Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Examining the dynamics of girlfriends

Two’s Company, Three’s a Fight
by Frances Cohen Praver, Ph.D.

Ever notice that a girl sticks to a best friend, yet a boy hangs out with several boys? From the get-go, girls establish more intense and possessive relationships with one other girl than boys do. Little girls and adolescent girls have a hard time sharing themselves with another girl. They become possessive of their best friends and are apt to be fiercely jealous. Just like in an exclusive adult love relationship, a girl fears a third girl will steal her friend (lover). And she’ll be alone. A third girl threatens her close, intimate, friendship.

Girls share their deep dark secrets with their best friend, their feelings, and their love. They become dependent and vulnerable to loss of this valuable source of comfort and security. Boys are different. Bonding with several boys over activities, they do things together in groups of two, three, or more. Unlike girls boys relationships are not predicated on the discussion of feelings, disclosure of secrets. Too close a relationship with one other boy could mean he’ll become dependent on him and that he’ll be seen as ‘girlish’, or gay. So a boy feels safer in a group of boys doing things together.

Much like an exclusive two-person adult meaningful love relationship where a third woman spells danger, a best friend child relationship is exclusive and cannot tolerate a third girl. In my practice, I see many girls and adolescents that fight verbally and even physically with her their best friends over their attentions to another girl. She may even fight the third girl to maintain her status as the ‘only one’ with her best friend, just like a jealous wife may do to maintain her marriage.

Factors that influence intense, possessive friendships for girls with best friends are cultural, historical, and psychological. Over the centuries women bonded together and formed close friendships with other women. From the wellspring of close friendships, women mobilized their strengths to make personal and political changes. Second wave feminism sprung out of close friendships.

Little girls and adolescents observe women in close friendships with other women, and they emulate their mothers and grandmothers. That’s part of how they become women. Girls and women feel free to hold hands, hug, and kiss each other. Not so for boys and men in our American culture. Fear of homosexuality pervades our society.

From a psychoanalytic/developmental perspective, the first love objects for infants are their mothers. Not only do infants want their mothers. Not only are infants dependent on their mothers for bodily security and nurturance. That’s the same for girls and boys. But for girls, mothers provide a special secondary function.

Mother is the role model for femininity. Infants wean and separate from mothers, but little girls grow into women by identifying with mothers. Little girls do not feel compelled to separate too abruptly from their mothers. For their feminine development, little girls remain psychologically closer to their mothers and do not fear the dependency.

Little boys on the other hand, fear identification with mother as they would be effeminate. So for their masculine development, boys often wrest them selves free from close relationships with mother. Boys may separate abruptly and sharply. A close exclusive relationship with another boy gives rise to homophobic fears. Not so for girls, a close intimate relationship with another girl is just what they need to feel like little girls.

The separation from mother is facilitated by a best friend. The close relationship with a best friend is the transitional object to help the little girl grow up. So the best friend is a safe way of making the transition – the separation – from the early childhood dependence on mother to independence, autonomy, and woman hood. As such, the exclusive, intense love relationship with another girl is essential for her healthy development. At some unconscious level, a third girl is much more than a third wheel. She threatens her journey towards womanhood.

As girls grow they feel more secure, more independent, and less needy of one other girl. Mature women do not rely so heavily on one other woman; they do not need them to function as transitional objects. Psychologically healthy women have made the separation from childhood and are on their adult journey. With fewer insecurities and greater maturity, women are comfortable sharing their friends. Part of the adult journey is many friends with many people.

Frances Cohen Praver is a psychologist, relational psychoanalyst and author. Her latest book, Daring Wives: Insight into Women’s Desires for Extramarital Affairs, has just been released by Praeger Publishing. For more information, visit

Note from DCS: Dr. Praver's article raises some interesting issues on the challenges of maintaining friendships. As always, your comments are welcome.

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AsianSmiles said...

Hi Sis,

I tend to agree about having as many friends as possible as women mature. But we tend to treasure the best ones that we have. Sure we go on separate ways sometimes but the quality of the relationship may never be equalled by new friendships. There is such a thing as "bonding", and it makes life a lot happier and sometimes, easier.

NewYorkMoments said...

That is very interesting. It actually brought me back to an incident with 2 others girls when I was about 6...

Cecilia said...

It's amazing how when I get to see my girlfriends again after a period of time, it always seems as if there was never time apart (nor distance).

Yet, I have to admit that I tend to stick to my best ones. Is it a sign of immaturity that lately I have been becoming more lazy in making an effort to befriend those that I get to meet?

Then again, this is probably influenced by social and environmental factors called "work" and "time" that contribute to less flexibility and freedom to make best friends out of new ones.