Women and friendships: When women talk about men

In our teens (and even now) my friends and I hardly discussed our romantic interests, and I was always silently proud of the fact that we were nothing like portrayals of female friendships in the movies. In fact most times our conversations were about everything but men: black holes in space, documentaries about the ocean, where we would travel, Greek mythology, dark matter, the logical structure of linguistic devices; while my friends dated rarely was it ever introduced for our awareness or examination.

And then, at about 16, one of my best friends found herself in a particularly rocky relationship. Her boyfriend fought with her often and she, seeking comfort and advice, would outline some of these arguments to me, even though she was a very private person, especially in matters of relationships. She still did not recount the disputes fully—just barely scraped the surface—and it wasn’t until he broke up with her that I learned how alarmingly entitled and condescending he had truly been, and, most conspicuously with the revelation, learned of his depreciating attitudes towards women. It was a classic case of Nice Guy syndrome at its most manipulative. What my friend did tell me I was able to articulate for her so that she could confront him from her own position, because she was seldom able to fully express her confusion and distress. “You put all my thoughts into words,” she thanked me. “You’re my reason Nahida; I can’t think rationally right now.” It was true; one would think she were madly in love with him. Toward the end, the relationship became so toxic she was often in tears.

As she slowly began to recover from it, one day she wondered, “I don’t know why this is so difficult to get over, Nahida. I guess because I lost my virginity to him.”

For some reason—and I still haven’t the slightest idea why—I thought she was speaking metaphorically. I continued to comfort her, though from the previous angle, until shortly after she described, “I’ll never forget the look on his face. He looked so worried.”

“When?” I asked.

“When I lost my virginity to him.”

It suddenly struck me. “You lost your virginity to him?”

“Yeah Nahida I just told you like three minutes ago.”

“I—I didn’t—I thought you meant figuratively…”

“What? Why would I—”

“I don’t know! Continue.”

Why hadn’t I registered that she was not in fact speaking metaphorically? For the most part it was merely my state of mind with her—I’d had a conversation, I recalled, with the same friend about marriage in which we examined the nature of a marriage of the soul (rather than legally, on paper.) Our discussions were often so philosophically dense that the notion she was indicating something as concrete, as physical, as the bodily act of sex seemed a secondary possibility. That, compounded with the circumstance that I wasn’t personally ready for anything like that (even if I had not been Muslim) at the age of 16. (In fact, even in my very first year of college three years ago, it would surprise me when any of my friends disclosed she’d had sex: I’m not sexually active—until recently the default for me was to believe that no one else was.) The idea that at 16 one of my closest friends had lost her virginity was beyond the grasp of my comprehension.

More importantly, I would have never anticipated this, exactly because we did not talk about romantic relationships.

My objective would not have been to stop her. After all, her autonomy is her complete right, and the activities in which she engages are fully her decision. But I might have asked her to reconsider. Had she disclosed this to me earlier I might have done something—anything—to ensure that the guilt and devastation so apparent now on her face would have never made an appearance.

Maybe it is anti-feminist—and if so then so be it—and maybe it doesn’t matter how I feel about it because she is her own person, but I would not have wanted her to lose her virginity to that schmuck. Not because I believed she wasn’t ready (not my decision) or because I’m enforcing a lifestyle (not my decision) but because there is no way in hell I could not have foreseen that she would regret having sex for the first time with him. And while with whom specifically she experiences this is also not my decision (acknowledged!) I can’t help but believe that if we had talked things through—especially considering his manipulative and controlling behavior that she was now slowly revealing to me—I would have been able to shed some light on what a BAD IDEA that was before it happened, and she would have felt fuller and safer.

This I would have likely accomplished naturally even without intention if I had identified for her every passive aggressive tactic he was using to emotionally manipulate her and countered his every audacious allegation against women. These were things she had not disclosed until the relationship had passed, things that suddenly she herself recognized now that she wasn’t overtaken by her feelings for him. “I never even realized how messed up he was,” she noted, amazed.

But I could have told her.

She is a very passionate person–I have no doubt she’s the one who initiated without coercion–but had I pointed out to her what an asshat he is she might have felt differently in the throes of desire.

I realized then, that despite what a mockery patriarchy makes out of the portrayals of female friendships in the media, despite how frivolous and vapid the practice of women discussing romantic relationships with each other appears, despite how proud I was that my friends and I did not engage in such ridiculousness, it is not the vacuous activity that patriarchy will have everyone believe.

It is a mechanism of survival.

Genuine friendship between women, after all, is a powerful feminist act. I had always identified it as such. But I had been wrong to be fooled into believing for one second that a practice associated with femininity, like discussing romantic relationships, was worthy of disparagement because of media portrayals.

And even while I still seldom personally engage in disclosing the nature of romantic interests to a large extent simply because of my natural approach to them and how lovely I believe things are when they are private, the practice ought to be recognized for what it truly is.

5 thoughts on “Women and friendships: When women talk about men

  1. Great post!

    While I do hate it when women are portrayed as *only* discussing men and romantic relationships, I don’t think that means that women *shouldn’t* discuss them. Relationships are a part of life, after all, and to restrict ourselves from discussing a part of our lives because of patriarchal ideas is, in its own way, still letting the patriarchy control us.

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  2. rootedinbeing

    One of my best friends and I became such while she was going through an especially difficult truth in her relationship. It was the first time I’d ever seen her cry, and tell her deepest, darkest secrets, fears and insecurities. It was also the first time I was able to show my loyalty, support, and love for her in a proactive way, instead of superficially.

    I think this idea in feminism that being vulnerable about our relationships with men is really too bad. I think being self-conscious of what we discuss in our friendships is really just internalized sexism. If our relationships have depth, so will our conversations – and that includes discussing our interactions with those we are romantic with.

    I also think women being silent to each other about their relationships is how abuse can continue in bad relationships. When we have no support system, no sounding board – we can lose perspective.

    I understand the image of the clique of girls standing around discussing boys and basing their worth off of their relationships to boys/men. I also think internalizing our need to “not be that stereotype” can keep us from true intimacy in our relationships with each other.

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  3. Absolutely, especially this comment: “I also think women being silent to each other about their relationships is how abuse can continue in bad relationships. When we have no support system, no sounding board – we can lose perspective. ”
    I have also not been one to talk about such things. I listened to others but I did not volunteer. When I ended up in a very bad situation I couldn’t imagine confessing what I was going through to anyone, and felt extremely isolated. I had no idea how many other people went through this, or how much their perspective would have balanced and reinforced to me that this behavior was not okay (I knew it wasn’t… but not enough to get myself out, until it got even worse). It was only after I left, and stopped covering, and started speaking up about it, that I realized how many other people had dealt with these things and not only was I not alone, I was surrounded by others who had gone through it, and I was surrounded by others who were also in toxic relationships and struggling and needed somebody to tell them about their experience and how it was not okay, and it was not going to get better, and in fact could get horribly worse. The amount of manipulation that goes on in such a relationship can really warp your grasp of perspective and balance. In some cases this is intentional, the abuser purposely manipulates and attempts to convince the person that they are wrong, they are mistaken, they are blowing things out of proportion or misinterpretting, even flat out denying things or trying to make the woman think she is crazy or cannot rely on her perceptions (gaslighting). I believe one of the values of keeping these other relationships and being willing to discuss these things, though difficult, can be a valuable tool. And it also made me realize that when one of my female friends tells me about a problem, it may be many many times bigger than the small part she was willing to mention, because there is also that fear of being told by someone that the person you are with is toxic before you are ready or able to leave. Then there is the danger that your warner is the one you cut off instead of the toxic one.

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  4. I used to be very open about my relationships – good and bad, my friends have always been great at being supportive, without encouraging me to over-think things – or glide over things that shouldn’t be ignored.

    In my third relationship however, there was a lot of emotional abuse going on, and often part of that is trying to isolate you. He straight out forbid me from discussing details of our relationship between other people because “we should be able to solve them ourselves”.

    The thing is, I often find that discussing even little things that annoy you with your friends, can be a great way to deal with it. Honestly, sometimes *bitching* about your man not putting his dirty laundry in the dirty laundry basket, or leaving the toilet seat up, and having your friend say “yeah I feel you, mine’s the same”. It just feels good. It takes the edge off, and you realize, well, sure it’s annoying, but really, at the end of the day it’s not what’s most important. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

    As for the bigger things, it is so important that we dare to name the issues – but that we also know when to just support our friend, and let her take the steps she need to take in her own time. I knew almost from the beginning that the relationship I was in wasn’t good for me. Yet I stayed for two years. There are many reasons for this (some being we’d been friends for 4 years, I’d given up a lot of stuff to be with him, and my being with him (he was Pakistani) was basically considered a big *fuck you* by many of my acquaintances and family members, so in some ways I wanted to *prove* I’d make it work), but at the end of the day, we can’t do things until we’re ready. And you can’t force someone else to be ready when they aren’t.

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