Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Navigate Female Friendships

A friendship coach discusses the challenges.

Key points

  • The way we are raised can determine how we handle conflict with friends.
  • Relational aggression is a quiet and toxic way that people exhibit frustration and resentment in a friendship.
  • Most of us aren't taught how to go about making friends and do so with intention.
Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash
Source: Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash

I had the pleasure of interviewing Danielle Bayard Jackson about female friendships, including the challenges of making friends in our mid-20s and beyond. Danielle's book on women and friendships will be available in 2024.

Does the way a person is brought up or the way that their parents handle conflict determine how they handle conflict with friends?

Sometimes my clients speak to that explicitly — "I don't know; in my house, we were just quiet for a long time, and then my mom will bring me dinner, and then I know we're over it." I think that for some cultures, that is how we agree to move forward — "I cut fruit up for you, and that says I love you." And there's an understanding. And maybe that is sufficient for some people and some dynamics. But I'm noticing if conflict was explosive in your house, you may have learned to be quiet to "make it go away."

Then maybe you repress in a friendship, and if there's an obvious problem, you're going to act like you don't see it. Or you may think, "What can I do to ‘earn’ a good status with her again?" which is not a healthy response. But then on the other side, aggressing is not helpful — to go back and forth. Or for many women, relational aggression is quieter. So I'm going to do little things like exclude you from this gathering, make little sarcastic comments, or share something about your reputation. All of those are unhealthy approaches, but yes, I would imagine they can come from however conflict was handled in your home.

What have you been surprised by the most in your work with women and friendships?

I guess I know this intellectually, but I'm constantly reminded of how friendship is the great equalizer. Because I will have a session with a 19-year-old who's in college, and she's like, "this is awkward, I've never had to make friends before," and then turn around, and I'm talking to a very high-achieving woman who owns her own business, and she is killing it in every other way. But there's something about her personal, private friendships — she feels like she can't get it right. It's just so interesting to see how universal it is and how we struggle because we were never taught friendship skills. Because it's assumed that we know how to make friends.

Is there a way that it can be taught? Is there a different way to teach people how to build friendships than what we are currently doing?

Honestly, especially as a former high school teacher, I think it should be approached from an academic level for kids at a young age. But I think from the beginning, we're telling young kids when they go to recess in elementary school, there's a time carved out in the day to go make friends. And sometimes we explicitly say, "Well, go play, go make friends." We never talk about how to do it the right way and how to be intentional about it.

And sometimes we don't need to work at making friends until after graduation. Because some of these social institutions have facilitated social opportunities for you. So you don't even know you need it until you hit the mid-20s, which is around the age young women start coming to me. I think it coincides with research that reveals that 25 or 26 is the age at which our social network begins to shrink exponentially. And it’s for all the reasons you might expect — you've left college, some people have begun prioritizing career advancement, they're trying to establish family ties.

Around that age, you look around and think, "Wait, where did my people go? I don't know what to do to either rekindle those relationships or to find new people." I'm trying to make it a normal conversation. Because currently, the extent of the public dialogue about making friends is "you have friends, or you don't, and if you don't, what's wrong with you?"

So there's almost a punishing critique when this is actually a normal phase of development into adulthood?

Definitely. For women, I wonder if we see friendship as almost a status thing — “You don't want to be the woman who has no connections." So I've seen women stay in toxic friendships too long because it's “better than not having connections.” So there are a lot of things we do to at least have some semblance of a relationship, even if it's detrimental. Socially, [connections] are important for women.

So the saying “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” can actually be damaging to people. They will maybe stay in friendships because “I need to know this person for my career.” Is that what you find? That it’s at least partly about the networking aspect?

Yes, I definitely see that among women who are in the business world. A young lady I worked with said, “I don’t have personal connections. It always turns into business.” I asked her what that was about. She said, “I guess that’s such a heavy part of my identity that even if I’m meeting somebody in a social sphere, I’m taking it back to work.” I asked her, “What else do you have going on? What else do you value? How else do you identify?” She said, “Gosh, I don’t know.” Some of us don’t know what it’s like to have a person in our life where we just want their companionship.

So it’s maybe changing the definition of friendship to just sharing space with someone.

Yes, exactly.

You can listen to a complete audio version of our interview here.

Copyright 2022 Sarkis Media LLC

More from Stephanie A. Sarkis Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today