The longstanding narrative about how women just can’t stand one another for a long time should be binned. Yes, ugly conflicts and breakups are common among women, I wouldn’t pretend otherwise. The rapidly formed friendships with bonds so tight that they stretch too thin and snap off in no time, the cold pleasantries forced through the nose following a supposed reconciliation, the relationships that healed something-close-to-fully (scars always leave a mark)–all these I’ve seen. Do women just decide to choose the race of enmity?
Although it didn’t occur to me to question why many women ‘fight’ and wage a war of words or silence against one another after some time being together, I’ve always believed that women don’t wake up to ‘just fight’ one another; breakups are preceded by pre-existing relationships. Recently, I had an epiphany that grounded my belief and made everything clearer.
I had gone to a new salon on my street to get my hair heat-stretched. The tools I was to use were electric, which meant the shop had to be powered by electricity. Unfortunately, there was a power outage on getting there, so the hairstylist, a blow dryer in hand, led me to a tailor’s shop about four blocks away where power was up.
The shop served as a makeshift salon twice: first, for blow drying my hair, second for flat ironing–the hairstylist didn’t understand what I wanted to do with my hair at first, hence the two trips. The second time, the tailor–call her the shop owner if you like–had returned from wherever she went. She didn’t want us there; her countenance became sullen, she kept eyeing her apprentices and was grumbling something about how she needed to charge her phone but the only available socket had a flat iron plugged into it. The woman was stewing, but I was bemused as to why my stylist thought it was nothing some dry jokes could not extinguish. It was an awkward situation, especially for me. To my relief, the power went out before she finished straightening a quarter of the hair and we had to return to her salon where she dragged out her generator from God-knows-where and started it. I was astounded.
The incident at the tailor’s shop made me realize how most of the friction and short-lived friendliness among women came to be and I also identified the patterns. I pictured what might become of the women’s relationship – a fight was imminent. Workplace proximity made them develop an acquaintanceship that was ignorantly perceived as friendship and neither of them bothered with establishing boundaries. The tailor didn’t set hers and the hairdresser is probably no respecter of boundaries even if they’re set – this might be on both sides. The tailor’s discomfort wasn’t communicated too, at least, not verbally and the hairstylist chose not to acknowledge the body language or couldn’t acknowledge it (my bet is on the former). And for each time an issue goes unaddressed between two parties, resentment builds up and when either finally goes too far, there will be an outburst that will be deemed outrageous compared to the cause.
There is an unspoken expectation for women to be friends by default – it is either a friendship or women are women’s enemies, there is no place to belong in-between. This, I have discovered, forms part of the reasons women, especially older ones, are often quick to befriend one another when they find themselves in the same vicinity. It is the reason you’d notice a tighter bond among women living in different flats in the same compound or different houses on the same street. These relationships could be blissful if managed well, but unfortunately, many of them come crashing down after a short while for valid reasons like the inability to set boundaries and the disrespect of any that was set.
All relationships, regardless of their kind or the forms in which they exist, struggle, including women’s. However, the one in which the only probable similarity both parties share is proximity and not actual human or behavioral qualities is likely to suffer more. It doesn’t help matters that the intensity of these relationships is usually graded by the extent to which boundaries can be crossed and spaces can be invaded, which is also a yardstick to measure how comfortable a woman can be with another.
While many Gen-Z and younger millennial women are deliberate about protecting their spaces and choosing to be friends with whom they wish, they aren’t having conversations around boundaries being easier now than they were for women from older generations. For older women, it is worse when they are married with(out) kids. A woman whose smile they’d returned out of courtesy at the Parents Teachers’ Association meeting would forcefully start a conversation and end it by requesting their contact, then to visit. Once she has the address, she begins to show up when she’s least expected and makes herself feel at home. Sometimes, they’re forced to return the gesture of friendship extended by the parent whose children are friends with theirs. I’ve seen my mother, a woman who’d rather be by herself, come in and out of this loop many times.
To struggle less in their relationships, I’d recommend that women become intentional about setting boundaries with who they choose to be friends and not just be friends because of circumstances or locations. No one should let circumstances or locations throw them together with just anyone without examining the bedrock on which their relationship would be built. You don’t want to be friends? Let them down easily. Just because you live in the same compound, work in the same office, attend the same church, or see one another at Parent Teachers Association doesn’t mean you have to be friends. Acquaintanceship is, oftentimes, enough. There is no need to be more. And because what we deem unacceptable as humans are different, you have to firmly set your boundaries and keep reiterating your rules at the slightest flout – silence or non-verbal communication is a vague and ineffective way of expressing one’s displeasure. With each reminder, they get used to your ways and you feel none of the resentment that silence fuels.
You could be the disrespectful one too. We sometimes assume that an acquaintance or friend wouldn’t mind something we’d say or do. I once said something I thought was funny to a good friend and they told me they didn’t like it, then went ahead to explain why. Now, I know to never say anything like that to them. Another person might find that funny but not them. This is why, if you find it hard to respect the boundary an acquaintance or a friend has set, then you should accept that you shouldn’t be together instead of constantly getting on their nerves. The non-verbal communication by the other person could come from a place of respect for you, so it’s disrespectful on your part to ignore it because it’s not oral. For friendships to thrive, a mutual means of communication should be established (and I particularly discourage silence and other non-verbal means of communication) because it makes everything easier.
Today and forever, I pray that women learn to respect themselves and the boundaries of one another, so they may enjoy the fruit of peaceful and long-lasting friendships.
Foyin Ejilola writes from Ibadan, Nigeria. She is currently a contributor at AMAKA Studio.