Giving Your Opinion When You Shouldn’t

Female relationships often have rules which can jeopardize the friendship.

Posted Dec 05, 2019 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

Judy notices during her monthly lunch with her close friend, Ellen, that Ellen appears distressed. Although they have been friends for a long time, Ellen tends to be private regarding what’s going on in her life. She likes to be the one who has it “all together” and prefers to be the advice-giver rather than taker. Ellen has always listened to Judy when she has had issues and has given her good advice.

Judy senses that Ellen is emotionally at a breaking point. Judy encourages her to talk. Ellen hesitates, then discloses that her husband, whom Judy never liked, was fired from his job nine months ago. This is not the first time Ellen’s husband has lost his job as he tends to be arrogant and alienates his bosses. He recently told Ellen that he had no intention of looking for another job and instead wanted to focus on writing his novel. Finances are tight as both their children attend a private school. Ellen has had to take additional work as a consultant to supplement their income and is working seven days a week. Her husband refuses to do the grocery shopping, household chores, or to take the children to school as it interferes with his creativity.

Ellen is doing it all. It makes Judy angry at how Ellen’s husband has taken advantage of her. Judy voices her opinion that Ellen’s husband has no talent as a writer and is a freeloader. She encourages Ellen to file for divorce. The lunch ends abruptly as Ellen gets a call from her husband; there is an emergency regarding one of their children at school. Judy calls Ellen later to check on her, but Ellen doesn’t answer. Judy follows up with a supportive text. Ellen doesn’t respond. Judy tries calling again. No response. Judy sends an email. No reply. Two weeks go by… three weeks… a month. Ellen isn’t taking Judy’s calls.

Psychologists and sociologists (Argyle & Henderson, 1984; Wiseman, 1986) have observed that there are rules in friendships, many of which relate to loyalty, keeping confidences, and behavior (e.g., keeping commitments). Such “interaction rules” facilitate social exchanges and provide stability in relationships (Argyle & Henderson, 1984).

Researchers have found that women tend to have high expectations in their friendships—more so than men—and demand a high level of trust and intimacy (Felmlee, 1999; Hall, 2011). Women often have “rules of disclosure” to define the level of intimacy in their friendship. Close friendships are defined through the sharing of feelings and personal problems. However, the norms for such “rules” may be ambiguous. When an unwritten rule is violated, the friendship may be at risk. 

The dissolution of what appeared to be a close relationship can be both painful and mystifying. Self-disclosure, spending time with one another, and providing emotional support are facets of close relationships. Judy thought that she and Ellen were close friends because she had a history of telling Ellen her problems and receiving advice.

What did Judy do that was wrong? Judy violated the unwritten rule in their friendship that Ellen was the giver and not the receiver of advice. Judy also strayed into a verboten area of Ellen’s life: giving voice to the fact that she married a difficult man and threatening Ellen’s sense of self as “having it all together.”

Some friendships may seem solid but in reality, can be quite fragile. This is because friends—even close ones—can be more easily replaced than other relationships; such as marriages, romantic unions, and families. Consequently, intimacy within friendships may be fluid. The level of closeness may be contextual: for example, to a time where there may be shared activities or interests; where both parties are in the same stage, such as being single, divorced, or have young children. Closeness in friendships can wax and wane. 

Consider the unwritten rules in your friendships.

  • Before you launch into problem-solving directives about what your friend should do, consider whether what you are saying is wanted or unwanted. 
  • Not all friendships have to be marked by disclosing personal problems or feelings. Recognize that some friendships are characterized by doing things together without in-depth discussions. This is perfectly okay.
  • Sometimes disclosure-based intimacy is a one-way street. This is also okay.
  • Be aware if your friend is more comfortable with being a giver of advice rather than the taker. Don’t try to force “balance.”
  • Don’t confuse the need to be listened to with a request for giving an opinion.
  • The length of time you have known someone is not an indicator of intimacy. Longevity may give a false sense of closeness. 
  • Don’t take it upon yourself to threaten your friend’s sense of identity, even if you believe she would be better off recognizing her weak points. Unless this is an established part of your relationship, where both parties value insights from one another, don’t do it. You are not her therapist.
  •  Don’t nag your friend about whether she has made any changes yet. 

Unless your friend is in danger due to domestic violence or severe emotional abuse, don’t criticize your friend’s spouse/partner...

  • ... especially if you don’t like the spouse/partner, as your feelings will be apparent
  • ... even if you believe it to be a well-justified analysis of her spouse’s/partner’s psychology and behavior
  • ... unless this type of exchange about one’s spouse/partner is an established two-way facet of your friendship

Friendships are critical to our psychological well-being: They fulfill needs for affection, belonging, and one’s identity. The level of interdependence and the extent to which each person is comfortable with and present in an intimate manner may be the best markers of where one stands with another on the “continuum of intimacy” (Jehn & Shah, 1997). Recognizing unwritten rules may save a friendship.

References

Argyle, M., & Henderson, M. (1984). The rules of friendship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 1(2), 211-237. doi:10.1177/0265407584012005.

Felmlee, D. H. (1999). Social norms in same-and cross-gender friendships. Social Psychology Quarterly, 62(1), 53–67. doi:10.2307/2695825.

Hall, J. A. (2011). Sex differences in friendship expectations: A meta-analysis. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 28(6), 723-747. doi:10.1177/0265407510386192.

Jehn, K. A., & Shah, P. P. (1997). Interpersonal relationships and task performance: An examination of mediating processes in friendship and acquaintance groups. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(4), 775-790.

Wiseman, J. P. (1986). Friendship: Bonds and binds in a voluntary relationship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 3(2), 191–211. doi.org/10.1177/0265407586032005