Anna and Katerina are longtime friends. They usually have dinner once a month, and Anna, as a rule, is open about what is happening in her life, while Katerina is more reserved, but always ready to respond and give useful advice.
This time it is noticeable that Katerina is under stress – literally at the limit. Anna begins to ask her friend what the matter is, and she breaks through. Katerina’s husband, who had never stayed long at any job before, now decided to devote himself entirely to … writing a novel. Under this pretext, he does not work, does not take care of children, does not take care of the household, as this “interferes with creativity.” Everything fell on the shoulders of his wife, who is forced to work two jobs, raise children and take care of the house.
Katerina took it upon herself, and this terrifies Anna. She directly expresses her opinion that her friend’s husband is not a writer, but a parasite who simply uses her, and himself is not able to write anything good. She even states that her friend should file for divorce.
Lunch is interrupted by a phone call from her husband – something happened to one of the children at school. Katerina breaks down and leaves.
Later that day, Anna calls her to see if everything is okay with the baby, but her friend doesn’t answer. Not for calls, not for messages, not for letters. Week after week pass in this way.
Friends, even long-term ones, can be replaced more easily than other loved ones.
School of Medicine professors and clinical psychologists Shoba Srinivasan and Linda Weinberger cite this story as an example of breaking the unspoken rules of female friendship. Citing research by psychologists and sociologists, they argue that friendships have rules, many of which are associated with loyalty, trust, and behavior — for example, keeping a commitment. These “rules of interaction” provide stability in the relationship.
Researchers have found that women tend to have high expectations of their friends – more than men – and require high levels of trust and intimacy. The level of intimacy in female friendship is determined through a kind of “rules of disclosure.” So, close friendship involves the exchange of feelings and personal problems. But the rules for such “rules” can be ambiguous. And when such a rule is broken, the friendship can be in danger.
Breaking up a relationship that seemed close can be both painful and incomprehensible to the other side. Openness, the desire to spend time with each other, and provide emotional support are aspects of an intimate relationship. Anna believed that she and Katerina were close friends, because she was used to telling her about her problems and getting advice.
What did Anna do wrong? Psychologists believe that she broke the unspoken rule of their friendship: Katerina was the one who gives, not receives advice. Anna also invaded a very significant, personal area of her friend’s life: she voiced the fact that Katerina had married a difficult man, and thereby jeopardized her sense of self.
Some friendships may seem strong, but they are actually quite fragile. This is because friends, even long-term ones, can be more easily replaced than other loved ones, such as relatives or romantic partners. Hence, intimacy in friendship is fluid. Its level may depend on the context: for example, it intensifies during periods when people have common interests or interests, when both parties are at the same stage – for example, single, divorced, or raising young children. Intimacy in friendship can grow and wane.
Psychologists suggest taking into account the unwritten rules of friendship:
- If you are going to give your friend peremptory advice on solving her problem, you should think about whether she needs it and how she can perceive your words.
- Not all friendships involve a high degree of candor, disclosure of personal problems or feelings. It happens that we are happy to spend time together without having sincere conversations, and this is normal.
- Sometimes disclosure-based intimacy is one-sided, and that’s okay too.
- It may be more convenient for a friend to be an advisor rather than receive advice. There is no need to try to establish a “balance”.
- Do not confuse the need to be listened to with the request for your opinion.
- Duration of dating is not an indicator of closeness. Long term communication can give a false sense of intimacy.
Unless a friend is in danger of domestic violence, you shouldn’t criticize her spouse.
- There is no need to take responsibility by threatening a friend’s sense of identity, even if we believe that she is better off admitting her weaknesses (unless, of course, this has become part of a relationship when both friends value each other and are ready to accept such judgments). A friend is not a psychotherapist.
- Do not point out or blame your friend for not changing anything in the situation after receiving our advice.
Unless the friend is in danger of domestic violence or emotional abuse, you should not criticize her spouse or partner:
- especially if we personally don’t like him (our feelings in this case will be obvious),
- even if we believe that we are giving a completely justified analysis of her partner’s behavior,
- unless such a format for exchanging information about partners has already become an established bilateral aspect of friendship.
Friendship is important to our psychological well-being: it satisfies the need for attachment, belonging, and identity. There are many fine settings in it: the level of comfort of everyone, the degree of openness and delicacy. Understanding the unwritten, unspoken rules in a relationship can save a friendship.
About the Authors: Shoba Srinivasan and Linda Weinberger are clinical psychologists.