Girls may love movies about fairytale princes, but their most captivating romance is with their friends. Every year, I stand on the stages of school auditoriums and ask thousands of girls this question: “How many of you have had a friend divorce?”
Instantly, a sea of hands shoot up in the air – this is not a term I need to define. The girls look around furtively, surprise spreading across their faces. They are astonished to discover they are not the only ones who have lost close friends.
That’s because girls receive unrealistic messages about how to have a friendship. Films and television see-saw between two extremes: mean girl-fests (think Real Housewives) and bestie love-fests (Sex and the City). Adults, meanwhile, aren’t always the perfect role models, either. The result is a steady diet of what I call “friendship myths”: find a best friend, and keep her forever. A good friendship is one where you never fight and are always happy. The more friends you have, the cooler you are.
These myths are all part of the pressure girls face to be “good girls”: liked by everyone, nice to all, and pleasing others before herself. It’s a subject I wrote an entire book on, and see often with my students.
Research has found that girls who are more authentic in their friendships – by being open and honest about their true feelings, and even having conflicts – have closer, happier connections with each other. Yet when a girls’ social life goes awry, they often blame themselves. Many interpret minor problems as catastrophes. Some may not even tell their parents out of embarrassment.
But there are things we can do to prepare girls for the gritty realities of real-life friendships. We can teach them that friendship challenges are a fact of life. That hiccups – a moody friend, fight over a love interest, or mean joke –- are simply par for the course. And when we do? They probably wouldn’t beat themselves up as much when conflicts happen. They’d be more willing to seek out support and move on when it did. Instead of expecting perfection all the time, they could adapt more easily to stress.
Here are five hard but important truths we can teach our girls about their relationships — perhaps sparing them that traumatizing “friend divorce” later on.
There is no such thing as a perfect friendship.
A healthy friendship is one where you share your true feelings without fearing the end of the relationship. It’s also one where you sometimes have to let things that bug you slide. The tough moments will make you wiser about yourself and each other. They will also make you stronger and closer as friends.
You will be left out or excluded.
It may happen because someone is being mean to you, or because someone forgot to include you. It will happen for a big reason or no clear reason at all; it will have everything or nothing to do with you. You will feel sad about it, and as your parent, I will be there to support you.
No matter how hard you try, your apology may not be accepted.
Some people just can’t move on from a conflict. You are only responsible for your own actions, not others’. You cannot make anyone do anything they don’t want to do. If you have done everything you can to make things right on your side, all you can do is wait. Yes, you may wait a long time, maybe even forever, but I will be there to support you.
Friend divorce happens.
Just like people date and break up, friends break up, too. “Best friends forever” rarely ever happens; it’s just that no one talks about it. Friend divorce is a sign that something was broken in your relationship, and it creates space in your life to let the next good friend in. You may be heartbroken by this experience, but your heart is strong, and you will find a new close friend again soon. I will be there to support you.
Friendships ebb and flow.
There are times in every friendship when you or your friend are too busy to call, or are more focused on other relationships. It will hurt, but it’s rarely personal. Making it personal usually makes things worse, and being too clingy or demanding can drive a friend even further away. Like people, friendships can get “overworked” and need to rest. In the meantime, let’s figure out other friends you can connect with.
I know plenty of grown-ups who still haven’t learned these truths – and they can be painful. But that’s all part of friendship: understanding just how hard – but at the same time, rewarding — it can be.
Rachel Simmons is the co-founder of Girls Leadership Institute and the author of the New York Times bestselling book, “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls” and “The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls With Courage and Confidence.” Follow her on Twitter @racheljsimmons.