Female friendships are something of an enigma. For some the relationship is such that a female friend is the first port of call in the event of a crisis or a celebration, ahead, sometimes even, of partners or family. For others, the breakdown of a female friendship that was once held so dear, leaves such devastation in its wake that some describe the loss of the friendship as worse than the breakdown of a long-term romantic relationship.
And then there are those who watch on from the sidelines, who find making friends difficult at the best of times, and for whom finding the elusive “bestie” feels nigh on impossible.
So why do women put so much emphasis on female friendships? Do we really need close female friends, or is it all just part of a selective narrative? And why does the break-up of a close friendship hurt so much?
"According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), relationships are a key social determinant of our health and wellbeing, acting as both a risk and a protective factor", explains Dr Maeve Hurley, CEO of Ag Eisteacht (ageisteach.com), a charity leading a relationship-centred approach in frontline practice.
“We are wired for connection,” she continues. “Brain science shows that supportive relationships help us feel safe and secure by being seen, heard and understood.”
When it comes to female friendships, superior verbal skills may play a role, Hurley explains.
“If it is true that [women] are more verbally fluent, this might help us to understand why our female friendships are so important to us. To be able to share things openly and reciprocate that for a friend, by being present, attuned and listening actively and reflectively to her, is empowering, particularly during times of change, transition or relational breakdown or distress.
“Giving anyone in our lives our time, attention and respect is the greatest gift”.
Having a best friend
Now best friends, Lynda Coogan, owner of A Class of Wine, and radio and TV presenter Mairead Ronan, didn't initially like each other very much.
"She [Mairead] had been working in Arnotts and I went in as an O'Neill's merchandiser, waltzing in and out in my Dublin gear. We were two of the only girls that were in the sports department and we were jealous of each other," Coogan laughs. It's a sentiment echoed by Ronan. "Lynda was a very pretty, Kylie Minogue lookalike, flirted with all the lads. I really wasn't fond of her at all. Didn't like her one bit," she says.
Although the pair are best friends for more than 21 years now, Ronan says their friendship was a slow burner.
“In the early years of our friendship, her gorgeous mum Eileen had breast cancer. And my mam had breast cancer. And then my mam passed away in April 2001 and Lynda’s mam died a year later in 2002. So strangely we ended up experiencing a very similar and horrific thing in our very young years.”
Coogan says that their similar experiences of losing their mothers has meant that they could understand how each other was feeling on milestone occasions, such as the births of their first children. The pair share the same birthday month though “there’s three weeks between us, so she’s much older,” Coogan laughs.
Not only have the friends never had a fight, their closeness means there’s an intuitive sense of when something is wrong with the other person. One such occasion happened recently when Ronan says she sensed that something was troubling Coogan. “I had to have a biopsy there a couple of weeks ago. The first person I told was Mairead,” Coogan explains. Thankfully the results were clear, but the friends supported each other in the way friends who understood the brutal reality of breast cancer could.
However Ronan also points out that “when you’re a grown woman you actually don’t always want to share everything either” and the two friends respect that. And while Coogan supported Ronan through the breakdown of her first marriage, Ronan says that good friends aren’t just there to “pick up the pieces. They’re there to celebrate all your highs too. And we’ve both had really lovely ones.”
When female friendships go wrong
Counselling psychotherapist Linda Breathnach (therapyandtraining.ie) says "while it can be compared to a form of therapy, women who are supportive of each other aren't therapists, so they're not trained in boundaries, and even in empowerment. So often with the best will in the world, their intention is to support but they step over the mark and they try to fix and do."
“Friendships can get unhealthy,” Breathnach says. “I’ve seen people I know, and in clients, where kids don’t even know who their own parents are because their mum’s friends are giving out to them the same way as their own parents. Boundaries get crossed. That’s all well and good if it’s a once-off crisis, you need somebody to step in. But once the line is crossed, it can be very hard to come back from it.”
Breathnach says male friendships and female friendships differ from each other because typically the investment is different. “If a female relationship is a lot more intense… if that goes wrong then of course there’s going to be huge hurt.
“If you become dependent on it, if that was your lifeline, your space to offload, the connection, the letting your hair down, and it might be that just like in a romantic relationship you agreed that the relationship should be ending, but there’s a void left.
“It is a form of grief. Any loss like that is similar to a death, only it can be more complicated because there can be that sense of rejection as well.”
Sue Kelly has experienced this. "I recently lost a couple of my friends. I found that we were on completely different wavelengths. While they went off travelling, my main goal was to try and get a house, so I was saving for that."
After meeting her husband, buying a house and having children, Kelly found the gap widened further. “I definitely think having kids completely changes your friendships”, she says “If you and your friends are on different wavelengths, you just have different lifestyles. They were still going out drinking a couple of nights a week and losing phones and stuff. If I was going out I just wanted to even have a cup of tea, just to have proper adult conversations.
'Some female friendships can be very intense and very, very emotional. When it goes wrong, it's very, very hard because there's no script for that in modern life'
“And I felt that I had to change the way I was talking. I couldn’t say the good things that were going on in my life, like how great having kids was. I always focused on the negatives about them.” Kelly felt she was speaking similarly about her husband so that she wasn’t “rubbing in how great my life was”.
“I felt that was an awful way to be. I thought if I have to do that, they’re not my friends.
“When you have kids, you want your friends to be there for you and I felt that they weren’t,” she says. “I felt that they were going out and not asking me and I felt left out. I felt we’re just on different wavelengths and I have to end the friendship but I was devastated. I cried and cried and cried.
“I find making friends nowadays tough,” Kelly concedes. After the breakup of her friendships, she says she questioned everything “Am I not a nice person? Does no one want to hang around with me? Am I not fun to be around? Am I supposed to just be a mammy now?
“It’s like grief,” she says. “It is a loss, because you know you’re not going to be seeing them again. I think social media makes it a little bit harder because they’re in your face all the time so I did have to do a bit of blocking and deleting, just for my own mental health because I really struggled with it.”
Nicola O’Byrne, lactation consultant at BreastfeedingSupport.ie says that we don’t talk enough about the intensity of female friendships.
“Some female friendships can be very intense and very, very emotional. It’s everything except the romance bit. And so when it goes wrong and you’re not able to negotiate that within the friendship, it’s very, very hard because there’s no script for that in modern life. There’s a script for romantic relationships going wrong, and family relationships going wrong, but for friends, there isn’t. It’s just ‘pull back, say nothing, just don’t engage’.
“I would really have very high expectations of people, probably too high”, she says. “I came to realise in my 50s that friendships come and go. People come and go at different stages of your life. You’re really, really lucky if there are two or three that stay.”
On the end of a very close friendship she says: “Obviously there were things that I must have been doing that she didn’t like and we weren’t able to say to each other ‘what’s going on?’ And then she got married and I remember the day of her wedding feeling like such an outsider, like I was so far away and not even involved in her headspace.
'What we expect from our relationships will be influenced by our early years' experience'
“It nearly killed me. And I kept trying to rekindle the friendship and it was very clear that it wasn’t what she wanted. I must have cried for about 10 years about it.
“I remember years later bumping into her in a shop and feeling the same way again, feeling ‘oh gosh I’d love to get back to talking to her again’.” O’Byrne’s other friends were very “blunt” she says when she sought their advice on attempting to rekindle the friendship again and discouraged her.
“I see my part in it, she says. “I was probably a very clingy friend and that was just too much for her.”
Finding it hard to make friends
It’s not the easiest thing to admit that you find it difficult to make friends. “What we expect from our relationships will be influenced by our early years’ experience,” Dr Hurley explains. “Our early years’ experience will shape how we see ourselves: ‘Am I worthy of friendship? Did I have a sense that I was of value? That I was seen, that I was heard in my own family of origin?’ And also what I expect from a relationship.
“It would be really interesting to think ‘what was my early years’ experience of relating?’” Hurley says. “Maybe if I moved a lot around preschools, or we moved a lot as a family, I may not have had the same opportunity to establish and learn about friendships in a safe and protected way.”
TV producer Sinead Dalton says she found it very hard to adjust to the changes in friendship when she left school. "I found it very difficult going from seeing them every day to suddenly being on your own in college," she explains.
After college, Dalton moved to Australia, but when she returned she found that a lot of her friends were at a different stage of life to her. "My friends were all in long-term relationships," she explains. "I did find it tough to make new friends when I came back, so I joined a thing called GirlCrew [an online forum for making friends].
“You’d pop up a message on a Friday and go ‘look girls, feel like going out tomorrow night, who’s free?’”
"I ended up getting friendships through that," Dalton says. "My time has changed again and I've moved with my partner to a new area. We bought a house in Kildare. I know no one in Kildare. So I was put in a place where I had to force myself to go out and make friends," something she did through GAA.
“A friend of mine told me about ‘mothers and others’. You meet new people in the area and you play football,” she explains “You don’t have to have played before.”
Dalton says she doesn’t expect to have a “bessie mate”, as the female narrative goes, and she puts this down to having travelled a lot and adjusted to leaving many of the close school friendships behind.
Margaret Walsh grew up in America and has tried many avenues to make friends in Ireland over the years. From joining the parents' associations in the schools her, now adult, daughters attended, to making friends with other mothers in the classes, to getting involved in the GAA, knitting club, church work and working with Fianna Fáil. "People seemed to know each other for dozens of years," Walsh says.
She says it gets her down sometimes when she sees her friends in the States “going to Vegas together for the girls’ weekend away, and not having a weekend away here”.
'If you don't like going out to bars or bright lights, then you're not going to feel safe and be able to connect with people when you're out in that environment'
She feels there is an expectation that women should have close friends and “besties”. Walsh says the absence of a best friend made her sometimes feel a bit like an outsider and she says she has questioned whether her lack of very close friends is down to the fact that she doesn’t “drink much. Is that a factor? Or is it the American factor? Or is it just me in general, something about me? Those are the three things that go through my head and then it’s like ‘oh well, you’re you and that’s it’.”
As a woman in her 50s, with her children no longer at school, Walsh says “where to go” is now the question when considering how to make friends. “I was thinking of joining a tennis club, but even there you assume people doing that have been doing it donkey’s years and I don’t know if I’d be any good at it. But yes I have thought about the next step, and then the pandemic slowed that down obviously because you’re not seeing the people in pilates or that type of area, where maybe I could have furthered something if somebody’s doing pilates and suggests to do it another day as well or to do something after at some time, or that type of thing.”
That’s not to say Walsh doesn’t have friends, just not “the person that you can go away for the weekend with”.
She feels her situation is probably not uncommon. “For the most part, anything I’ve experienced in my life, I haven’t been on my own about it. The fact that I’m not shy I feel I might as well be the one to say something,” she laughs.
Breathnach says the pandemic has made it more difficult than ever for people to make friends . “We’re told keep a distance, no hovering, no chatting and that must be awful for new parents starting out,” she says, referring to missed school-gate opportunities.
Hurley echoes Breathnach’s concerns. “How can you relate to people on Zoom?” she says.
Hurley advises asking yourself, when trying to make friends, “in what space do you feel safe to connect with anybody?”
“So if you don’t like going out to bars or bright lights, then you’re not going to feel safe and be able to connect with people when you’re out in that environment.”
Having very close friends may not be necessary, Hurley concedes, if the existing friendships you have and other relationships in your life meet “your needs” – “If you have a sense of belonging, that’s what we’re looking for in friendships, and a sense of connection with other human beings.
“There’s a real tapestry of richness if you’re lucky enough to have friends. I think it’s essential that we have a sense of being seen and heard and accepted for who we are. If you have a sense of nobody knows you, well that’s a lonely place to be,” she adds.