The Hard Facts: Why Women Are Scared of Other Women

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“Roughly 60 percent of respondents [to a survey of 3,020 women ages 15 to 86] say they still find themselves feeling uncomfortable, anxious, wary, awkward, cautious, intimidated, or even distrustful of other females as a result of past experiences.” (The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships by Kelly Valen)

I imagine that every woman has been subjected to a mean girl at least once in her life. Even if you were the mean girl, chances are your minions turned on you at some point, if only for a moment. Think Regina George and the weight-gain bars.

Just yesterday I told Matt about the night I wasn’t invited to a big slumber party in eighth grade (a party thrown and attended by my close friends) because I didn’t drink. I didn’t care if others drank, it’s not like I was trying to preach sobriety (though maybe at 14 I should have), I just didn’t want to do it myself. I was, I guess, the goody-two-shoes buzzkill.

It’s now fourteen years later and I bet the party-throwers don’t even remember this incident. But I certainly do.

With all that said, looking back on my lifetime of interactions with women, the majority have been positive. Yes, there were girls who were mean in eighth grade, and later in high school and college and the office, but overall I’ve been lucky.

I haven’t read all of Twisted Sisterhood yet, but it seems that author Kelly Valen makes clear that plenty of women have positive experiences with other women. As a lead-in to the research quoted above, Valen writes: “I don’t want to overstate anything; most of our interactions are undoubtedly pleasant, well intended, even sweet. At least on the surface.”

But if 60 percent of women are feeling suspicious and nervous around other women, that surface picture isn’t all that reliable.

When I started this search I thought the takeaway would be that people are closed off to the advances of new friends. That when people learned I was actively trying to make new friends, they’d laugh in my face. But the opposite has been true. It’s a rare occasion when a would-be friend gives me the stink eye. The women I’ve met, even if our girl-date has been a total bust, have certainly seemed open to the idea of new people and new friendships.

My past experiences have not taught me to be uncomfortable, intimidated or distrustful. Instead I’ve learned to be confident, chatty, and encouraging. Which is why I find Valen’s research to be such a bummer.

Are you one of the nervous, awkward and wary 60 percent (and if so how do you deal with that)? Has your personal history tainted female friendships forever? Or does Valen’s research surprise you?

15 Comments

Filed under The Hard Facts, The Search

15 responses to “The Hard Facts: Why Women Are Scared of Other Women

  1. Tricia Alexander

    I remember how nervous you were when you started your quest. It is comforting to know how positive the experience has been. Next year I am moving across the country to be closer to family. Using some of the knowledge gleaned from your experiences I hope to find new friends in Montana.

  2. I’m among the shocked percentage of people reacting to that research. As the perpetual “new kid” my entire life, I’ve had my fair share of mean girl experiences (on the receiving end), and as an adult I’ve had a few friend breakups. But my reaction to them, while puzzled and hurt, has been to actively seek out female friends who won’t treat me that way, because I know they’re out there. My best friends don’t act like that, and even if a former best friend was the mean one, that doesn’t mean the rest of them will be. I’m always puzzled when I get (as you put it) the “stink eye” from a woman I don’t know; what could she possibly dislike about me already? And if that’s her immediate reaction, she’s probably not worth getting to know anyway (so there!).

    Ultimately, I think it might have to do with a self-confidence issue, because while the research doesn’t ring true for me personally in terms of female friendships, it definitely rings true for potential romantic relationships. Once burned, twice shy is definitely my (reluctant) motto. It’s hard to get over the hurt and fear of rejection that comes with romantic entanglements, making it that much harder for me to approach someone I might be interested in. I know it’s because my confidence has been shaken. I think I’m great, beautiful, smart, funny, but person A didn’t think so romantically, so what guarantee is it that person B will?

    Why that doesn’t apply to friendships (for me), I don’t know, but it doesn’t. In terms of friendships, I know I’m awesome, and if you don’t want to be my friend, you’re just gonna miss out. (Or something like that. :D)

    Why I should have so much confidence in one area and not in others when essentially it boils down to relationships with people, I have no idea.

  3. I absolutely love what Rebecca wrote. I’d have to agree. I really to believe it has everything to do with confidence. I’ve had negative experiences with women. It always surprises me when I meet an unkind woman. I just expect otherwise. While it can be difficult to bounce back, it’s edifying: I’ve learned how to better choose friends as I move forward. I’m not overcareful. I’m optimistic. Luckily I have wonderful women in my life now, and I have the kind of job that allows me to meet new, interesting women every day (I work in retail and I’m a fashion blogger).

    I have learned that there are just as many amazing women out there who are capable of being compassionate, supportive, and loyal friends. We’re going to run into women who are jealous or insecure and this simply points me in a different direction (picture the old PacMan game) and I’m off making my way to new friends (the Power Pellets), but avoiding the mean girls (Inky and Clyde). All game metaphors aside, it really is a fun journey to make new friends.

  4. I think you should treat every potential friendship as a clean slate. I think we all have interactions that are less than positive with other women, but you can’t use that as a template for meeting others. Like others have said, there are women who want to have enduring friendships that are based on sincerity, good will and support. You just have to be willing to find them.

  5. Megan

    I’m a 60%-er. I’ve got specific memories of horrible things happening in middle school and, though not as much, high school, but I was wary before that. The study doesn’t talk about girls’ relationships with their mothers at a young ago, probably, but I suspect that’s just as powerful an influence, if not more so, than experiences with friends.

    • Yoda

      Yeah, it’s never discussed. My mom was an alcoholic and quite cruel. I was a reclusive overachiever in school. The popular girls and their cronies tormented me ontop of my mom’s…. what ever that was… In the real world they just blame you for being “overly competitive” etc… like Beyonce for example doesn’t trust women who don’t have alot of female friends- BECAUSE SHE GREW UP AROUND LOTS OF WOMEN. When I really think about it I’m completely terrified of other females. I’ve had enough you know. I do have female friends, they just don’t hold the significance I see others having in their lives.

  6. I’m in the 60%, and I really feel this and my tendency to have mostly male friends really goes hand-in-hand.

    I hope I’m wrong, but what I’m hearing is, “Most women don’t trust other women, but most women also think there’s something wrong with you if that distrust bears fruit.”

    If that’s the case, it *almost* seems like the distrust is warranted.

    Though, obviously, every factor here is a YMMV situation.

  7. Suzannah

    This research must reflex another culture/ country….it just does not ring true….I feel most women are warm and embracing of other ladies…that 60% would sound better to me if it was referring to men….Not women.
    Even if a woman is not interested in pursuing a friendship, most are friendly & cordial…I think many previous posts have addressed the issue of being too nice when not really interested…..women are always way too concerned about NOT hurting feelings…
    when other ladies have confided in me about experiencing “mean” girl behavior ….it normally is someone they at one time considered a friend…..never a new aquataince

  8. Cathy

    I’m part of the 60% who are cautious when establishing a new relationship. I agree with those who describe mean behavior as stemming from insecurity. It might be a coincidence, but as a middle-aged woman, I find this problem fading over time–I’m much less likely to encounter a woman my age who engages in mean behavior. Maybe it’s partly because I’ve learned to spot the signs of an untrustworthy relationship earlier than I used to, and I’m slow to share confidences or declare someone a friend until I’m absolutely sure. Honestly, I really feel sorry for women who feel like they have to backbite, exclude, or be manipulative. It’s a learned behavior. All of the women in my husband’s family are like this, sadly, and it prevents me from having anything but the most superficial relationship with any of them. In my family, none of the women are like that, and we have so much fun with one another! But I would not describe myself as nervous or anxious. I am confident and encouraging and am actively seeking new friends. I just take my time and pay very close attentiont to clues that might spell trouble later. I think the research is accurate, but I don’t find it discouraging.

  9. Jen

    I agree with Suzannah. Acquaintances are almost universally friendly and polite. The trouble happens when a friendship has become more intimate.
    Having been both on the receiving and giving end of ‘mean-ness’, I’ve found that when I have not been nice to friends is when my insecurities about being liked and accepted by said friends were at their strongest, so I “pushed”, almost like a test, before they had a chance to hurt me, if that was their intention. It almost always destroyed the friendship – and I was usually wrong about the upcoming rejection.
    I feel nervous sometimes about making new girl friends, because I kind of feel like I don’t deserve them anymore. All that can be done is to learn from my experiences and share them with women who are going through something similar, to give their friends the benefit of the doubt before jumping the gun.

  10. Kate

    I wouldn’t say I’m cautious and distrusting. But I don’t really seek out friendships. Every best-friendship I’ve ever had has ended painfully. I’m just sentimental that way. I wish I could be more like my husband: people walk in and out of his life and it doesn’t faze him a bit.

    However! I find that being married can work wonders for female friendship and I’m more open to friendships now than ever. Has anyone else noticed that other women are more embracing of you if you’re married? When competition for men is out of the picture, it really clears the air.

    • Suzannah

      Heck yeah!!!!…once the reality hits , that men are more trouble- than they are worth !!!!!….no reason to fight over them…..
      But I really do not want single women around my husband unnecessaryly…I know that may sound silly, but to me the old guy is quite the catch!
      So I have never noticed it, before your comment made me think, I do prefer my friends to be married ladies, like me….
      But I do agree, real life ….like marriage and family, makes friendships seem simple and enjoyable…..

  11. Yoda

    I’ve found that when I am around females for a while I tend to form friendships. I can hit it right off the bat with guys but it’s harder for me with women to create a friendship out of thin air. Ontop of this I’m bisexual. So I can see either sex in a romantic way…

    However I have been hurt really badly in the past by other women. One of the women I knew could even be classified as a psychopath – if not in truth she carried many of the characteristics in a way only a woman could.
    So I find myself being part of the 60% but when I get used to other women I tend to enjoy them. I like being around men alot, they relax me because I feel like I’m just having a legitimate fun conversation with them. With females I’m always obsessed they think I’m competing with them and I’m not… women tend to think it though… it makes me really upset when women react in some ways… I was actually very reclusive for 2 years because I have been so horrified with the way many women act… at least the ones I’ve met so far. I’m a bit paranoid because of my experience… but no noe can take my experience away from me.

  12. Heather

    I’m terrified of other women, especially when we co-exist in a group of friends that includes men.

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