Political Rupture

woman burning in hell (2)At a rally for Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright declared, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” A fierce debate about gender, the generational divide, and feminism in presidential politics ensued. There’s a fundamental psychological dynamic at play as well: the idealization of female solidarity and the corollary difficulties women often experience when differences emerge.

Women are celebrated for their emotional intimacy. Statements like, “We get one another completely”; the sharing of secrets, clothes, and gossip; even jokes about women going en masse to the bathroom make clear how much women prize connection.  This “urge to merge” can be viewed as an aspect of female identity formation and the longed-for return to the blissful state of maternal-infant union. Nothing is quite as delicious.

But it’s also a set up. When women are not supposed to feel, let alone talk, about their differences, there’s no room for conflict, and no vocabulary or practice for resolving it. Difficulties go underground, leaking out in ways that often lead to rupture. Thus differentiation is experienced as betrayal, and standing apart from the group risks social suicide. My daughter discovered this in college when, tired of looking for housing with eight (!) other women, she considered leaving the group. The anger and accusations of disloyalty quickly convinced her otherwise. It turned out that none of the women really wanted to live in such a large household, but no one knew how to say so without hurting anyone’s feelings or being seen as a traitor.

This loyalty/betrayal split is now being played out in presidential politics. Albright’s remarks typify idealized notions of female connection that make no room for difference. She reminds us of the dangers women face if they stray from the fold. (Never mind that the halcyon days of blissful union have never really existed: the very women’s movement Albright exalts was itself torn apart by conflict.)

Predictably, when Albright consigned to hell women who disagree with her, all hell broke loose. As long as those who differ are seen as traitors, with only a narrow range of women’s emotions and choices deemed acceptable, all hell will continue to break loose.

But perhaps there’s hope. As younger women reap the benefits of their foremothers and are able to speak up, speak their minds, and stand apart, strong feelings and disagreements won’t be quite so likely to go underground, then erupt. Instead, polarization might give way to dealing directly and respectfully with the differences that enrich women’s complex and very human experiences.


What have your experiences been with female solidarity and its discontents?



X is for X-BFF

X BFFsI’ve been in and out of love with men many times over the decades, but breaking up with my best friend, Sharon, was worse than any failed romantic relationship. It knocked the wind out of me for years, consuming me as I tried to figure out what went wrong. How could someone who was so much a part of me be gone from my life? I felt like a crazy person, unable to move on from my guilty, shameful obsession.

I’m not the only one. Almost every adult woman I’ve talked with has a similar story. The details and personalities differ, but the women I’ve spoken with all feel equally crazy and obsessed by a deep hurt that at best leaves a lot of scar tissue, but often never heals. (I was lucky—Sharon and I eventually reconciled.)

I wonder if the hyper-idealization of friendship between girls and women is part of the problem. Our friends are supposed to be everything to us—super supportive, always there for us, able to finish our sentences, someone who gets us inside and out. In fact, sometimes we seem like the same person, inside and out! That urge to merge is so delicious—and so deadly.

We know how to be close, but difference often feels like an unbearable distance. That’s often when trouble starts. Worse, women seldom know how to deal in a healthy way with all those “not nice” feelings: conflict, aggression, envy, and competition. So we sweep problems under the rug, hoping they’ll go away. Or act out big time. Or exhaust ourselves with endless processing. (No wonder the movie Bridesmaids  always strikes a nerve for me—I’ve seen it four times!)

What makes female friendship so susceptible to ruptures? Can we enjoy tight bonds without cutting off the circulation?


What do you think? What are your experiences with X-BFFs? Were you ever able to drop the “X” even if regaining “BFF” proved elusive?

Picture Worth a Thousand Words


My-Other-ExI know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But one look at the cover photo of My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends tells me that editors Jessica Smock and Stephanie Sprenger of The HerStories Project are on the right track.

Literally. The photo is of two women walking side by side on railroad tracks. Arms outstretched, their fingers touch—but barely. They have come to a switch, a tricky junction where two parallel tracks diverge. The necessary curvature allowing for an additional direction means the women must move a little farther apart. Each walks precariously on the narrow track edges; one looks as if she is about to lose her balance. Will they be able to negotiate this change in the tracks safely?

Or will they get zapped by the third rail of female friendships—envy, competition, aggression, differentiation, betrayal, conflict, conflict-avoidance, to name just a few? All the not-so-nice realities that beset girls and women. When we inevitably encounter such things with no language to talk about them, our closest friendships often crash and burn in fiery ruptures. Or end not with a bang, but with a whimper that leaves us wondering what happened.

Either way, it’s like a punch in the gut. My friendship break-ups have knocked the wind out of me for years. I obsess, I brood, I go over and over what went wrong. I hate her, I miss her. I can’t move on. And almost every woman I know has experienced her own particular version of such heartbreak.

We bear our grief in shameful silence, though. The hyper-celebration of gal pals just makes you feel worse when your friendship turns pallid or your friend turns on you.

At long last, My Other Ex breaks through the silence and sheds some light on why ruptures are so common.  I can’t wait to delve beyond the picture into the many thousands of words these women write about friendships derailed.


Have you ever experienced rupture with a female friend? What was it like? Lessons learned?


First Friends

Me and Nancy at Concord Bridge (MA), June 1961

Me and Nancy at Concord Bridge (MA), June 1961

I barely remember my first friend, Regan, who lived next door to us in Cincinnati. There’s a picture of us as at age four on a stone wall, in identical shorts and midriff blouses, belly buttons protruding. But that’s about it. Regan moved away to a neighboring state, which, in the 1950s geography of childhood, may as well have been the moon. Besides, less than a year later, my family moved to New England.

There I met Nancy. She had a pixie haircut and freckled face wide open with friendliness. She lived two corners and a short, steep hill away from me, back in the days when free-range children were the norm. Nancy’s house backed onto the woods, where we spent hours building forts, climbing rocks, and fashioning furniture out of twigs and moss. Her mother, strikingly beautiful and always welcoming, would serve up snacks and listen to our tales of adventure.

In fourth grade, I pushed the two of us to take up violin together. I scratched my way through a few torturous lessons before quitting, but Nancy really took to it.

Despite the disparities in our musical talent, Nancy and I were inseparable. Then, in fifth grade, her family relocated to the far corner of Massachusetts. We promised to stay best friends forever, even visited once or twice. But as often happens, we lost touch.

As I began to delve deeply a couple of years ago into my long-held obsession with ruptures in women’s friendships, I thought about Nancy a lot. Ours was a drift, not a rift—a relationship disrupted by circumstances, but not the complicated messiness I would later come to know with close female friends. I grew nostalgic for our wonderful times together. So, thanks to the modern-day miracles of Google, I found her.

Nancy has the same open, friendly face (we both have better haircuts now), a different last name, a husband and beautiful freckle-faced daughter, and a house in the country with lots of animals. Plus a long string of musical accomplishments under her name. A former symphony violinist, she is now an assistant professor of music, director of her college’s symphony and chamber orchestras, and coordinator for their Strings Program and auditions. I’m glad one of us made it past the scratching stage, and glad that I have such fond memories of my first best friend.

Now Nancy and I exchange emails and holiday news. She signed up for my blog, and even signed up her still beautiful and gracious mother!

Today is Nancy’s birthday.

Happy birthday, old friend!


First friend stories? Are you still in touch? How have your earliest friendships shaped your adult ones?


broken heart symbol

“Why can’t you just be happy for me, and then go home and talk behind my back later, like a normal person?”

So laments Lillian to Annie as their once-close friendship derails in the 2011 hit movie, Bridesmaids.

Lillian (played by Maya Rudolph) and Annie (Kristin Wiig) have been best friends since before they had breasts. Nothing can come between them—they share keys to each other’s apartments, secret glances, and a talent for skewering men’s sexual habits. Annie’s been sleeping with a cad since her business and relationship went bust. Lillian’s convinced her boyfriend is about to break up with her. But the men are a sideshow to the true bond. Over coffee and chocolate cake, Lillian and Annie laughingly propose to one another, “Will you marry me?” “Yes!” they both exclaim.

Instead Lillian gets engaged to Doug, and Annie responds with, “Oh, my God! What is happening?” Lillian and her fiancé coo to one another over the phone; when Lillian tells him how happy Annie is for them, Annie calls from the background, “No I’m not!” Her forced, manic laughter quickly subsides into a crestfallen expression as the contrast in their life trajectories becomes all too clear. Still, there’s no question that Lillian wants her best friend to be her maid of honor, and that Annie is honored indeed. She’ll put on a happy face despite her misery, and even sincerely mean it.

Until she meets Helen, Lillian’s new friend, who is richer, prettier, thinner, better connected—and who never misses an opportunity to flaunt it over Annie. Worse, it appears Helen has supplanted Annie as Lillian’s best friend.

Hilarity ensues as envy, competition, anger, galloping diarrhea, and all hell break loose.

Shit happens when there’s disparity between best friends, or between what they profess and what they feel. Especially when someone else comes between them. I can relate. What woman can’t?

In my case, my best friend, Sharon, responded to my engagement with, “How bourgeois!” She was my maid of honor, and although she didn’t ground any planes en route to the Bachelorette party, she was late to the wedding and called me a Nazi for being uptight.

Of course it’s more complicated than that. Sharon was never as rotten as our bridal saga makes her sound. Years before, when we took a four-month, post-college trip, she even nursed me tenderly through my own episode of galloping diarrhea in a Tel Aviv youth hostel after an unfortunate encounter with unwashed strawberries. Besides, I was often a Nazi.

We had a long history of ups and downs, chortling over in-jokes but also treading carefully amid landmines. Sometimes a misstep would lead to a blow-up, until we couldn’t bear the distance anymore–our conciliatory letters often crossed in the mail. Eventually our signals got hopelessly crossed. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember feeling like I’d been punched in the gut. Our final rupture knocked the wind out of me for years.

My break-up with Sharon is not unusual. The details vary, but practically every woman I know has a rupture story, complete with endless obsession and wounds that take forever to heal. Sometimes the rift is mutual and obvious. Often it’s silent, with one or both friends claiming that everything’s fine while secretly feeling adrift, even hostile. As Lillian’s opening remark reminds us, it’s normal for friends to be two-faced.

But why? Why are ruptures in women’s friendships so common? And so painful?

What do you think? Can best friends ever live happily ever after?