instead look to a group of people and our own selves instead.”
For more advice and support on relationships, visit Relate
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