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BFF: by Kate Fillion


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In the aftermath of a BFF break-up, women typically go through seven stages: Shock/denial, loss, self-blame, embarrassment, anger, acceptance and then relief. Yes, relief. “Very often, women look back and realize the friendship wasn’t as reciprocal or perfect as it seemed,” Levine points out.

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BFF: by Kate Fillion

  1. 1. The myth of the BFF By Kate Fillion When she was 34, Sarah* moved to Melbourne to marry an Australian, but soonfound herself missing the wordy, tell-all closeness she’d shared with women friends inToronto. So she was thrilled when, after six months, she landed a teaching job and a newfriend: Lisa, a teacher at the same school. “It’s harder as you get older, sharing stories,but things were easy between us right away. She was one of the most insightful,intelligent people I’ve ever met,” remembers Sarah, who has the brisk, slightly amusedauthority of a woman accustomed to dealing with teenagers. “She helped me put my footin Australian culture, introduced me to her family. It was wonderful.” And because Sarahhad often felt like a third wheel back home, she was careful to include Lisa –single, andlonging not to be —in everything, including dinners out with her husband. They were, inother words, BFF. But “forever”, as it turned out, lasted just four years. When Sarah got pregnant,Lisa “put up a wall” and backed away. Later, when Sarah was struggling with post-partum depression and felt “adrift and alone,” Lisa responded by announcing coolly, “Idon’t want to be your friend any more. If I’m with you, I can’t meet anyone, becauseyou’re always with married people.” And that was it. Lisa cut her off completely. “I was a mess, just an intensecombination of grief and rage,” remembers Sarah, still incredulous almost a decade later.“And bitter: she really misjudged me, she couldn’t see I needed support. Her attitude was,‘You have everything, what are you whinging about?’” The loss of a best friend – even one who has hurt, disappointed, or betrayed you –is usually heartbreaking. Women provide a particular brand of fellowship and emotionalsustenance, both cozy and raucous, that men simply cannot. And then there is the sense ofone-ness and sameness, the advice and dependency, the certainty of being understood.The concept of the BFF, if not the jaunty acronym, has probably existed forever.Certainly by the 18th and 19th centuries, female friendship had acquired a quasi-romanticglow, with best friends pledging eternal devotion in missives as moony and sentimentalas love letters. Today, female friendships even have the seal of academic approval: socialscientists routinely point to them as the epitome of intimacy. “Female friendships areboth more exclusive and more emotionally committed than male friendships,” reads atypical study cited in the Journal of Applied Communications Research. The reason:Whereas male friends tend to focus more on shared activities, talk is the currency offemale friendships – and “mutual self-disclosure,” according to researchers and theoristssuch as Carol Gilligan and Deborah Tannen, anyway, is the hallmark of intimacy. Similarly, the BFF has been enshrined in pop culture as a cross between a sappysoulmate – “A best friend is a sister that destiny forgot to give you,” gushes one fridgemagnet – and a wise-cracking sidekick, alternately dishing up chicken soup for the souland dressing up for hilarious girls’ night out, a la Sex and the City. Envy, competition,boredom, anger – all have been airbrushed out of this idealized picture, which helpsexplain why, when there’s trouble in a real-life friendship, many women feel blindsided.*names have been changed by request
  2. 2. The biggest surprise of all is just how fragile the bonds between best friends canbe. In fact, most adult women have at least one ex-BFF, according to psychologist IreneLevine, author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with your Best Friend, thatrare self-help book which not only delivers but has something new to say. Aftercollecting tales of fractured friendships from more than 1,500 women, Levine concludedbluntly, “The BFF is a myth.” Most “best friendships” have a limited shelf life,apparently, and a more realistic way to think about them is in terms of serial monogamy:after one relationship ends, another, more suited to the next phase of life, begins. Frequently the underlying cause of a rift is a change – a career shift, relocation,divorce, return to school, etc. – in one or both friends’ lives. With so many more optionsthan our grandmothers and even our mothers had, change has become a constant, thus,says Dr. Levine, it is more difficult to maintain friendships than it used to be. Notuncommonly, best friends drift apart cordially after a significant life change reduces theircommon ground, revealing that their bond was not unconditional after all, butcircumstantial. The bond forged in a baby play group, for instance, may not be flexibleenough to accommodate one friend’s divorce and another’s return to the workforce. Change presents the sharpest dilemma for female friends when, as with Sarah andLisa, one is getting what the other wants for herself. “There is an ethos within women’srelationships… that requires staying in the same place together or moving forwardtogether at the same time,” psychotherapists Luise Eichenbaum and Susie Orbach explainin Between Women. “In other words, difference cannot be allowed and it is experiencedas dangerous and threatening, and invokes feelings of abandonment.” Undeniable differences can force to the surface an undertow of envy one womanhas struggled to suppress, since negative feelings about a best friend generally make usfeel bad about ourselves: petty, judgmental, unworthy. Meanwhile, the envied friend mayhave stressed sameness to defuse conflict. The woman who has “more” – money, status,happiness, or whatever it is her friend wants – often downplays her success while tryingto share it by, say, always picking up the cheque. “See? We’re still equal, we still havethe same.” This can provoke even more resentment, however, while obscuring the factthat the friend with “more” does not need or value the friendship any less. Because talking about all this feels so “unfriendly,” many women, like Lisa, saynothing until their feelings build up to the point where they’re unbearable, and exiting thefriendship seems like the only option. This tendency to deny problems until it’s too late,coupled with the potency of the friends-for-all-time myth, is why a rupture often comesas a shock to at least one party. And there are no rituals, like divorce, to bring a sense ofclosure, nor do friends rally round with support. In fact, many women experience the lossas a personal failure, and are so ashamed that they mourn alone or in the privacy of atherapist’s office, picking over the carcass of the friendship to try to figure out whatkilled it. But longevity is not the sole measure of a friendship’s worth or depth. The factthat it didn’t last doesn’t mean, Levine insists, that it never had any value. Notcoincidentally, she points out, the most durable friendships are often the least emotionallyintense: “When you’re more separate from the other person and less intimately involved,your expectations are lower.” Casual friendships from the gym or church may well lastforever; they aren’t held to the same exacting standards as a best friendship.
  3. 3. Paradoxically, the BFF myth can inflict damage by heightening women’sexpectations of friends. We tend to expect more from a best friend – in terms of sheerwillingness to listen, for one thing -- than from a boyfriend or husband, yet are less likelyto say anything when upset or disappointed. “When Lisa started to withdraw, I felt hurtand also that it was in a sense unfair, because I’d supported her unconditionally. But Ididn’t say anything. I’m not confrontational,” says Sarah, who has no problemconfronting her husband when he disappoints her. In fact, feminism and self-respect seemto demand it. One reason women find it hard to confront one another is that, according to Dr.Levine, “Once you fall in love with a friend, you’re reluctant to knock her down or seeher foibles. It’s very hard to admit she’s not the person you thought she was. It’s a loss.” Another reason, it seems to me, is “mutual self-disclosure” itself, which rarelyinvolves disclosing blissful happiness. Rather, there’s an emphasis on what’s wrong inour lives, and a tit for tat rhythm to these exchanges: you confide a difficulty, and I’llmatch or raise you. Over time, a cycle of complaint and commiseration can end upmaking both friends feel worse. According to neurobiologist Lise Eliot, author of PinkBrain Blue Brain, girls’ tendency “to ruminate or indulge in their feelings and share themto the point where they become negatively reinforcing” is predictive of clinicaldepression. Likely the same is true for adults. Second, knowing a friend’s secrets andweaknesses may make it harder to speak up when you’re upset – you’re all too aware ofher vulnerabilities, and don’t want to seem insensitive. This can be a trap especially for old friends. For 19 years, Jane* and Amy* saw orcalled each other several times a week, not only to muddle through crises but to comparenotes and laugh their heads off. They never had a serious disagreement – out loud,anyway – until they took their daughters on a ski trip. One day when Jane was in charge,Amy’s 11-year-old, who refused to be weighed down by a cell phone, skiied off, ignoringher pleas to stay with the group. Jane wasn’t worried – the girl was a good skier, and thehills weren’t dangerous – but she was annoyed, particularly after it took 45 minutes totrack her down. But Jane, a happily married stay-at-home mom, didn’t tell Amy, partlybecause she knew her friend worried that being divorced and working full-time washaving a negative impact on her daughter, who, in Jane’s opinion, was indeed“disrespectful and naughty.” Amy found out anyway, and went ballistic: “I can’t believe you lost my child,you’re so irresponsible!” As the tirade continued, Jane cried, shocked into silence by theinjustice of the accusation but also the fury and disdain in her friend’s voice. Twodecades worth of pent-up anger seemed to be pouring forth, but Jane was “too stunned totry to defend myself. I’d never been spoken to like that in my life.” Their friendship never recovered. Even when Jane was diagnosed with cancer,Amy didn’t call or send a card. Today, four years after their last stilted conversation, shepretends she hasn’t seen Jane if they pass on the street. Amy is not a monster but anintelligent, accomplished woman in her early 50s. But when women have no practiceairing and resolving differences with friends, they can fall back into high-school dramamode simply because they don’t know another way to handle conflict or manage theirown confusing emotions. After reviewing the demise of their friendship “a billion times in my head,” Janehas some theories. Initially, she was “the junior partner,” with less money and status–
  4. 4. perhaps Amy couldn’t tolerate the fact that they were now more equal? Or maybe she feltthreatened by Jane’s ever-widening social circle? She’ll never know for sure, a lack ofclosure that made the loss “like a death,” Jane remembers. “Every day I thought, ‘Todayshe’ll call,’ and then I finally realized she was never going to call again.” Although the proximal cause of a falling-out may be minor, one woman usuallyviews it as emblematic of a character flaw or pattern of behaviour she can no longertolerate, though she has never once complained about it. Birthdays are frequentlyflashpoints, according to Levine, because for some women, they are “milestone events,when you evaluate what you’ve achieved in life, and one measure we use is, How muchare we loved?” Joanne*, an executive assistant who describes herself as “not a birthdaygirl,” was stunned when her best friend dumped her for leaving a long, warm voicemailon her 40th birthday, rather than a gift. “She thought it summed up our whole friendship,”says Joanne, who’s compiled a long list of ways she was in fact a good friend over theyears, and still has no idea what her ex-friend meant. Many women seem to feel entitled to empathy, verging on clairvoyance, from abest friend: “She knows me inside out, I shouldn’t have to tell her why I’m mad.” (Weentertain no such delusions about men, so are pleasantly surprised when they displaysensitivity -- and more ready to forgive when they screw up.) Ironically, many bestfriends can talk about everything except the problems between them. In the aftermath of a BFF break-up, women typically go through seven stages:Shock/denial, loss, self-blame, embarrassment, anger, acceptance and then relief. Yes,relief. “Very often, women look back and realize the friendship wasn’t as reciprocal orperfect as it seemed,” Levine points out. Sometimes, there’s even a new sense of freedom: BFF-ship can be time-consuming and emotionally demanding. “I don’t know that I want that kind of intensityany more, or want to open myself to that kind of vulnerability again,” says Sarah. “I’vecome to see my husband as my best friend. And that’s really all I have time for now.” Losing a best friend can even have an upside: dialing down our expectations ofher replacement. Jane, for instance, has been careful with her new friend Elyse* toestablish firmer boundaries and the result, she says, is, paradoxically, a closer connectionthan she had with Amy. Boundaries are helpful, as many women learn in relationshipswith men: they remind us not just of the ways we’re different but also the limits to whatwe can give each other. Even if we’re best friends.