The Hard Facts: Be Aggressive, B-E Aggressive

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

“Young girls are more devastated than boys when friends let them down and [are] as likely to pursue  ‘revenge goals’ – small acts of getting even that are on par with the perceived slight … Girls were also more likely than boys to interpret friendship transgressions in a negative way, such as thinking that their friend does not care about them, does not value their friendship, or was trying to control them, the researchers report” (“Study Casts New Light on Relationships”; Boston College Chronicle,  12/15/2011)

I can’t imagine it surprises you to read that girls are more sensitive to friendship slights—cancelling plans, betraying secrets, being unsupportive—than are boys. The reason why isn’t totally clear. (Are girls more sensitive in general? Are our friendships more important to us? Do we personalize actions that aren’t personal?)

What has surprised researchers about this study, it seems, is how girls manifest that hurt. “There tends to be a perception of girls as being more passive than boys, but this just doesn’t seem to be true.  It seems that when girls feel that something that matters to them is in jeopardy, like their friendships, they are just as likely as boys to want to retaliate and to respond with aggression,” said one of the study’s authors, Julie Paquette MacEvoy. And by aggression she means revenge, yelling, and threatening to end the relationship.

Keep in mind that this study looked at kids in fourth and fifth grade. Those are prime friendship-drama years. It doesn’t take much to prompt a “We’re over!”

When I was in fourth grade my BFF dumped me. Twice. I can’t remember why, but I feel like one time had something to do with our shared trumpet solo in a school concert. That was the end of me and the brass instruments.

If this holds for girls, it probably transfers—albeit in a lesser form—to women. We feel a friend’s betrayal pretty deeply. When things get bad enough, we consider ending the friendship. It probably takes more to set us off than competition over a holiday concert “Ode to Joy” duet, but the reaction is the same.

It’s funny, I was recently discussing with a friend the idea that, as adults, we often experience the same emotions as we did when we were kids. Irrational jealousy. Unshakeable insecurity. Total giddiness over the tiniest interactions. It’s just that now, as grown-ups (blech), it’s less socially acceptable to express those feelings. We’re supposed to have outgrown them, or at least matured enough to recognize that we’re acting like children. The chat was about why she likes writing young adult novels (you get to express the feelings you’re supposed to be too mature for in real life!) but this study reminds me of that conversation. The 4th and 5th graders were more apt to express their intense emotion and act out on it, but that doesn’t mean women don’t feel it too.

What do you think? Have you noticed that women are more hurt by friendship transgressions than men? Are you surprised that girls will act out against betrayal as much as their schoolboy counterparts?

MWF Seeking BFF is in stores now! If you see it out in the wild, will you email or tweet me a pic? Or post it on Facebook? Seeing it on shelves was the highlight of my day yesterday. Or, consider buying it online! It makes a great last-minute holiday gift.

10 Comments

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10 responses to “The Hard Facts: Be Aggressive, B-E Aggressive

  1. Niobe Way

    I find the opposite pattern in my research with girls and boys over the past twenty years. Boys are more willing to abandon the friendship entirely as a result of being betrayed while girls are more likely to attempt to maintain it even if they also try to retaliate in some way. Boys and girls, however, report feeling just as devastated by the betrayals of their peers. Boys, however, often grow up to be men that deny such pain and devastation because it is unmanly to do so in our culture.

  2. Megan

    Yes! My boyfriend is SO much better at giving the benefit of the doubt in a hurtful situation than men. Though, I wonder if there is also more hurtful things going on in friendships between girls – I mean, if girls are more apt to seek revenge….just sayin’!

  3. What I remember from school is that, if there was a conflict, boys might get in a fist fight or something like that, but then it’s over. That’s it. No more drama. There was soooo much drama for all the girls in my class, and I do remember feeling really hurt by the smallest things. It’s possible that all of this is why I was generally better friends with the boys in my class (and to some extent, still like being friends with guys).

  4. I remember my bff in 4th or maybe 5th grade buying one of those three-way friendship necklaces and giving one to me, one to herself, and one to her other friend who I hated. I couldn’t stand that she considered this new girl from class an equal in friendship to me (we’d been bff for 3-4 years by then). I was so hurt. I’d probably be just as upset in a grown up version of that scenario.

    Oh, and I pre-ordered your book and sent it as a gift to one of my dearest bffs. She told me she started it yesterday, had to force herself not to take it to work with her, and plans on finishing it tonight when she gets home. I think she might like it. :) Mine is stuck in the snows of Colorado (so amazon emailed me yesterday) so I should get it today or tomorrow. I am dying to read it!!!

  5. Christina

    I agree with this… female friendships are definitely a lot harder for me to maintain than my platonic friendships with men. I guess that is why I prefer male friendships over female ones… they’re just soooo much easier and less filled with drama.

  6. Sounds right. In fifth grade my BFF switched schools and didn’t tell me–to keep me from getting mad. I didn’t call her for three months, until I got my ears pierced and had to brag!

  7. Carolyn

    I don’t know… I’m watching my young son struggle with friendships and be terribly hurt by “mean boys”. Didn’t expect that – just was ready for mean girls with my daughter…

    Preordered and got your book on release day! Slipped it to my husband to put in my stocking, but can’t wait to read it. I love your blog – I read a lot – and this is one I always click through for the comments. You really set us up to think and respond. I appreciate your work. Happy Hanukkah to you and your family.

  8. My experience in life is that girls are usually more sensitive (and aggressive) than boys, so that’s research isn’t surprising. What I find interesting is that the feelings don’t change much in how they feel from fourth grade to adulthood. That’s something to chew on. We’re dealing with hurts that are just as real as women now, but how are we going to react to them?

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