24 July 2008


Yesterday I met a woman at my favourite health store. She was working and I was buying a wonderful all-natural cleaning product that they carry. I don't know how we got on the topic, but we started to talk about relationships. Keep in mind that, while I've seen this woman working there before, all previous interactions were of a purely retail nature. Somehow, we went from talking about the glorious all-natural cleaning product to something very personal very quickly.

She talked about her ex-husband -- a man she hasn't been with since the early-90s -- and the effect he had on her. I talked about my recent experience dating a bully and how it changed me for a few years. Now I realize that it isn't normal to start talking to a stranger about environmental cleaning products and then launch into a conversation about ex-husbands who contributed to their daughter's eating disorder and ex-boyfriends who bounce from relationship to relationship without ever examining their own faults.

I really enjoyed this conversation, though. And not because it was a chance to "bash" anyone. That actually didn't happen. It was more of an examination of past events and how they contributed to what we think now. It was because we were bonding and being supportive in a really genuine way.

Women don't do that enough. I'm sure we mostly have our friends with whom we don't feel the need to compete, but so many other women are seen as competition. It's presented to us from a very early age. Other women are threats in our quest to land a mate.

Feminism will often (not always) point to entrenched patriarchy as a reason that women can't get ahead, or for disparaging attitudes towards women. The thing is, some of the worst misogyny I've ever been subject to came from other women. I've had men say nasty things about me -- I've been called a slut and a bitch, among other delightful slurs -- but that's where it ended. However, when I have been the target of a woman doing the name-calling, it has also come with some kind of social repercussions: ostracizing, nasty rumours and even, on occasion, physical confrontations.

Why do women hate each other so much? I don't have an answer. I think to say that men have historically pitted us against each other is both a simplistic fallacy and a dangerous shirking of responsibility for our own actions. My health store friend (and yes, I feel that the conversation merits an inclusion of friendship) told me stories of what men told her about other women, and her current experience with a lifetime friend pushing her away because of what she said about a the man her friend is dating. I've let men come in between me and a few friends.

How often are the men to blame in those cases? Actually, never. While they sure don't help, somehow, women seem to ignore all external expressions of concern once they're in a relationship. "Stella" makes excuse after excuse for various boyfriend behaviours and "Blanche" ends up feeling like she has to let it all slide if she wants to maintain the friendship or just be available to support the inevitable fallout.

I ended up having it all happen. I had some friends who spoke their minds and it created emotional distance; I had other friends who made tentative comments but ultimately decided that they're rather just stick by me when I needed it. And I also had friends who saw the writing on the wall and decided to get the hell outta Dodge without saying a word. So what makes women so determined to ignore the advice of people they talk to about everything from their aspirations to their ovaries?

It all comes down to one word: loneliness. Women aren't brought up to make friends, we're brought up to find mates. For a long time it has been a huge social stigma for a woman to not get married. Even today, I often hear friends talk about their mothers and other family members asking them about whether they've "found a husband yet?" as if he under a rock and you just have to flip over the right one. In other cases, there's no direct pressure, but finding a mate holds promise based on other influences. Pop culture is the obvious target; in my case, it's wanting what my parents have.

So women dive into relationships because they have the opportunity. They don't want to say know, or they get caught up in the initial attraction. Then they set about making it work, and therein lies the problem. Relationships do require work; there's no question about that. But the need to make a relationship work is where we get tripped up. Then, when a friend comes along and points out flaws, our instinct is to protect our relationship because we own so much of its successes and failures. In the same way that an author or an artist will toil on a particular project long past what is necessary because they can't see the finished product, women will stay in relationships too long because they think that if they change one thing (or convince their partner to change one thing) then it will meet their ideal and the search will be over.

Meanwhile, we're missing, losing or devaluing friendships. Instead of turning to other women when problems pop up, we're turning away. We don't want to hear the truth because it means we'll have to either face it or at least acknowledge it long enough to deny it. So from young teenagers all the way up to seniors, women are missing out on the most powerful thing they have to rely on: sisterhood. Muddled in a search for lasting love, we're squashing the people who love us the most.

And that's what I learned from letting go of my pride and talking openly to a stranger.

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