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Chapter Two Distinctive Values of Friendship
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Distinctive Values of Close Friendships

Among the most thought-provoking responses to my interview came in reply to two questions: Can you think of things you care about or need from a relationship that only your women friends provide? Can you think of things you care about or need from a relationship that only a husband can provide? An examination of the answers to these questions, individually and in comparison, clarifies the place of women's friendships in their lives.

Looking first at statements about the uniqueness and value of close friendships with women, I found that, indeed, women could think of values that only their women friends provide. Only two respondents were unable to identify values uniquely provided by women friends. Although few had ever considered this question, they answered immediately and affirmatively. Even the women who maintained that "ideally, a man could" satisfy these needs acknowledged, "For me, it's always been women." Although women were apt to trivialize certain values that they exchanged only with women, they granted others their respect.

The responses to this question clustered in one area—an intimacy women most often characterized with the terms talk, understanding, and feeling.


Women go back and forth, back and forth, just sitting and talking. I need that in a relationship.

I don't know if it's just my husband, but women are more understanding of other women's problems.

Feelings, compassion, because a woman could relate to my problem.

Wives talk to husbands, of course. Since women rarely disparaged this companionship, when they said that "just talking" was what their women friends uniquely provided, they were referring to a particular kind of talk. They especially needed, first of all, a mutually desired exchange:

It's talking to my friends. Could be anything. Otherwise, my basic outlet for talking is my husband. And if he's just come home, he doesn't really want to talk. He'll listen to me, but it sometimes irritates him to do it.

Kay and I will sit and gossip for hours at a time. We'll talk and talk about the kids, for example. George and I would never do that.

Just the gab time. Just to sit and talk about anything and everything. Where a guy would think, "Is she ever going to shut up?"

Husbands and wives talk. According to the women I interviewed, however, husbands are not always pleased to do so, whereas friends usually are. This finding is echoed in recent research on conversation patterns between spouses that shows that even though husbands talk more than wives in conversations, they are less likely to respond to wives' communications than wives are to respond to theirs.[2]

Second, talk between friends is an exchange between individuals with significant common experience, enough to generate a profound understanding. My respondents believed the ultimate basis of this special understanding was "being a woman," a characteristic that varied in their descriptions from an ontological state of being to a sociohistorical construction. Understanding meant the sympathetic knowledge developed in "being a woman" and in occupying gendered roles such as wife, daughter-in-law, and mother. Thus, common experiences (or the natural state) of "being a woman" create a gender consciousness from which women exchange understanding.

The understanding, in turn, establishes a context in which


women can sustain a positive self-orientation. It enables them to avoid exchanges with husbands that would undermine their self-orientation:

There are some things we understand about each other. Like this dizziness I sometimes get. I don't think it's physical—just nerves. Karen's the one I'll talk to on the phone and say, "God, I can't breathe today." And we'll talk about it. If I told Jerry, he'd either say, "Then get your butt to the doctor," or, "You're crazy!"

Annette can understand the feelings of jealousy I have toward my son's girlfriend because she has a son too. She'd be sympathetic where Mike wouldn't—he d put it off as me being a silly, jealous woman.

I tell Doreen when I start thinking about going places, doing different things with my life. Jesse kind of snorts when I start talking like that.

Empathy is a third characteristic of the talk with friends that women value. Women I interviewed often expressed a belief that women both maintain a more variegated emotionality and exercise a greater capacity and willingness to participate in another's emotional life.

I just think women feel more.

A lot of times my feelings about anything are easier to talk about with June than with Lloyd.

There's a quality of intensity and the ability to focus on what's happening right now that I find in conversation with my women friends alone.

Jack can understand when I'm upset, but a woman can feel the upset. She'll say the right things and contribute to making me feel better. A husband will say, "Oh, quit griping."

Over and over again, women who claimed they had never reflected on their friendships easily described understanding and empathy that they found unmatched in other close relationships, including marriage.

Although they were describing characteristics they cared about or needed in a relationship, nonetheless women often deprecated some of these values. That women repeatedly spoke of valued areas of exchange with women as "gossip" and "girl talk" suggests something of the stigma on women's culture that women themselves accept. They appeared to translate impatience and hostility toward


their interests that they attributed to their husbands into self-deprecating assessments of their friendships. They tended to disparage the exchange of news within personal networks, particularly events in primary relationships; and the discussion of physical, psychological, and emotional states. They also belittled a major area of family decision making that is dominated by women—household purchases—even though sociological studies of domestic power often interpret this decision making as evidence of women's marital power.[3]

Women rarely disparaged certain other exclusive topics of feminine friendship. They were straightforward in describing discussions about children, and personal problems in marriage and motherhood, even though these topics also might have been slighted by husbands or the larger culture. In general, they seemed to enjoy participating in an exclusive women's culture, bracketing some of it with stigmatized terms and defending other aspects of it against social devaluation.

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Chapter Two Distinctive Values of Friendship
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