Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Female Friendships

A psychologist’s reply to some feminist boasts

Feminists quite routinely hold their friendship structure up as an example to men. They say that females have supportive friendship networks that men lack and that they are emotionally stronger for it. They see men as incapable of the intimate friendships that women have and see this as a weakness that explains many of the problems that men have. They say how much they value their friends, how often they talk to their friends and relate how helpful friends have been to them in times of crisis.

This is in fact, however, only one side of the story and overlooks both the different evolutionary role of men and the full reality of female friendships. In her book Lip Service, American feminist author Kate Fillion notes part of the downside in female friendships: The difficulty women have in being honest with one another. If a woman’s friend is wearing a ghastly dress or hairstyle that does not suit her at all, it is almost impossible for her friends to tell her that. The nearest the friend can go is to say something like: “You’re looking well today”. The friend is supposed to note that she and not the dress was complimented and draw the conclusion that the dress is awful. As nobody wants to receive or believe negative messages about themselves, however, the import of such extremely indirect criticisms is often missed and woman carry on gaily looking awful when honesty might have helped them. So emotional support is given but realistic help is withheld. Men, by contrast, are much more used to giving and receiving criticism and have nothing like these severe barriers against it.

Another problem with female friendships that seems often to be conveniently overlooked is that female “friends” can often be extremely bitchy. If one female seems to be getting ahead of the pack in any way, that female will tend to be put down. If, for instance, she is a sexually attractive older woman who dresses in a way that shows her attractiveness, she will be told that, “You don’t want people to say that you are mutton dressed up as lamb, Dear”, in an endeavour to get her to dress in a more dowdy way. Great stuff! Really helpful!

It also takes a woman to really rip a woman to shreds. When I read in a newspaper an article about some woman that really tears her into small and odious pieces, I know what I will find if I look at the byline: It will be written by another woman.

The bitchy and trivial-minded nature of female friendships seems to be the major reason why there is in fact a considerable minority of women who have little in the way of female friendships and prefer the company of men. Attractive women, in particular, often remark that they prefer the company of men as they get much more ready acceptance there and much less trivial conversation.

There are however undoubted differences between men and women in their emotional makeup. Men do have their “mates” (Australia) or “buddies” (USA) and these friends do help in emotional crises. They do so differently, however. They do not try to help by listening for hours to a repetitive outpouring of problems, for instance. Women seem to believe that repetition has almost magical powers but men are much less enamoured of it. If a man is “having troubles with his Missus”, his mates will, for instance, “take him fishing to get his mind off it”. Men are interested in solutions to their problems. They seldom find it helpful just to talk about their problems.

This appears to be connected with differences in the male and female brains. Recent work in brain physiology suggests that (as would be expected on evolutionary grounds) a much larger proportion of the female brain is devoted to emotional processing. Male emotional processing, on the other hand, tends to be connected to “fight or flight” brain centres. So emotional problems will first be worked on in a practical way by men but if that is not successful, the problem will be dealt with by the man “leaving the field” (either physically or emotionally) rather than by worrying further. So males and females find different things emotionally helpful but that is about all you can say about it. Claiming that the female way is better is simply dogmatic.

It does seem true, however, that many men do have few or no close male friends in later life. This is due to the different sex-role specializations that men and women have. Women are the socio-emotional specialists (specialists in emotional relationship maintenance) as part of their biological role as mothers and men are much more task-oriented as part of their biological role as providers and protectors. In later life, these roles are well set for men because they have by then committed much of their life to their generally competitive role as breadwinners. In an endeavour to provide for their families they have developed the competitive side of their nature and neglected their emotional relationships—in the expectation that the woman in their life will look after that side of things. This is a perfectly normal example of specialization of roles—and it is role specialization that is mankind’s great trick, a trick that is a large part of the advantage mankind has over the other animals. At times of marriage breakups, then, it is little wonder that many men in later life suffer much more emotionally than women do. The specialization of women tends to leave them with friends whereas the specialization of men does not.

Even there, however, while men may have greater emotional difficulty from breakups in the short term, it seems to me that it is women who have the long-term problems. A breakup does not usually cause men to “leave the field” where it very often does for women —particularly if the breakup occurs while the woman is in her 40s. Men tend to keep trying to form a new relationship after a breakup (even with a Filipina if nobody else is available) whereas women quite commonly give up on men entirely after a divorce. They are in fact often severely damaged emotionally by a relationship breakdown of any sort and react by tending to avoid future relationships. They may eventually come out of their withdrawal but only after years alone. They let one bad experience put them off life, in effect. They are often seem to be so fragile emotionally that they cannot stand just one disappointment. After one man is “bad” to them they overgeneralize frantically about the desirability of all men and say to themselves and to others: “That’s it! I’m off men for good. Never again. Men are just no good.” Not all women react that way but very many do.

The poor dears! Cutting themselves off from love just because of one or two bad men! It seems like weak character to me. How foolish to let just one bad man put you off life, love and relationships! If that is not letting the bad guys win, I do not know what would be. I suppose all I can say in extenuation of such folly is that perhaps such women have never had a good relationship and therefore do not know what they are missing.

There are of course plenty of red-blooded women who are going out with men again within weeks of a big disappointment (I have known some of them) but I have also met lots of women who have had an unhappy divorce and then deliberately avoided relationships for ten years or more —mostly during their 40s. How do I know that? Because they tell me. Why do they tell me? Because eventually (particularly around the 50 years of age mark) they do tend to change their tune and seek out relationships again—when the prospect of a lonely old age is looming before them. How foolish can you get? Fancy missing out on the joy of a loving relationship for a significant fraction of one’s life. That sounds a quite disastrous and irremediable loss to me.

So the idea that women withstand later-life relationship breakups better than men do seems to me to be only very partly true. In the long-term most women (particularly women after 40) seem to deal with relationship breakups very badly and maladaptively. Men after 40 may be more distressed initially by breakups but divorced or separated women in their 40s tend to have attitudes which lose them a lot more when looked at over their life-spans. They would therefore benefit themselves greatly by being less supercilious and more generous in spirit to the men about them. I was once at a party for single over-40s when a very attractive woman I know said to me, “Where are all the men?”. I pointed out that there were roughly as many men as women at the party. She replied: “No, not THOSE men!”. Since she went home with me, however, I couldn’t really accuse her of being too fussy.

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