The Myth of the Girlfriend
My eight year-old daughter descends the steps of the school bus, glassy-eyed, and with visible storm clouds forming above her ringleted head.
She makes it three feet from me before she erupts in tears. She sobs the story of a playground game at recess, and how her friend Amelia unexpectedly turned on her, became sullen, and spent the remainder of the day in a huff. “I apologized to her,” my daughter tells me, “because I just wanted her to be happy again. But it didn’t work, and I just don’t know what to do.”
I blow out the breath I’d been holding since I first saw my little girl’s somber face. I hug her and praise for being sensitive. And then I tell her.
“Amelia is moody,” I explain.
“Moody,” she repeats, as if it’s the name of a disease she’s learning for the first time.
“Yes, some people are moody,” I continue, “their feelings change without warning, and it can be really hard to be friends with them.”
My daughter seems to understand, at least within the limited space of recess and playgrounds. And in that moment, I resolve to be straight with her about the myth of girlfriendships.
All her life, she will hear people say, “Men come and go, but girlfriends are forever.”
She will see memes and etched wine glasses and yoga tanks that say things like, “sisters before misters,” and “BFF.” She will watch movies that depict female friendships as easy to create and effortless to maintain. She may even begin to believe that there is a secret and implicit loyalty pledge that her female friends will make, and that it will function like a kind of spell — always bringing them back to each other, no matter the circumstance. But I will tell her that it doesn’t work that way. I will tell her the truth.
She will have valuable friendships with boys and girls, men and women. And men have not cornered the market on doing you wrong.
Girlfriends will break your heart. They will succumb to jealousy and selfishness. They will cheat, steal, and abandon. And when those things happen, the betrayal will be so much harder to absorb for its lack of sex as motivation. I may not be able to shield my daughter from the inevitable girlfriend-inflicted pain, but I can sure as hell make sure that she isn’t surprised by it. For most of my life, I practiced best-friend bigamy, keeping two or three friends closest, and diversifying my holdings in an attempt to ensure that I’d never be alone. My larger social groups would echo out in concentric levels, creating a kind of girlfriend Doppler effect, where (theoretically) the expectations of each relationship would be commensurate with their distance from epicenter of my life.
Truthfully, though, it’s never worked. As a child, I often found myself in a tug-of-war between my prim, delicately-bookish friend Nancy, and my loud-mouthed, hilariously-exuberant pal, Lorin. The two didn’t care for one another, but I loved them both dearly. I repeated this pattern many times over, always dividing my time between friends from different spheres, and always disappointing both.
As a young adult, I thought I’d finally cracked the code. I committed to one friend and stuck by her side for a decade and a half. We escorted each other through dizzying laughs, and comforted each other through whatever tears couldn’t be avoided with a girls’ night out. We planned weddings and became mothers, we started and reinvented our careers, and we did it all together. I still had lots of other wonderful women in my life, but this one was the one. I became comfortable with the “B-word” (best friend), although thankfully, by then, I was too old to buy one of those cheesy necklaces. I even enjoyed being thought of as part of a duo. Having a go-to friend seemed efficient and stable, predictable and solid.
But in the end, after fifteen years, four kids, and a business between us, she left. She evaporated without apology or explanation. And there I stood. Nearing forty, off-balance, and utterly confused, I tried to survive. Only I wasn’t the same me that I’d been before this monolithic relationship. I was somehow smaller.
As it turned out, the years beside this woman had come at a price. Like some kind of geological phenomenon, I’d lost pieces of myself by cleaving to this best friend. After she was gone, the integrity of my own form was seriously compromised. I missed her — but not nearly as much as I missed me. And there was no infrastructure in place to manage any of the fallout. Had my marriage broken up, there’d have been support groups and self-help books. People would’ve followed the script about new beginnings and the joys of love yet to be. But there is no script about a friend who abandons, because it doesn’t fit into the fairy tale of girls who will be there for one another “forever.”
Ultimately, it’s the incongruence that hurts most. I’d been peddled a false bill of goods by literally everyone. I grew up in a time when society realized it was a bad idea to hype up little girls for the princes arriving on white horses to take care of them for life. But even as Disney began to make its happy endings marriage-free, the ideal of the girlfriend was never touched. It stood as a sacrosanct entitlement — a promise to all that they will have magically-simple, infinitely-satisfying friendships that will endure through time and space.
So I’m adjusting the myth, at least for my own daughter. Friendships are beautiful, I will tell her. Some will be epic novels; others will be short stories, no less sweet for their brevity. These relationships will feel solid, but in reality, they are as delicate as bubbles. Do not be afraid of them, because they have the capacity to bring you great joy; but do not expect them to be endless. They do not exist on an impenetrable pedestal, but in the real world, where relationships are sometimes finite and always complicated. And when you hear the phrase, “best friend,” do not think of it as a label to bestow on the one girl you wish to crown above the rest. Instead, think of it as a mandate. Try your best. Be the best friend you can be. Expect that your friends do their best too. When that best isn’t enough for one or the other, know that walking away can, will, and should happen.