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?


Filed under The Hard Facts, The Search

23 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.

    • Rose Petal

      I appreciate the point that Megan (above) about girls’ relationships with their mothers. My mother is an extremely outgoing woman, who, I believe actually preferred socializing and “flying” off to see friends, over really connecting with me. She could be incredibly reactive and intense at the same time. I’ve been looking back over my life, realizing that I’ve had many difficult connections and interactions with other women, where I’ve compared myself, felt inferior, intimidated, and yes, fearful. I’ve also had quite a few friend “break-ups,” where I’ve blamed myself for my patterns. I walk through life in a rather tentative and fearful manner, and yes, how one interacts with others (men and women) comes down to the level of confidence one has. Though I’ve been in therapy over the years, I still struggle with confidence in myself and my abilities. Accepting myself as a “flawed” or imperfectly perfect human being is a life long process 😉

  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.

  13. Annon

    Hey, Im TERRIFIED of other women too. I was brought up in an environment of cold, mean, indifferent, superficial, snobby females and that somehow spilled over into my social life. So I have this intense fear of women that is so deep and painful I cannot even talk about it and feel like I have spent my whole life trying to hide my fears from others although I am well awear of them and trying to overcome this just to get by in the world. It is actually debilitating since we are social creatures and women hold so much social influence. I feel so comfortable around men and groups of men, but as soon as a woman appears I immediatly begin to feel this sense of uneasyness, anxiety and intimidation inside. I know a lot of it is the result of my own fears and expectations, but the basis of it is due to REAL early and long term past experiences, even some fairly recent ones that have left deep imprints upon my heart and mind.

    • Becki

      That’s me. I can be just another guy in the room, as long as I dress that way. My mother repeatedly abandoned me, my sister is an ice cold religious freak, and at the age of 12 my grandmother refused to allow me to play with the only “friend ” I felt I had, a male cousin that we pretty much enjoyed the same stuff (I didn’t even know what a “period” was until I was 14, so there was nothing inappropriate going on. Before that, the only female friend I had, abandoned me for a friend who was up a notch from me. I just wasn’t good enough for her anymore. The boys around would let me a cops & robbers with them or go looking through the woods to see what new stuff we could find. After I hit about 38 & found out guys all thought I was good looking if I dressed nicely, I also found out most in that age catagory were looking for one thing – it just disgusted me with them. To me, that part of a relationship belonged after a commitment had been made.
      Well I don’t look nearly as good as I did 12 years ago, but it still doesn’t bother me for a guy to walk in and out – no attachment until I see worthwhile reason. But I still can’t open up to females. They are the biggest back-stabbing creatures I’ve ever seen on the face of the planet –other than men that want more than one woman at a time & are willing to leave one they married for another, and then leave her for yet another, and so on (that was my kid’s dad). He’s 54 & just in the past couple years did it again. I was only 24 when he did it to me.
      But my mother; well you never Kew when or where the abuse & or abandonment would kick in & she was a total control freak. I won’t even start on that one where I was forced into a marriage at 15 even though I was a virgin.
      Trusting a female is extremely hard for me, & when I let my guard down even a little – I get stabbed.

  14. Ashley Nave

    I somewhat have fear or nervousness around women who are potentially strangers. It can all depend how they approached toward me. Some women are very mean,unkind,or are scary in appearance. These days you have to very careful because there are women that even might very well be serial rapist that actually rapes the same gender no matter a woman’s sexuality is: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual or whatever they might be considered their choice in life. Same sex rape is caused by violence. Additionally there are women that are serial killers, child/baby murders, pediaphiles, or perverts as well. I potentially have to be very careful with myself because I am a heterosexual virgin also might be called asexual. No matter what might be scary out there today, perhaps there is probably women out there like Cruella De Vil a character in 101 Dalmatians or other scary looking villian: fairy tales might not be true but the characteristics of the story could. After all not all women are scary or frightening looking, and to be thankful that in the world that there is still more good than bad in one way.

  15. Ashley Nave

    The way things are today. Yet people do need to be more cautious of their surroundings. However there are probably women out there not truly feel trusted around, too. There is a rise of homesexality among women as well as same gender sexual attacks or rape incidents regarding ones sexual orientation for one thing. Another example there is some women out there just as evil as Cruella De Vil in expression as well hateful and scary looking as Satan the Devil or Demonic looking: never be surprised that there might be one out there is involved in black magic, satanism, or traditional witchcraft practices rooted Satanic/Demonic worship. All kinds of spooky, creepy, looking women out there. Watch out for the beyond the weirdos and suspicious creeps out there. In a way it’s OK to having some slight paranoid or over cautious these days.

  16. ATG

    I have been tortured by women who turn on me at the drop of a hat, sometimes I get a hint about why but i rarely hear anything that is even close to feasible, so I disregard it. I have a handful of longtime friends who are mainly my friends because I knew their husbands, so I guess the jealousy factor is not in play there. I get into trouble when I don’t play by unspoken, unwritten rules which I have no desire to know. I am trustworthy and therefore do not tolerate hate based on another’s suspicion. There is never proof because there is never anything guilty. Now, granted there could be a case where I could be disturbing a marriage by engaging too much with a husband and a simple “cool it” from the wife is all I need. But that sets up a no win situation and it all goes to hell. I spend a lot of time being angry at games. Husbands should make it totally known to everyone present that their wives are number one and no one is going to test that and if they try they are out on their ear. It’s a tough world where the need for same sex friends for heterosexual people and getting the approval of the opposite sex are both high priority and not very compatable. It’s a sticky wicket alright. I have experienced both and I’m still working on how to handle myself when red flags pop up early for me but not recognized so early for would-be support.

    • Lily

      It’s very rare for me to trust another woman. They are nearly all backstabbing, immediately plotting to snipe you, or figure out what they can take from you. I have never understood why, but they seem to like to be mean for the sake of being mean. They seem to enjoy being cuntee. If you have the misfortune of working with an all-female group, I can’t imagine how different that could be than actually going to hell, LOL. If you are with a bunch of women every day, you never know what awful crap is going to happen, but one thing you can be sure of — a knife is coming from somewhere. If you make the mistake of showing the slightest bit of vulnerability or weakness to any of them, they will immediately pounce on it like a jackal. I hate to say it, but they’re almost like demons. As another commenter said, men are much more forthright and trustworthy, even though the majority just want sex from you. If you’re not on their sexual radar, (because you’ve aged out, for instance) they will at least be decent and forthright with you. They’ll be calm, and fair, and appreciate the work you do. They have no desire to undermine you and destroy you because you work hard, or steal your ideas, or your work, or spread lies about you, or gather a clique to giggle and lie about, and exclude you. And on and on with their constant, unstable, adolescent bullshit. Even random older women at the grocery store are 99 percent cuntee– dirty looks, looking up and down and your clothing, scoffing, pushing you– for literally no reason–even when you are smiling and polite…perhaps especially when you are smiling and polite. Honestly, I’ve been close to like three decent women in my life, and while they are truly awesome, wisdom has taught me guilty until proven innocent when it comes to other women. Expect shallow, basic birches with no depth, unless you count depths of nastiness and melodrama. I feel bad for venting here, so I can add this positive–lesbians FTW. Im straight, but in my life experience,
      they seem to be overall much more decent people. I never have problems with them.

  17. Sasha

    I have been intimidated by other PRETTY WOMEN my whole life. I have always felt more comfortable around men. Although, it is difficult to be friends with men, the relationships that I do have, I have sustained with ONLY 2 men and I think that’s okay. With that being said, both of my male friends are my ex husbands! I still LOVE them both IMMENSELY, but; would never consider another relationship with EITHER of them. Not sure if I will EVER understand why I feel the way I do! Have a great day.

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