If You Want to Keep Your Friends, Fight It Out

Recent research about friendships has been uncovering interesting ways our besties influence everything from our interests to our health. Friendfluence, on sale today, surveys the latest findings about these important relationships. We invited author Carlin Flora to share what she found out about how to handle conflict between good friends.

“Men kick friendship around like a football, but it doesn’t seem to crack. Women treat it like glass and it goes to pieces.” –Anne Morrow Lindbergh

We may tune in with horror and amusement when a New Jersey housewife hurtles a fully set table to express anger at a friend, but according to psychology researchers and clinicians alike, most women would rather let a friendship die than gently call a girlfriend out—never mind initiating a showdown.

Maybe a friend always cancels plans at the last minute or talks about her own problems without really asking how you are. Maybe she disclosed something personal you mentioned to a third person, or forgot an occasion that was important to you. Whatever the offense, you might silently stew, building up a solid case against her in your mind—without getting her side of the story—all in fear that breaching the subject will lead to a blow-up more upsetting than the original vexation.

Any woman remotely interested in self-improvement probably knows by now that solid friendships are good for mind, body, and spirit. And the evidence in favor of friends keeps getting stronger: A new longitudinal British study concluded that independent of education, wealth, and prior psychological health, those with a smaller friendship network at age 45 tended to have poorer psychological well-being at age 50. (Family networks appeared to be more important to men’s mental health than women’s, perhaps because families put more obligations on women’s shoulders, while friends provide support.)

While researching my book Friendfluence, I mostly focused on the many similarities in the ways men and women regard friendship. One difference kept bubbling up, though: Women’s friendships are more fraught than men’s. I’ve never heard a guy refer to a buddy as “toxic,” for example. Perhaps there is truth to the stereotype that men blurt out their annoyances with one another in real time, thereby avoiding a build-up of resentment that, allowed to fester, could cause furniture to flip.

I came across a small-yet-deep study by Robin Moreman, Ph.D., that extensively interviewed a group of women) aged 55 and older about their friendships. The impetus of her investigation was the fact that while several studies have shown that friends are more important than family to older women, friendship can also be a source of strain for them. Because many older women truly rely on friends, that strain is all the more damaging to their mental health. Moreman found that this downside of friendship was connected to a failure to meet expectations that were often unspoken. Those include the expectation that friends will share habits and interests, not be overly dependent or whiney when ill, and tease only for fun. “Most older women chose to avoid conflict rather than to openly confront their friends when they felt hurt or disappointment,” Moreman writes.

When I interviewed her for Friendfluence, clinical psychologist Terri Apter, Ph.D., echoed Moreman’s thoughts, saying, “I think if women learned to take conflict out in the open and to see that it is perfectly consistent with friendship, then that would be a big improvement. Middle-aged women often say they’ll withdraw from a friendship rather than have an argument or express their dissatisfaction or disquiet,” Apter says.

I’ve had the experience of being bothered by something a friend did, yet scared to raise the subject. A few times, though, when I’ve managed to bring up a concern calmly, expressing sadness and hurt rather than venom, my friends were not only apologetic but were also able to point out my role in whatever was going on between us. As such, we could both take responsibility and feel even closer. (If you find yourself repeatedly logging complaints about a friend, though, perhaps it’s not a relationship worth fighting for. Friendship should mostly be comfortable, fun, and easy, after all.)

Since we know just how valuable friends are, and just how devastating loneliness is, perhaps it’s time for women to treat friendship more consciously, especially as we juggle the demands of work and family. Don’t just float in and out of these important alliances, but rather, articulate your expectations—whatever yours happen to be—and (lovingly) confront your friends when they don’t meet them. Many will appreciate knowing rather than wondering, “What did I do?” Letting a friendship fade away might be easier in the short term, but it leaves the other person bereft and confused, and the instigator down one health-boosting pal.

Stirring up conflict might occasionally lead to a permanent rift, which can be very painful. But if two friends recognize the enormous benefits of staying close, they can strive to keep defensiveness in check and learn something about themselves, from someone who truly knows them. As the philosopher Alain de Botton recently tweeted (yes—philosophizing in under 140 characters!) “Only in a relationship with someone who couldn’t teach us anything would there be no arguments.”

Learn more about Friendfluence at carlinflora.com.

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Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are
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