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Chapter Three Close Friendship as an Institution
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Standards of Commitment

In some cultures, friendships are formally institutionalized through blood brotherhood or ritual kinship, culturally specified standards of exchange.[13] In a culture where friendship is unritualized and individually established, individuals make their own standards of mutual commitment, and only the most general virtues, such as honesty, apply a priori.[14] Although writers like Paine have stressed the idiosyncratic strategies that result, DuBois and others have advocated looking at the ways that standards are patterned by cultural or subcultural themes.[15] Following DuBois's lead, I sought evidence of general standards of commitment among women or groups of women—standards that clarify the link between women's social position and their strategies in friendship. In the interviews, I found those standards in responses to questions about the sources of trust, conflict, satisfaction, and disappointment.

The women I interviewed perceived friendships as the most voluntary and contingent of close relationships. They rarely noted explicit rights and obligations, rituals of solidarity, or firm expectations of permanence. They did not necessarily expect even the closest friendships to be permanent or long-term. When asked for the names of the people they expected to "still be close to ten or twenty years from now," all but two women named current close friends. Yet only occasionally did someone identify long-term commitment as a pivotal value of friendship. This contrasted with their frequent emphasis on the centrality of commitment in marriage: women often cited long-term commitment as a unique and valued attribute of marriage. Even though they hoped to sustain their relationships with best friends and expected to do so, barring unforeseen conflicts or relocations—they seemed to view long-term re-


lationships as a reward of successful friendship rather than as a defining expectation.[16]

According to the standard of commitment most evident in my interviews, a close friendship rests upon mutually satisfying companionship and reciprocal exchanges of intimacy and emotional support; these exchanges generate trust, investment, and stability. Only in relationships that have endured over time or distance are shared sentiment and history sufficient for stability and trust; there, mutuality is not contingent upon other contemporaneous exchange. In the lives of the women I interviewed, relationships that did not develop over time and distance took their shape through the kinds of engagement, revelation, and mutuality I discussed in the last chapter.

If friends do not generally pledge long-term commitment, if they frequently exchange nothing material or concrete, if they have no ritual to express solidarity or formal status to confer upon each other, what then expresses their trust and solidarity? The answer is once again the exchange of intimacy, of self-disclosure, and of empathic understanding. When asked why they liked a particular close friend, women specified a friend's personal characteristics. When asked why they trusted a close friend, they most often said that they had exchanged confidences:

I guess it's just the telling of confidential things you'd never tell anyone else.

We've shared so much that's intimate. It's almost that we know too much about each other not to trust each other.

We've expressed our friendship for each other in a way that is special—I mean, we've exposed our deepest selves.

When you've told somebody something, and you realize it's been kept in confidence. And then it weaves its way back through conversations—you know, I've told her things I've never been able to tell anybody before. That's what creates the trust.

All the women (including four who listed their sisters as best friends) mentioned close friends in responses to questions about who shared important confidences. Sharing intimacy was the reply women gave most frequently to the question about what generates trust. Other answers mentioned common values: "She considers a


friendship sacred, and so do I." "It's her Christian attitude about a lot of things. Our religions are different, but her outlook begins with a definite belief in the Lord." All but three of the women included close friends among those who shared their most important values.

A third frequent response was that care for each other's children cemented the trust. "I've trusted her with my kids, which is the most important thing I have." Counting not only answers to the question about trust but also spontaneous descriptions of the meaning of exchanging the care of children, mothers of young children commented on the significance of this exchange nearly as often as they emphasized exchange of intimacy, Women whose local kin helped with babysitting and those with the means to purchase child care or babysitting services were loathe to undertake routine exchanges of child care; they saw such exchanges as a burden upon themselves and their friends and as a likely encroachment upon exclusive family time. Yet in general the willingness to provide loving care for a friend's children when this favor was necessary women considered an important and binding exchange.

Exchanging intimacy and shared values over a time long enough to build trust brings a close relationship that women may call on in emergencies for more than the usual fund of help and support. A few women described such emergencies, when friends proved their devotion through sacrifice.

Jan had to go back into the hospital shortly after the baby was born, and Eddie would have had to take off work to take care of him. So I brought the baby home with me until she came out. It was hard on my family, but I know she'd do it for me.

The night my husband got put in jail, she came and sat with me there. I'd never been through anything like that, and I was a mess. It really meant a lot.

Such sacrifices among friends seemed to build exceptionally strong bonds and trust; but relatively few of the women I spoke with tested that trust by asking or making a great sacrifice. The projection of ultimate availability and obligation seemed by itself to seal the trust. Many were careful to stress the need to avoid such demands: "You have to have your friend's best interests at heart—it's easy to take advantage of a friend." Still, every one of the women


named close friends (or sister-best friends) among those they would make sacrifices to help. The quality of the emotional relationship or intimacy—rather than an actual sacrifice—seems to be the basis of a conviction that both friends would make sacrifices if called upon. Intimacy is the essential ingredient of friends' commitment.

The exchange of intimacy covers a variety of modes of revelation and recognition. Thea and Catherine shared the intensity of lives that perilously wove career ambition and family devotion. They used the languages of philosophy, psychology, and literature. Kay and Linda shyly but eagerly explored emotions and wishes neither had put into words before their friendship. Penny and Fern rarely placed self-conscious terms around the knowledge they had exchanged since they were youngsters. Silences, glances, jokes, and daily companionship communicated an immense understanding between them. Each woman described this unique understanding as the foundation of the relationship and of her confidence that it would endure.

Are these standards of exchange unique to women? Studies of men's intimate self-disclosure to friends (which I summarize in chapter 5), and my respondents' descriptions of their husbands' friendships, strongly suggest that these standards of commitment are a distinctive attribute of women's culture. Although men's friendships surely involve meaningful self-disclosure, men do not appear to bind friendships with mutual revelation of personal life and empathic validation of inner selves as women do. Barry Well-man's data on men's and women's friendships show that married men exchange primarily task-oriented help with close friends; Lillian Rubin's study confirms this distinction.[17] Camaraderie and sociable pursuits seem to be the exchanges that create trust and investment and bind men's friendships over time.

Given these distinctions, women develop more practices of attentiveness, disclosure, and empathy. Gender stratification and gender personality may account both for this development and for the particular balance of psychological and emotional resources in women's standards of mutuality. Gender stratification allows women to exchange generously only those values they control or possess. Most married women own few material resources they dispose of at will. Arlene, whose marriage fits the sociological


model of a companionate middle-class couple was asked, Who would be more likely to lend money to a friend? "Men," she answered. "Because it's easier to lend your own money. Women don't make much. And I think my friends pretty much see a husband's money as his own." Those women who perceived a gender difference rated men, seven to one, more likely to lend money to a friend, although a majority thought there was no difference. Of the two dozen general characteristics contrasting the friendships of men and women, this was the only positive quality on which a number of women rated men higher than women. Even their own services, like child care for a friend's children, they often viewed as a drain on family resources. Frances took care of Jill's children from time to time when her friend, a single working mother, needed her. "My family feels put out, though. Jack says, 'Why do you have to have all these kids around?' But he wants me at home, just with our kids. Thank goodness she doesn't ask often."

Carol Stacks ethnography of poor urban blacks documents the destabilization of marriage commitments when extended kin and close friends pool scarce material resources. In the families she studied, the survival strategies of kin networks made leaving these networks on marriage risky, given the economic uncertainty facing poor women. If they withdrew from kin networks of economic exchange to put resources in the individual nuclear family, after a divorce or an economic catastrophe they could find themselves without a network to fall back on.[18]

Economic hardship and its corrosive effects on marriage are among the more predictable currents of daily life for the urban poor. The women Stack observed, who may have been exceptionally integrated into stable survival networks, often could not risk honoring the interests of their nuclear family at the expense of kin exchange. With one exception (Cass, whose family had chased away her abusive husband and taken her back home), the women I interviewed, even the most unprivileged, all lived beyond the economic borderline of that risk or else lacked available kin networks of material exchange. Their interests clearly lay with the nuclear family.

Poor people who exchange the simplest means of survival cannot escape the attendant possibility of exploitation among friends. As Stack notes, themes of distrust and exploitation combine with trust


and friendship in the fiction and lore of black culture.[19] The women I spoke with wished to avoid that danger, particularly where their families as well as they themselves would register exploitation. By giving of themselves, they believed that they could strike friendship terms without exploitation and that they could gauge and bear costs autonomously.

Another ultimately structural explanation of why women friends' standards of commitment differ from men's lies in what Nancy Chodorow calls the development from "oedipal asymmetries" to "heterosexual knots." Her argument of gender personality begins with a division of labor in which men are primary breadwinners and women are primary parents. Chodorow maintains that forming gender personality and identity in a stratified society where only women care for children produces asymmetries between boys and girls, men and women, in their capacities and needs for intimacy and attachment. Men develop stronger needs for separation and suppress desires for intimacy; women keep stronger needs for intimacy and attachment. These asymmetries strain heterosexual relationships, impelling women to rely on kin, friends, and children for emotional engagement they do not receive in marriage.[20] Chodorow's argument places what others perceive as natural, biological, or learned gender differences in intimacy into a structural framework of gender stratification: differences between men's and women's standards of commitment in friendship may reside partly in differences in gender personality that come from social structure. Chodorow summarizes these gender differences as deep differences in capacities of masculine and feminine personality. One interesting empirical study, however, suggests that preferences rather than capacities explain gender differences in intimacy.[21] Although we might view preferences as variables in gender personality, we might also examine them as attitudes that correspond more directly to power differences.[22]

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