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Report: Sources of Strain in Women’s Friendships


Many studies have touted the salutary benefits of women’s friendship. But few have looked at the downside of these relationships.

Now, however, a study by sociologist Robin Moremen has revealed relationship problems are caused by unfulfilled expectations, resulting from the breakdown of friendship norms.

Dr. Moremen, a professor at North Illinois University (DeKalb), interviewed 26 women from diverse backgrounds about their friendships. Participants ranged in age from 55 to 85. The research was reported in the Journal of Women & Aging Vol. 20 (1/2) 2008.

Friendship norms

In the study, Moremen found several highly valued friendship norms were violated including the following:

Be trustworthy: According to the author, participants viewed trust as an essential ingredient of friendship.

As one 65-year-old divorced woman put it:

The issue of loyalty and people who will not shut their mouth when somebody gives you their confidence . . . as far as I’m concerned that’s the end. Because the damage that was done to me is so far reaching that I don’t know if it’s ever going to be resolved . . .Too many things have been shattered in the relationship.

Avoid exploitation: Participants rejected any kind of exploitation, both personal and professional, in their relationships.

For example, one widow, 72, recalled how a cherished friend exploited her:

I could not stay in her house when I needed to because I would have to take her dog out at 10 o’clock at night in the dark and walk in the dark, and I wouldn’t do that . . . She stayed at my house a thousand times in all of her difficult periods . . . She is the godmother of my daughter. We were exceedingly close, but this ended the friendship.

Another 55-year-old married woman explained how exploitation in the workplace ruined her friendship:

I had a friend in the past, the one who used to be my boss. Because we had a friendship but we also had a working relationship, part of the reason that the friendship broke up was the boss/underling relationship began to have a lot of
conflict. We were not able to continue to be close because this other thing that we did together got in the way.

Be independent: According to the author, some women resented friends who were overly dependent.

For example, one divorced woman, 79, described what happened when her friend’s sister died:

She lost her older sister the same year I lost my brother. I was totally independent of my brother because he lived in Portland and I lived here and he was six years younger than I, but we were good friends and close.

She was very close to her sister and they did a lot of things together. When her sister died, she needed someone to be that replacement. In her mind, I became her sister because we’ve known each other since we were seven and nine years old.

She will call me and say, "Well, I got this in the mail and it might be something that we would like to do together." I had to say no to her . . . because I wanted to get out of the habit of her always calling me and asking me.

Don’t be "whiney and demanding" when ill: Illness was not a problem for most friendships, according to the author. However, prolonged illness was a source of strife for some women.

As one 61-year-old divorced woman put it, "Prolonged illness is hard. It’s always there. It can be depressing. Their needs predominate. It can’t be reciprocal. You can’t be yourself. You can’t show your emotions, basically."

Some women said they missed the companionship of sick friends. Others said there was a need to set limits with sick friends who are " whiney and demanding."

Maintain balance and reciprocity: Participants held a variety of views on this issue, according to the author. Some women said balance and reciprocity was unnecessary, noting that friendship had a natural "ebb and flow." A second group, looked for balance and reciprocity, but found it was illusive at times. But for a third group, any kind of imbalance was unacceptable. "She only calls when she needs something. So yeah, imbalance is not good," said one 60-year-old woman.

Some participants were able to settle their problems by talking about them, the author reported. But the majority chose to avoid conflict rather than openly confront their friends, when they felt hurt or disappointed. Dr. Moremen suggests health care and social service workers be aware of the importance of older women’s friendship and do what they can to nurture them.