Maria, age 34, came to see me several weeks after her marriage ended. Like many women coping with recent divorce, she was still dealing with the fact that what she had hoped would be a lifelong relationship had turned out to be temporary. She was concerned about how the split would impact her two young children. And she worried whether she would ever find someone to share her life with.
With all those concerns weighing on her, the thing that brought Maria to tears (and seemed to be the most important factor in bringing her to me) was the lack of support she had received from her best friend, Stephanie. “We’ve been through everything together over the past fifteen years. College, all kinds of romances, getting married, having kids. Our families were so close. And now, all of a sudden, she doesn’t have time for me. I think I’m a third wheel to her. She doesn’t know where I fit in her anymore. If I don’t have her, I really don’t have anyone.”
“Have you told her how you feel?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I don’t think there’s anything to say. I can’t ask her to be a better friend. And I don’t think I could ever forgive the fact that she hasn’t been there for me.” She shook her head and tried to hold back her tears. “I don’t think we’ll ever have what we did.”
Again and again in my psychiatry practice I have witnessed how powerful the bonds between female friends can be and how painful it often is when those bonds are stretched or completely unravel. Yet there isn’t a word like “divorce” that applies, nor any legal proceeding to codify the end of the relationship. Nor do other friends or family members necessarily understand the feelings of grief, abandonment and betrayal that can come with it.
Those feelings are very real, however. A woman may have relied on a best friend, after all, to empathize with her struggle to be a complete person in the eyes of her parents, to renew the passion in her marriage, to cope with the difficulties inherent in raising children or to balance the demands of home and work. They may have been there for one another during childbirth. That kind of constancy breeds the expectation of permanence just as much as sisterhood does or marriage--maybe more.
Oprah Winfrey made worldwide headlines during the summer when she responded to rumors that her friendship with Gayle King was actually a romance by saying, “There isn’t a definition in our culture for this kind of bond between women. So I get why people have to label it--how can you be this close without it being sexual? How else can you explain a level of intimacy where someone always loves you, always respects you, admires you?”
Always, until the relationship ends, as these immeasurable and magical connections between female friends sometimes do.
The reason that female friendships are not immune to seemingly insurmountable hurdles is that they are stories, like all relationships. And as stories, female frienships are just as vulnerable as other connections to the unexpected twists and turns of plot that come with living two connected, but separate, lives.
When a dramatic plot point--such as Maria’s divorce--happens in one woman’s life, it can alter or threaten the life of even the closest female friendship.
The story of a friendship often will unfold against a shared socioeconomic backdrop. Two women shop together, take their children to school together, plan additions to their homes together, shop for bargains or splurge on designer clothes together. But sometimes one of the women becomes wealthy and doesn’t face the same financial challenges as her friend, narrowing what they share and potentially fostering competitiveness or bringing out underlying feelings of low self-esteem. A friend’s good fortune can mean that she is free of the financial anxieties that were once part of what she shared with another woman. It can mean that she moves to a different neighborhood and surrounds herself with niceties that make her friend feel uneasy about her own level of success. It can mean that she can offer her children educational opportunities that her friend cannot offer her own children, sparking uncomfortable feelings of guilt.
The story of a woman’s friendship can also be deeply affected by the arrival of a new character--dating or falling in love with or marrying a man, for example, who doesn’t win the approval of her friend, doesn’t like her friend or takes so much of her time that there isn’t enough left over for her her friend.
Other plot points (in addition to divorce) include:

a woman losing her job or her husband losing his job while her friend doesn’t face a similar stress
a woman giving birth to her second or third child while her friend remains childless
a woman becoming unfaithful (or tolerating infidelity in her spouse) when that behavior is morally repugnant to her friend
a woman struggling with alcoholism or depression or an eating disorder that calls on her friend to be nurturing in a new way
a woman dealing with illness in a child or the loss of a child that brings about feelings that
may be impossible for her friend to truly empathize with

Making matters more complicated is the fact that each friend will bring her own “backstory” to the relationship, meaning that events that unfold in the other’s life will bring up strong feelings that may be rooted in her own deep past.
A woman who lost a feeling of security from sensing her father was unfaithful may expect her friend to divorce her husband if he cheats. If that doesn’t happen, it can reawaken very intense feelings of sadness and bitterness.
A woman who watched her family lose ground financially when her father died may re-live some of those feelings if her friend becomes wealthier than she is.
A woman whose siblings excluded her from their own close relationship may not be able to tolerate it when her friend begins to include a third woman in what were once private outings between the two of them.
The key to maintaining worthwhile frienships is deciphering how the evolving story of the friendship could be veering--often unpredictably and for reasons unknown to either woman--into its final chapters. And that means striving to be open with oneself and one’s friend about hurt feelings and fears and anger.
I recommend four steps to diagnose what’s threatening your relationship and begin to heal it:

1. Identify for yourself what you are feeling about the relationship and why.
2. Share your feelings with your friend and ask whether she thinks they’re justified or an unfair
projection onto your friendship of some other issue in your life.
3. Suggest a healing path that could improve the relationship.
4. Ask your friend for help charting that path.

In Maria’s case, I encouraged her to tell her best friend Stephanie that she felt lonely and excluded socially and that she was hurt that Stephanie seemed to be part of the problem. And that prompted Stephanie to open up about how hard it had been to watch her parents get divorced and how much her mother had relied upon her thereafter for emotional support and constant companionship.
“I never would have believed it,” Maria told me, “but I ended up feeling closer to her than ever. And I think she feels the same way.”
That’s because what could have been a wall of silence between two women, built out of recycled pain from one of their pasts, turned into a bridge of empathy they could cross together.
For Maria and Stephanie that meant Maria empathizing with how powerless Stephanie had felt to resist the needs of her mother at such an emotional time in the family’s story. Part of the solution included a joint decision to make it clear that Maria wasn’t pressuring Stephanie for anything. They resolved go out together whenever Stephanie called to suggest it and Maria could make it (which turned out to be more than often enough).
Of course, some “friendships” are not nurturing and do damage to one person or the other under the guise of emotional closeness. And those friendships need to end.
How do you know if you’re in one? Here are some danger signs:

your friend doesn’t listen to your feelings
your friend talks incessantly about ways in which she is more fortunate than you (financially or otherwise)
your friend embarrasses you in front of others or divulges your secrets
your friend doesn’t inquire about your children’s health and well-being

It is in no small measure through friendships that all of us grow as individuals. Optmizing one’s possibilities in that regard takes careful communication and a good deal of work, but is is work that can immeasurably enrich the lives of women--in unique ways that no other kind of relationship truly can.

Author's Bio: 


Author, TV Personality & Human Behavior Expert

Keith Ablow, M.D., is a New York Times bestselling author, Fox News Psychiatry Correspondent, frequent Today Show on-camera expert, contributing editor for Good Housekeeping, and repeat Oprah guest. He has earned the title, “America’s Psychiatrist” by helping millions of people take control of their lives by understanding the patterns they’ve developed that are firmly rooted in the past. His transformative strategies are incisively presented in Living the Truth: Transform Your Life Through the Power of Insight and Honesty, one of the most highly anticipated books of 2007 (May, 2007, Little, Brown), (to launch on April 9, 2008).

As a practicing psychiatrist, author and television personality, Dr. Ablow has treated thousands of patients in both public and private practice throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He has documented, over the course of more than fifteen years, the unmistakable power of personal truth to transform human lives in a broad spectrum of environments. He believes we hold up shields to protect ourselves from the painful truths that, when faced honestly, turn into powerful insights and clear strategies for growth and success. “We all have ‘buried treasure, and it is just under the surface,’ Dr. Ablow asserts. "Once we gather the courage to unearth it, we are rewarded immeasurably for the effort."

The response to Dr. Ablow’s message has been dramatic and continues to grow. He has spoken publicly for hospitals, corporations, professional organizations, private colleges and public schools. His essays on human emotion and behavior have been published by The Annals of Internal Medicine, The New York Times, USA Today, Discover, U.S. News and World Report, Good Housekeeping (where he is a contributing editor), Cosmopolitan and many other national publications. In addition to Oprah and the Today show, he has appeared frequently on Good Morning America, Larry King Live, The O’Reilly Factor with Bill O’Reilly, Tyra, Montel, Maury and a host of other television programs.

Dr. Ablow graduated from Brown University and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and is on the faculty of New England Medical Center in Boston. In addition to his best-selling work of non-fiction, Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson, he is the author of six bestselling crime novels, all of which feature a forensic psychiatrist who solves mysteries beyond the grasp of other investigators. the lesson is always the same: You can’t outdistance your past. The truth always wins.