You teach your kids about integrity, social justice and generosity, how to stand up against bullies and why stereotypes are bad. You try to impart perspective when it comes to trivial childhood woes: It doesn’t matter that you didn’t get invited to the birthday party, you say, only three people did. Those meanies who excluded you at recess will forget all about it tomorrow, you promise.
Look at you: such a wise, mature parent! But sometimes, when all the moms in town are cackling over white wine in someone’s backyard and you hear about it later, well, you feel like a 13-year-old yourself.
When will we ever graduate from high school? I’m not sure we ever do. A friend said this to me the other day. We’d both spent the early spring weeks carrying grudges among the blooming flowers, feeling silently slighted. She hadn’t been invited to a school barbecue for her fourth-grade daughter’s class and had no idea why.
Meanwhile, I was full up on happy hours and get-togethers, but I was suffering an existential crisis of my own: I hadn’t heard from a couple of longstanding, good (wait, they are good, right?) friends in several weeks, despite a few important events in my life. Both of us are pushing 40. And both of us were blathering like 16-year-olds, wondering what we did wrong.
You think you’re above it, of course. You’re an adult, absolved of such silly superficialities. You’re busy. You have other things to think about. Yet when you walk into Not Your Average Joe’s and see a clan of moms you thought were your friends hanging out while you’re dragging two kids in for a last-minute dinner—well, it pierces you deep in the gut, just like when you were 10 and saw your best friend sitting with someone else in the cafeteria.
Why didn’t someone tell you about this hangout? Are you not fun enough? Did you say something to offend someone? How did you fail to penetrate the group? Is there something in your teeth?
“I guess I didn’t make the Party Moms cut,” my friend told me. “Maybe I’m too old.” (She is not old.)
Then you get indignant: You didn’t need that group, anyway. You’re too busy. Work is crazy! You already have friends. Next, you play social detective: Did you ever give them your number? All their kids play soccer together. That’s the connection! Right. And you swallow it and move on, but there’s a petty little part of you that still feels like an outsider. There’s a part of you who will see them the next weekend at soccer practice and want to come off friendly—but not too friendly, lest you seem too eager! You feel tired. You feel unsure of yourself. You feel like a big old baby.
“My husband thinks I’m crazy,” my friend told me.
Men don’t get it. My husband definitely doesn’t. Guydom offers the ultimate in hassle-free socializing. If a friend doesn’t turn up for poker one night, nobody cares. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Alliances shift based on whoever’s around that day. An unanswered text doesn’t make my husband sink into a funk. Half the time, he’s the one who doesn’t answer.
I, on the other hand, spend weeks berating myself for what I possibly did wrong when a friend goes MIA. I scroll social media looking for signs of life. Yep, there she is, having a grand old time without me! I go back into old messages and analyze the tenor. Have I been too available? Not available enough? I’m hating myself even writing this, it sounds so small-minded and silly, but there it is.
And, you know what, it’s not petty and silly. It’s a real factor in women’s friendships, especially among sensitive women, and it’s soulfully painful. Georgetown linguist Deborah Tanen wrote a book about this last year: “You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships.” This, from The Atlantic:
Romance is what it is, in literature and in life, in large part because of the conflicts it represents. There is passion colliding with reason, most stereotypically—the heart wants what it wants—but there is also, even more importantly, the known colliding with the unknown: Does he return your feelings? Will she say yes? Do they still love you, after all these years?
These are precisely the tensions, You’re the Only One I Can Tell suggests, that can animate women’s friendships: Friendships, like romance, can be fraught because of the same interplay between confidence and confusion that can make romance both exciting and, occasionally, excruciating. Does she like me? Will she call me back? Does she still love me, after all these years?
And that’s a bit how I’ve felt, this spring. Like a scorned lover. Like someone who had shown a bit of herself—who had let her guard down, who bared a bit of her internal monologue—only to be left behind.
In a way, though, dating is easier than sustaining a friendship. Romances end, and usually for clear-cut reasons: He wanted kids; I didn’t. He couldn’t get over his ex. She liked the Dave Matthews Band. And so on. This is because, so typically, there’s an end goal: Living together. Marriage. You name it. But what about friendship? It’s a fluid balance, an ebb and flow. There’s no defining end point, no ultimate milestone that marks the cementing of a platonic bond. It hums along indefinitely until, at some point, the texts go unreturned, the plans go unmade, and someone feels quietly hurt, mourns the dwindling intimacy and fades away.
With breakups, there’s usually a fight. A dramatic coda. Tears. Raw emotions. Closure. Not so with friendship. Yes, you can bring something up: “Hey, I’ve noticed you’ve been distant lately.” But it’s like offering a platter of deviled eggs at a cocktail party. Couched. Tentative. When so often, what you really want to say is: “I feel like I make all the effort here, and I’m wondering if the relationship means as much to you as it does to me. I feel like you’d be perfectly fine without me in your life, and that hurts so much, because I care about you.”
But who wants to feel so exposed, so vulnerable? Who wants to throw their dignity into the fire? Nobody. This isn’t the playground. This isn’t the high school cafeteria.
So you gloss over the unmade plans and the untended emotions. Because you’re a grown-up. Because you have other friends and kids of your own. Because work is so busy! All lies you tell yourself to mask the hurt, while you carry on and harbor a quiet resentment that you turn around and around in your soul, like a stone.