I have a couple of very close friends to whom I can vent about anything and know they will be supportive while offering nonjudgmental, helpful advice. They are my go-to gals for just about everything. I also have friendships where there's a mutual holding back, if you will. Information is shared far more selectively as responses are less predictable or desirable. Then there are the treasured women in my network with whom I share particular kinds of things, because either I know they could relate or because their perspective is very different than my own, and thus useful. Then, of course, there are those gals who were once-upon-a-time in my circle that made me wonder: is she a real friend?
Strong bonds between women are vitally important as we negotiate both the everyday stuff of life and the bigger challenges and choices we face. While I feel fortunate to have a range of meaningful female friendships, I've had my share of dysfunctional relationships too, and I have pulled the life-support cord on more than one friendship. To me, there is a one question test to gauge whether a friendship is healthy: Does she bring out the best in me? The best barometer for the health of a friendship is your own mood and behavior. If you find, like I have, that you have a female friend with whom you are short-tempered, passive-aggressive, unsupportive or simply uninterested, it isn't a healthy friendship and it really doesn't matter whose "fault" it is. Cut the cord. But then there are the kinds of friends that enrich our lives in many different ways, and they aren't all the same.
As a sociologist interested in relationships and identity, I have had the opportunity to interview many women about their friendships and the role they play in their sense of self. Even my latest novel explores female friendships and the ways that women communicate with each other -- what we do and don't say to each other. Through all of this, I have come to see there are "types" of friends women often have and each type is based on specific patterns of interpersonal communication. Here are five common friend types and why we may want women who embody them in our circle:
1. Springboards: We all need friends we can bounce ideas off of -- whether it's advice about dating, marriage or our sex lives, decoding our feelings about one of our relationships, changing our hair or our job, it's healthy to get our thoughts out. A good springboard friend won't come back at us with the one "right" answer, but will throw different ideas out there and let us reach our own conclusion. Sometimes, we need to work it out for ourselves, but not by ourselves. A friend who asks things like, "how do you feel about that?" or "what are your options?" can provide just what we need in those moments.
2. Mirrors: There are some friends that know us better than anyone else in our lives. They look at us and know how we feel and what we need from them, whether it's a hug, a good long talk, a profane joke or something else. Just one friend like this can carry us through a lifetime. Sometimes this person is a cradle-to-grave friend we were lucky enough to sit next to in a sandbox when we were little, but these wonderful women can come to us at other times in our life too. When someone can mirror your truth back at you, and it is entirely authentic, you've got a friend for life.
3. Safety Nets: Sometimes we just want someone who will say nice things to us. You know, that friend who is always smiling and ready to tell you that your hair looks good, your kids are well-behaved and you kicked-butt at work. We know she'll never say a bad word to us or something difficult for us to hear, and she'll always provide a safe place to fall.
4. Tough Love: We all need at least one forthright, unabashedly honest and let's say it, bossy broad in our lives. This friend doesn't say things to wound or cause drama, but she calls you out when you're trying to lie to yourself and we love her for it.
5. Mutual Silence is Kindness: Sometimes, we simply don't want to talk about it, whatever it is. We aren't ready. It's too painful or embarrassing. The greatest girlfriends know when silence is indeed golden and they make it easy for us; they listen and they don't ask. In return, we do the same for them, even if we have to bite our lip or pretend we don't see and hear something that we do see or hear. Sometimes the most empathy one gal can express to another comes in the hush of quietness.
Follow Patricia Leavy, PhD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PatriciaLeavy