The Case Against Friendship?

There’s an article in this month’s Marie Claire by Lori Gottlieb (author of the controversial Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough) in which she argues that female friendships are a sham. She writes:

“I’ve always enjoyed the unconditional support of my female friends. Life can be a rough ride, and I count on that cheerleading squad when things get me down. But for women, a bit of consolation can balloon into a complex system of chronic ego-inflation. … We ‘yes’ our friends into false presumptions and bad decisions — tell your demanding boss off! Buy the $700 Alexander Wang stilettos; you’ll wear them everywhere! — convincing one another that anyone who disagrees with us is wrong because, according to those who know us best, we’re always right. But instead of a frenzied pack of enablers nurturing our self-delusion, what we need is someone brave enough to give us the truth.”

I too have always enjoyed the unconditional support of my closest friends, but Gottlieb’s definition of support is apparently very different than mine.  To me, unconditional support means that my BFFs will stand by me through the contemplation and aftermath of any decision, but it doesn’t mean that they’ll encourage bad ones. Take Naomi. Back when I’d just moved to Chicago we went shopping and I fell in love with a way-overpriced $280 dress I didn’t need and had no occasion to wear.  At the time I was in between jobs and had no income. She didn’t say, “Just get it! You’ll earn the money later and you look like a goddess in it.” No. She said “Maybe you want to wait till you’re getting a pay check at least?” Fair point. I took her advice. And though I still think of that blue-with-gold-stripes number with a bit of longing, I’m no worse off without it in my closet. I made the right choice. (Naomi’s now a San Fran-dweller, bah! Who will be shopper’s voice of reason?)

If I decided to tell my boss off—is that something that people actually do?—my friends would not encourage me. But if I got fired and called them crying, would they listen and talk me off the ledge? I think so.  I hope so.

In her article, Gottlieb cites the first Sex and The City movie as a prime example of yes-ing a friend to death:

 “Samantha had just left Smith, her gorgeous, adoring boyfriend — whom she loved and who had lovingly supported her through breast cancer — because ‘I love myself more.’ That’s right: She dumped a keeper using what was arguably the most idiotic grrrl-power proclamation in the history of chick flicks (and there’s some formidable competition there). And how did the gals react? They toasted her!”

But what were they supposed to do? She’d already made her decision. Should they have said, “You made a huge mistake”? What would that have accomplished? Mistake or not, the deed was done. No use kicking yourself after the fact, I say.

I don’t think Gottlieb is totally wrong. Good friends shouldn’t just be yes-women. They should be honest. Friends don’t let friends buy shoes they can’t afford. Or flush their careers down the toilet. Or stay with a bad boyfriend. But then, we’re just friends. We can discourage bad decisions but we can’t always control them. Sometimes our job is just to help our BFF pick up the pieces of her own mess.

Do you think Gottlieb’s right? That “we cheer each other on, thinking we’re being supportive, when often we’re just enabling bad choices”? Or do you think she’s missing the point of what it means to be supportive?

23 Comments

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23 responses to “The Case Against Friendship?

  1. JenD

    I’ve had friendships that were like that, where they’d just ‘yes’ me to death but have found those to be the least sincere and most transient. It’s like they just ‘yes’ you because they’re not really listening or are too self-absorbed to really help you work through something – even flippantly telling your unemployed friend to “what the hell, buy that dress!” tells me they don’t honestly care. I’m not interested in that kind of friendship. On the flip side, ever have one of those friends with whom you’ve spent countless hours agonizing over some crucial decision they needed to make only to see them ‘yes’ themselves in the totally wrong direction over and over again and then have to help them pick up the pieces afterwards? Gah! That’s so frustrating! Maybe I’m getting old and cranky but I just don’t have patience for that stuff anymore.

  2. Bette

    I have been in the dressing room of TJM and heard “friends” talking their friends into buying this or that. At the time, I felt lonely and wished I had a shopping companion. On the other hand, I got the impression these women were talking each other into purchases they’d later regret. That is not true friendship.

    I remember reading that “bitching” about circumstances (work, relationships, family) to your friends can release enough of the steam from the pressure cooker of your life that you no longer feel compelled to make change. In this case, friendship again serves a less-than-noble cause.

    These examples aside, I think having a true friend with whom to share your concerns and your life is a gift to treasure. You just have to choose your friend(s) wisely and remember to always filter their advice through the prism of your own heart and mind.

  3. My ‘true’ friends and I speak the truth to each other. In a gentle way of course. We may not always agree and we may not take the advice (in which case we then support each other’s decision), but we don’t give bad advice just because we’re girlfriends. I’m sure some people are like that but I’d question the depth of the friendship.

    BTW-I read an interview and except on this book in Chatelaine and wasn’t really impressed with her point of view on settling either.

    XO
    Lenore

  4. I can see both sides. I have been around women who are yes-women. But I wouldn’t call them my close friends. And maybe that has something to do with it? The closer you are to someone the easier it is to be honest?

  5. Jackie

    I love having the unconditional support of friends. To me that means listening to me-crying with me-laughing with me-standing by me-being honest with me. I love what Bette said…true friends are a treasure but you just have to choose your friends wisely and remember to always filter their advise through the prism of your own heart and mind.

  6. Beth

    I’m with you Rachel. Right after college my friends and I stopped being polite and started getting real. I think that’s really when our friendships turned a corner for the better. Life is not always positive. Guys don’t always call you back. Dresses don’t always flatter your figure. The true friends know when to pump you up but also when to give it to you straight.

  7. Jen

    While Gottlieb makes some good points, it doesn’t make her argument against girlfriends compelling – at all. It merely points out that what women AND men need are real friends. And sometimes that means cheering someone up with, “You go, girl/guy!” and at other times it means pulling someway down from the sky with, “Are you sure?”

    I wonder, with whom then does Gottlieb hang out? The man she settled for, because OMG, WE HAVE TO BE MARRIED OR WE’RE A FAILURE AS A WOMAN!? Hmmph. Not someone I’m going to take ultra-seriously.

    (And in full-disclosure, I’m married.)

  8. Lisa Z

    I fail to see how designer shoes are ever a bad decision.

  9. I full-heartedly disagree with Gottlieb. She clearly doesn’t have as good of friends as she thinks she does. I think the true measure of a friendship is whether a friend can be completely honest with you. Those are the authentic friendships I seek to surround myself with.

    A couple of weeks ago, I spent an evening on a friend’s patio, sipping wine, and talking about the fact that I had a crush on an ex (one of the exes that was at the wedding). I tried to explain why I thought things could be different this time around. My 2 girlfriends listened, but respectfully told me that I could do better and that he isn’t the guy for me. Had we gotten back together, they would have supported my decision, but they voiced their concerns so that I would go into it with both eyes open. And for that, I am grateful.

    And when they read the wedding re-cap on Tuesday, I didn’t get ‘I told you so’ emails. I got an email saying – I’m sorry you went through a tough night but I am happy you have put this man behind you because I know you deserve so much more.’

    That’s what true friendships are all about.

  10. Ana

    Wow, what a sad woman she sounds like. To feel like you “settled” on your spouse and your friendships are a sham? i didn’t read the book so I may be rushing to snap judgements, but still…

    A group of “yes-women” is not a group of BFFs. as everyone above said, true friendship is based on honesty, but also in supporting the friend through whatever decision she has already made because you can’t MAKE anyone do or feel something.

    And Bette, that last paragraph was GORGEOUSLY written.

  11. silsila

    maybe she’s just making friends with stupid people? I would never convince my friend to walk off a cliff because I want to be “supportive”.

  12. Erin

    I’ve definitely had a friend that I thought was a good friend (even a best friend) that after we split I could see all of the bad decisions she had talked me into…and I don’t just mean buying a too expensive dress (bc that happened as well). Sometimes you are on the fence of a bad decision and are so in the middle of it you can’t see how truly bad it is…hence why you call someone and ask them their opinion. But when you find out later that they may not have had your best interest at heart you regret a lot of the things that they “talked you into.”
    The term “frenemies” has been thrown around a lot lately and I thought that it was just for girls in high school or college girls, but I have learned that even women older than me can act this way. It is bad when a good friendship turns sour, but it does happen. Those are the types of women that would lead you to bad decisions. Like someone else posted, my college friends sometimes aren’t even polite about some of the stupid decisions I want to make. I am so grateful to have had true friends to be able to spot the frenemies!

  13. Donna

    Gottlieb comes off as a chick with some serious issues. If you think you’re the Queen of the Universe and surround yourself with Yes-Women, then yes is all you are going to get. Just like ice cream, friendship comes in a vast array of flavors, but Beth hit the nail on the head with “The true friends know when to pump you up but also when to give it to you straight.” That’s the best flavor.

  14. If that’s the kind of friends she has, then I totally agree it’s a sham. But that’s not true friendship. True friendship isn’t “yes-ing” someone to death, it’s being honest with them. It’s supporting them, and being there to offer words of wisdom or a shoulder of support or talking someone off the ledge of crazy. Those kinds of friendships are few and far between though, so maybe Goettlieb just hasn’t experienced that kind of friend yet.

  15. “A frenzied pack of enablers”? Who has that? I found her description of friendship to be a little off.

  16. Christina

    I see some truths to what Gottlieb is saying.

    With my male friends I can state my disapproval in a direct manner as in:

    “I don’t think you should do that because… ” which IMHO is way more honest… and depending on the situation probably is brutally honest, lol.

    But with my female friends directly stating my disapproval is NEVER ok. It’s seen as “not being supportive”.

    With my female friends, I have to phrase my disapproval indirectly in the form of a question as in:

    “Are you sure you want to date John? I heard he cheated on his last girlfriend.”

    Also with my male friends if they go ahead and make a dumb decision, I can say “I told you so!” and even laugh over it.

    I could never ever do that with any of my female friends.

  17. I think you kind of hit it on the head – Gottlieb is not wrong, nor is she right. Like a lot of life, it’s not black and white. True friends support each other, and often, we DO agree with each other. Part of what makes us friends is that we have similar sensibilities. True friends are also honest. Sometimes friendship means being real, and telling the truth (in the kindest, most supportive possible way!).

    I think when you know someone well enough to consider them a BFF, you also know how to discern the difference between a Cheerleader-Needed-Moment and a Time-For-Tough-Love-Moment.

  18. I’m actually going through this with a mom-figure in my life. She always seems to say, “Whatever you want to do is the right choice!” We all know we can make some bad choices; if I’m making one, I want to know. If she had told me she didn’t like my ex-boyfriend, I would’ve given him the heave-ho before we got serious and I’d have a lot fewer regrets about that relationship — but she didn’t say that, she waited until after I broke up with him.

    So now that I’m realizing the pattern, I have to say that I trust her less. I don’t talk to her as often. I’m in the middle of making a big decision in my life and I haven’t said a word to her about it. Maybe that’s sad, but at this point with this decision, I don’t feel like hearing, “Whatever you want to do is the right choice.” It wouldn’t be helpful. It wouldn’t review or compare angles of the decision, and it wouldn’t add anything new to the mix that I didn’t already know.

    Interesting thing I learned in a Marketing class last semester: People that agree with you about everything in the sales process and try to repeat back what you want to hear, those people will never buy. They’re not interested, but they don’t have to heart to tell you. They’re wasting your time because they don’t want you to be mad at them. Who wants a friend that’s a time-suck? Don’t we all have enough competition for our time as it is?

  19. AmyK

    Supportive + honest = tactful

    And you know, when I have something going on, the best thing my friends can do for me is just listen. A little advice, a little sympathy, a lot of guacamole, and I’m back in action!

    That author sounds like a very negative, cynical person who doesn’t know how to relate to other people. How sad for her.

  20. I like AmyK’s “supportive and honest” equation. And a little guacamole (or chocolate, or a cup of tea) never hurt.

    I agree that good friends shouldn’t be yes-women (or yes-men, for that matter), but they ought to be supportive. And sometimes, when you’ve offered advice and still watched your friend make a mess of stuff, you just have to be there to help them pick up the pieces. (Of course, it also works the other way.) Fascinating post, Rachel.

  21. Women who are just cheerleaders are not good friends of mine. I follow a strict “if I don’t want the answer I don’t ask the question” policy. The sub-text to that is, “if I ask, I actually want your opinion.” Just my $0.02.

  22. gfpumpkins

    I skimmed her article, and really, all I see is enabling. Just like what happens in many alcoholic families. Rather than rock the boat, we do what we can to keep things calm, even if that means we say yes when it isn’t honest.
    I prefer my friends to be honest and forthright with me. Yes, sometimes it hurts, but I much prefer a little short term pain to long term bad consequences from not being told ‘That isn’t a good idea and here’s why’.

  23. I always find your discussion so fascinating. I need to think about this a bit more and might do post of my own given some challenges currently happening in my own social circle. But I think my initial thought is, a friend is honest but not hurtful and that is where the difference lies and where Lori Gottlieb perhaps misses the point. Though we call can use a few “yes” friends, they just make us feel good don’t they, what we really need are friends who know us enough to tell us the truth but in a loving, friend way.

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