Both popular and scholarly writings about relationships are overwhelmingly about marriage and romantic relationships. Friendship gets short shrift, despite the fact that just about everyone has friends, and Americans (and probably other Westerners as well) now spend more years of their adult lives not married than married.
But little by little, friendship is finding its place on our bookshelves and in academic journals. Toxic Friendships: Knowing the Rules and Dealing with the Friends Who Break Them, by Suzanne Degges-White (a professor and counselor) and Judy Pochel Van Tieghem (a reporter), is a recent example of that welcome trend.
This is a self-help book based on an impressive amount of research. The authors draw from the experiences of women who have shared their stories, the first author’s years as a counselor, and other research and writings on friendship. But while it’s great to see new work on the subject, the authors focus exclusively on heteronormative, suburban women who have or want children — a rather homogeneous bunch that fails to represent many of the book’s potential readers.
In the first chapters, the authors explain why friendship is such an important part of our lives, and offer a brief preview of what they consider the ten rules of friendship. They also introduce the life stages that will be part of the structure of the book: (1) young girls and almost teens; (2) teens and new adults; (3) young adults in their twenties and thirties; (4) mom-to-mom networks; (5) midlife; and (6) older adults.
The rules describe ways of being with friends (e.g., trust them, empathize with them), ways of behaving with friends (e.g., help them when they are in need, stand up for them when they are not around), and ways of restraining yourself with friends (e.g., don’t criticize them, don’t be jealous of their other friends). At the end of each chapter, Degges-White and Pochel Van Tieghem provide analyses of friendships that violate the rule in question — and how the friend who has been disappointed can think about what happened and decide whether to try to repair the friendship or end it.
For example, when it comes to violations of the rule of helping friends when they are in need, the authors advise readers to ask themselves questions such as “Was your need for support clearly expressed?” and “Is this the first time she’s failed you or just another step toward the ‘friendship cliff’?” They also encourage us to be honest about whether we would give to this friend the kind of support we are asking from them.
There is a special chapter devoted to rules for parents in dealing with their daughters’ friendships. Three subsequent chapters focus on toxic friendships outside the home: “soccer moms and carpool divas;” friends from churches and other civic groups; and friends from work and the neighborhood. Toward the end of the book, we learn about thirteen personality traits that are essential to healthy friendships, and how to tell if we are the ones who may be causing the issue.
The strongest chapter is the last one, in which the authors go deeper into the psychology of toxic friendships than they had in any of the earlier sections. They provide specific examples of what to say and what not to say to friends when trying to repair or end a friendship. They also offer some important cautionary notes about what can go wrong even when the person taking the initiative is trying to be compassionate and constructive.
Though far-reaching in some ways, however, Toxic Friendships was disappointingly narrow in others. So far as I could tell, all of the stories in the book were about heterosexuals who wanted to marry and have children. Just about all of the mothers seemed to have SUVs, which they used to drive their kids to places such as museums and banquet halls. Race or ethnicity had no place in any of the friendship dynamics. The people mentioned in the book seemed fearful of attending events on their own; if any of them savored time alone, they didn’t say so.
It was odd that the authors included motherhood as one of the life stages when all of the others were age-based and therefore universal. If they wanted to zero in on significant aspects of women’s identity, and not just on age-related parts of the lifespan, they could have included parallel sections on single women, women who do not have kids, and women who are passionate about their work, rather than granting special attention to mothers.
And the book does not just give women who are mothers extra consideration — it also accords them special value. We are told, for example, that “Entering into motherhood can be a brave decision,” that “Motherhood has been called the hardest job in the world,” that “Mothers are typically extremely adept,” and that “Sometimes it seems that only mothers can fully empathize with other mothers.” It is never the single woman or the professional woman who has made a brave decision or who is extremely adept.
In the specific stories that are told, again and again it is the mother (or the married woman) who is heroic — and the single woman, or the woman with no children, who shows a “refusal to understand” the mother’s life and is “non-compliant” with the mother’s priorities as a mom. “Children take up a lot of time and energy,” the authors note, adding, “Friends who do not have kids may lack appreciation for this fact.”
I am a sixty-something-year-old. I have chosen to live single and not have kids. I love my work and my solitude, as well as my friends. I felt diminished by this book.
I do not think for a moment that the authors intended to be so dismissive of women who are not mothers. But they were. That attitude marred what was otherwise a book that had quite a lot to offer.
Toxic Friendships: Knowing the Rules and Dealing with the Friends Who Break Them
Rowman & Littlefield, June 2015
Hardcover, 280 pages