When women scrap we fight dirty

March 9, 2006

I’ve been reading this book* about women’s relationships and how we get all bitter and twisted so quickly, resulting in fallout as big as Outer Mongolia when things go bad.  I don’t usually read these kinds of books, and I’m wary of turning into my Mum (at one stage I swear she had three shelves of “self-improvement” books, all of which she had read at least once), but it’s actually quite good.

A few times now I’ve been through this situation where I seem to have a falling out with a friend and then it’s like I shed my skin – with that one friend go a whole lot of others, who I no longer feel I can spend time with, because I assume they will take the side of the other party in the dispute.  Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, sometimes they don’t even have the foggiest what in Hades is going on, but nevertheless I seem to end up feeling lonely for a while and then eventually building up a new network of friends.

A therapist I know reckons that these cat fights happens throughout women’s lives, and it’s just the way life is for women living in what is still, at heart, a partiarchal society.  These break-ups reflect needs that women have that they can’t articulate, because the society we live in doesn’t support women putting themselves first, or fulfilling their needs without feeling guilt.

Women form bonds when times are tough.  Through bad bosses, bad boyfriends, bad babies, we wallow in the misery together – helping one another cope, but also competing, subtly, to have the worst life.  The bad things are shared, through talking about them, and also through living them together.

But oh how quickly it can fall away, when the balance of power shifts – when one person has something that makes them different from the other, when there is a good thing in the life of one but not the other.  I know this the hard way.  Envy, anger and competition are tools to bring the person who has differentiated back into the group.  And women so often seem to hunt in packs.

Of course I think I’ve never felt like that.  Of course I think I’m the perfect sister to my female friends.  Of course I’m not.

It’s not some innate biological urge that drives us to do this to each other.  It’s based on want, need, something missing from our lives.  When we see someone else filling the gap for themselves we feel angry, disturbed that perhaps we could have achieved it too.   Because, as I’ve alluded to above, we are conditioned, from childhood, to put others (often men) first. 

I haven’t finished the book yet, and I haven’t fully absorbed what it has to say either.  I’m probably not communicating it very well.  But it’s such a taboo – to actually think and talk about what goes wrong within female friendships. 

Instead we are supposed to do the male equivalent of a duel, over the remaining friends, and then never darken the other’s path forevermore.  We avoid each other, spitting the bile at mutual friends to hope that they take our side, when actually what we should do is talk it out.  That way we could acknowledge the issues under the surface that resulted in the actions that caused the hurt in the first place;  sometimes a need we expected our friend to salve, but they didn’t because we never asked.  Or it might have been the desire we had to have a baby, or get a better job, or go travelling, which we didn’t pursue, but our friend did.  Whatever it was that caused our bust-up, that shifted the friendship to a place where one or other (or both) didn’t feel it was tenable anymore.

Sometimes, as women, we are our own worst enemies.  We put down the woman who looks good (“Bet she’s had her breasts done”), who has succeeded (“Look who slept her way to the top”), who has a good relationship (“Ooooh, good little housewifey”).  What we are really often doing is reinforcing women’s place in society, acting as willing (if sometimes unwitting) enforcers for a social order that says Men First, Women Second.

I’m reminded of the instruction given to mothers while aeroplanes are taxi-ing to the runway:

In the event of an emergency, put your own oxygen mask on first.

Bittersweet, by Susie Orbach and Luise Eichenbaum


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