Preferred Citation: Oliker, Stacey J. Best Friends and Marriage: Exchange Among Women. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.

Chapter Two Distinctive Values of Friendship

Understanding and Women's Sphere

Women are most likely to want the unique understanding and empathy of women friends for those aspects of life that are both important to and characteristic of women. As we might expect, the more distinct the lives of husbands and wives, the more women emphasized how uniquely women understood "being a woman." Women who stayed home with young children were particularly likely to value the understanding and empathy of someone in the same circumstances. "I think you definitely need a woman to talk about how you're feeling, being home with the kids. Just that kind of antsy feeling that a man, I don't think, understands."

The birth of a child, for whom a woman will be the primary nurturer, creates a new sphere of responsibility, interests, and problems. And it may require companionship and help from someone who has experienced a similar transition. Most women find a lack of empathy and engagement in their husbands, whose child-rearing role differs significantly from theirs.[4] This lack particularly strikes women whose lives before childbirth were more similar to their husbands', perhaps in education and work commitments:

We had been each other's best friends. But when I suddenly found myself with a baby, it was something he could share in only a limited way. He could understand some of the problems, but he couldn't understand what it meant to spend every waking moment devoted to this baby who was really a handful.

At the same time, the ability of mothers of young children to cultivate or maintain friendships may be hampered by a lack of time, decreased physical mobility, exhaustion, and the constant presence of an infant. Several women recalled this as a time when they had no close women friends and suffered from that absence.[5] One woman explained, "I was confined at home with small children, I didn't have any close friends, and it was a really difficult time. I was lonely. I was isolated. I felt I was the only person doing what I was doing. I felt so totally cut off."

Frequently, the transition to parenthood follows immediately on


a honeymoon phase of "libidinal withdrawal," in which a newly married couple withdraws from old friends to explore the marital intimacy promised in courtship.[6] The time just after marriage was the second most frequently mentioned period when women lacked close friendships. In contrast with the period after childbirth, however, it was one when women rarely reported the absence of friendship, presumably because they shared more of their absorbing interests with their husbands and dwelt less in their separate sphere: "Andrew and I were extremely good companions. I don't remember needing somebody else then."

Arlene and her husband, Jeff, were students together when they married; and later both worked at full-time careers. When their first child was born, Arlene quit work for several years of full-time motherhood, while her husband continued in his occupation. She felt satisfied with her choice but found herself newly aware of a need for the empathy of other mothers.

I think my women friends have a different attitude toward children and toward the activities that mothers are bound up in that, certainly, my husband doesn't understand—I've never met a man who did. Jeff thinks I sit around and eat bonbons all day. He doesn't understand why I'm tired, how taxing my life can be. And my friends do, because they're going through the same thing.

"My husband certainly does not appreciate what it's like being a woman now," said Arlene, expressing a conviction that had been growing in the years since she became a mother. Her conviction was probably influenced by the wide cultural diffusion of feminist ideas; but feminism had been popular in her premotherhood days as well without arousing her deep sense of gender difference. "He wouldn't know what I was talking about if I said, 'This is the situation I find myself in as a thirty-four-year-old, soon-to-be-mother-of-two in a changing world.' Only my women friends can appreciate that, and it's very much a part of our conversations."

Housework and shopping continue to be tasks that wives perform. Time-budget studies over the last three decades show little significant change in husbands' participation in housework, even when wives have full-time jobs.[7] Both spouses tend to view husbands' ventures into domestic labor as "helping out the wife." Thus, shopping and housework are activities that women view as


distinctive experience to share with women friends. Reflecting the low social prestige of this unpaid work, women discounted their conversations with friends about housework and their joint shopping ventures: "We talk about what we do—like cooking, sewing—things my husband would say are trivia. He just really doesn't have an interest in it."

Sylvia recounted her husband's attitude toward her daily work without the slightest irritation. Like others, she described the companionship of homemakers as valuable but trivial. These women know, although they did not mention it, that the quality of their household care is an important measure of their wifely role, within and outside the family. And the quality of their domestic display is a public measure of their family status-building effectiveness. To husbands and to the world, the effort of homemaking is generally invisible. But women know how much work is involved, and what judgments are balanced on its outcome.

"Can you think of some kinds of things you care about or need from a relationship that only your women friends provide?"—"There's things you just don't talk about with your husband. It's just household things. But they think it's nonexistent."

It seems ironic that women acknowledge that advice and help in shopping and keeping house are exchanges they want and need in a relationship and, at the same time, that these are just "small stuff" and "girl talk."

Personal appearance is another area of concern in which women find their lives distinct from men and which they recognize as important, although not morally comparable to motherhood. Maintaining an attractive appearance is important to women's social well-being. Like homemaking, cultivating appearance is family status-building work. It is a pursuit that husbands approve of, even demand; but according to the women I questioned, it is one that men are rarely willing to abet. Husbands tend to expect that in appearance making, as in homemaking, the sweat and artifice should be concealed.

Women friends share in this labor. Seriously, they help each other in appearance making. And in accepting the limits of their ability to be beautiful. Thus, when Lee, a young single woman, responded that "standing in front of a mirror together and looking at each other's flab" was the kind of thing she values most in a


relationship with a woman, she was not being facetious. She was talking about an intimacy and empathy that felt crucial to a young woman who lived in a society whose values she did not create. Similarly, Frances placed among important values her friend's considered opinion on a prospective purchase: "If I went shopping with my husband to buy a new pair of pants, they could be halfway up to my knees and he'd say, 'That's just fine.' Carol would know how she'd feel in my spot and give a better opinion."

Motherhood, housework, and cultivating appearance are three activities so regularly exclusive to women that they exaggerate the experience of gender and heighten the distinctiveness of women's culture of friendship. Moreover, in its own way each activity figures prominently in the marital power balance, making it a difficult subject for communication and confrontation with husbands. The clearest example is that of motherhood, which research shows to signal major decreases in women's power in marriage.[8] The decrease in power that follows childbirth also discourages the communication and confrontation with husbands that might elicit understanding.

Chapter Two Distinctive Values of Friendship

Preferred Citation: Oliker, Stacey J. Best Friends and Marriage: Exchange Among Women. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.