Women, solidarity and no-conflict-ever programming

I recently read The Nice Girl Syndrome: Stop Being Manipulated and Abused and Start Standing Up for Yourself by psychotherapist Beverly Engel. I keep thinking I should review it, but there’s one huge glaring lesson I got from it that keeps popping up in my life recently and thereby dominating my thoughts, and it actually came from Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons via Engel: it wasn’t my fault.

When I was a girl, I couldn’t maintain friendships with girls beyond a couple of years. Sooner or later, every girl friend decided she’d had enough of me and that was that – relationship canceled. I thought there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t maintain these intense BFF kinda friendships that everyone else seemed able to maintain for years and years. But it turns out there was a social force I wasn’t aware of.

Boys are taught ways to negotiate conflict. Many of these ways may be foolish, pointless or violent, but they are methods involving steps, and once the steps are completed, the conflict is declared over (whether or not it really is) and the friendship resumes. This is because it’s important for boys to work together to conquer the world, since that will be their job as men.

Girls, on the other hand, are typically taught two methods of dealing with conflict: if someone seems less than thrilled with you, give her the silent treatment for a while. That’ll teach her. If not, then give her the silent treatment forever – cancel that friendship. This is because girls aren’t supposed to have conflicts or even opinions. And we certainly aren’t supposed to think of ourselves as part of any team that ever existed. We get solitary, not solidarity.

(On a side note, you can see why men and women often have epic difficulties negotiating conflict with one another.)

Somehow, I learned conflict negotiation as a child. My mother taught me that conflict should be talked through and that we can’t control how we feel but can and should control how we behave. I tried to do that with female friends, and instead they canceled the relationship. We were all just doing as we’d been taught. Unfortunately, we weren’t on the same page. We weren’t even reading from the same rulebook.

Of course, over the years, I learned to think: “If she can’t handle me standing up for myself, she wasn’t really a friend.” But that’s a cop-out, because women are taught not to handle it; we’re taught to equate not being a doormat with being disloyal. That’s at the crux of this matter: when your role in life is defined as “supporting,” you’re understood not to be a full-on person with unique needs and drives. Therefore, any suggestion from you that you want or need something must just be a ploy for attention. That’s what men have been taught for centuries, isn’t it? “Oh, what’s she whining about now? Will some flowers shut her up? No, maybe I should just belt her one.” At no point does the option of listening to find out what the problem is and what would fix it occur to someone who’s bought into the idea that if a woman really loves you, she won’t ever have a problem with you, and if she does, that’s a betrayal.

And yes, thanks to what conditioning does to developing young minds, women and other oppressed groups can and often do buy right into our own oppression. Even those of us who learn better skills find they don’t work: for example, my choice to listen to friends’ complaints and see if they couldn’t be addressed in the interests of friendship signaled to many people (men as well as women) that I was submissive and happy to accept my role as a doormat or mirror in the relationship. When my natural assertiveness came out, it was a double betrayal – not only was I gender-transgressing, but I was doing it after having clearly signaled (in their minds) “I am nothing; use me.” Because in their minds, an assertive woman would have slapped them, cried, demanded some flowers, and then gotten over the great wrong of having tried to point out something amiss in the relationship, without ever having heard what it was.

That’s not assertive: it’s passive-aggressive. But again, it’s what we’ve taught women do. Even if our parents teach us differently, pop culture makes sure we get this message – and that so many others have bought into it, that even if we behave better than that, it’ll just be misinterpreted and lead to trouble.

Is it any wonder it’s taken us thousands of years and at least three “waves” of feminism to get anywhere near solidarity?

Comments

  1. M.C. says

    Sooner or later, every girl friend decided she’d had enough of me and that was that – relationship canceled. I thought there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t maintain these intense BFF kinda friendships that everyone else seemed able to maintain for years and years.

    This is me. I’ve always had this problem. I sometimes tried to play the submissive/supportive role, but it never worked out in the long run.

  2. wondering says

    Oh wow. That really turned on a lightbulb for me. So many conversations my younger self had with male friends where they were decrying how “manipulative [other] women were” and me wondering where the hell they’d met those women.

    The lightbulb is that they were trained to believe that women were manipulative, so they saw what they expected, regardless of the actual situation. And yes, many women used those “tricks” because that was what they had been taught to do to build relationships with men.

    This may be why I’ve never dated… I never spoke the right “language”. (Just hook-ups and a very long-term (16 yrs) roommate with benefits.)

  3. firebird says

    I am going to have to do some hard thinking about how indoctrinated my boyfriend is, and if this explains why I can’t just calmly say, “xyz offends me or hurts my feelings” and feel like he is hearing me.

  4. M.C. says

    I forgot to mention: There’s a great book by the German author Barbara Berckhan that teaches women how to stand up for what they want without putting themselves under too much stress.

    Among other things she talks about how men and women are thaught to communicate in different ways and that we have to understand the other’s “language” in order to identify and solve conflicts. But the first thing is to understand ourselves and why we react to certain situations the way we do.

    The title of the book is “Die etwas gelassenere Art, sich durchzusetzen” (The more relaxed way of stading up for yourself)

  5. says

    Oh, the Silent Treatment and “oh everything isn’t perfect in this friendship, we’re not friends anymore!”

    >_> I was taught an unusual way of dealing with conflict negotiation as well so maybe that’s why I can’t understand it, but I cannot see why *anyone* would act that way. It seems avoidant and immature for anyone over kindergarten age.

    I don’t think it’s necessarily a cop-out to blame a woman or girl when she acts such a way. Yes, there’s societal and parental conditioning, but at some point individuals have to either overcome it or take responsibility for choosing to to behave that way. The silent treatment and cutting friendships without any other attempts at reconciliation or re-working things is just another way women refuse to have empathy or understanding for other women. I have never seen the silent treatment used against a boy; nor the sudden cutting of friendships.

    People overcome violent, abusive upbrinings without always become an abuser; people overcome being raised in a racist or religiously fanatical home/society, so I don’t see why any slack should be given to someone for failing to overcome an upbringing that did not teach how to get along with others. Self-learning is not impossible.

  6. says

    This may be why I’ve never dated… I never spoke the right “language”. (Just hook-ups and a very long-term (16 yrs) roommate with benefits.)

    Nodding to your whole comment, but dating really is crap, isn’t it? No way to get to know another person at all.

    Firebird, I hope if you conclude he is pretty indoctrinated, he will hear *that* and realize he’s being given an opportunity to grow.

    M.C., that sounds awesome! Wish I could read German.

    I don’t think it’s necessarily a cop-out to blame a woman or girl when she acts such a way.

    No, I just meant it’s a cop-out to say “Well, she’s worthless, then” because it could be her only flaw. And whereas abuse victims are served plenty of examples of non-abusive people as potential templates for their own growth, our culture is not overflowing with examples of women who handle conflict better than this. So when women are taught this way of engaging, where are they supposed to get an example of how to do it differently?

  7. Karakuri says

    This reminds me of when my bro and I got into an argument, and my mother tried to stop us from working it out in calm discussion, as if just shutting up would solve everything.

    You know, this sheds some light on my high school relationships – at one point the whole group had ostracized me except for the one true friend I had, and I didn’t even /know/ about it. Primary school (in Australia), though, was SO much better. I distinctly remember getting into fights, some of them physical, and then making up again – and me and my best friend at the time thought this was a good thing (I remember us explaining to our 4th grade teacher who’d disapproved of our fights that “we made up in the end so it was okay”). We were the more boisterous bunch of girls, though..

  8. Robin says

    Well said, Jennifer. Some things are just so ingrained that it takes a distinct point of view to even notice them and call them odd. But this is odd, and I’m glad that you’ve shared it with us in such a clear way. I’m going to make a point of checking out those books.

    I am definitely conflict-averse. With a lot of introspection and hindsight, I’ve figured out that I learned a lot of bad relationship behaviors from my parents’ marriage. (Anxiety disorder(s) on one side vs. what-we’re-pretty-sure-was-undiagnosed-bipolar on the other. Whee!) Of course, being aware of those behaviors, and even of their root causes, doesn’t make changing them all that much easier. :-\

  9. says

    my mother tried to stop us from working it out in calm discussion, as if just shutting up would solve everything.

    Oh, I’ve come across that before – can’t remember who with, probably relatives, possibly teachers. I was so upset that they prevented the other person and me from finishing a discussion that would have easily ironed things out.

    Of course, being aware of those behaviors, and even of their root causes, doesn’t make changing them all that much easier. :-\

    Exactly – we’re programmed with all sorts of stuff in childhood. Realizing it is only the first step, and nobody’s quite sure what the second step is, so it’s tricky.

  10. says

    wow this post is just so amazingly true to me especially since i’ve experienced something similar in the past month. i stopped giving female friends the silent treatment when i left high school and i took up the ‘it’s better to talk things through’ mantle. i’ve experienced the same difficulties trying to be honest with some friends and i’ve noticed that most of them tend to get upset. however, i do have a few female friends who are willing to talk things through and mend patches which just leads me to respect them even more. i find it childish to be honest when women give their friends the silent treatment during quarrels.

    it’s just sad really when friendships are laid to waste because of petty arguments. i remember several women telling me that men mend arguments between themselves better than women because ‘that’s just the way they are’ when it’s simply another case of social construction. i need to spread word of this post!

  11. JMS says

    I don’t think that it’s just women policing each others’ conflict-management styles, though. Many women and girls also learn from abusive men that any kind of discussion or argument is an invitation to abuse.

    Sometimes the cold shoulder actually is one’s only defense. Blaming women for passive aggression, when the entire patriarchy denies them the agency for any other response, is a bit off to me.

    It’s like the “Oh, why doesn’t Obama get angry and yell” nonsense of late. Yeah, because US society is SO COMFORTABLE with angry black men yelling.

  12. says

    Oh, my god! I’ve had so many friendships end this way; one of us makes a slight, I try to work it out, the other person sees me as being passive-aggressive and gets angry, and I have no idea what to do. I’ve had friendships I thought were really deep and committed end this way, suddenly. I try to be nice, and each time, it just makes the person angrier. …It’s left me a broken woman with an abandonment complex.

    One thing worth noting is that I’m transsexual, so I was raised with some male values until age 14. It’s difficult because, of course, that means that I’ve been raised to be more assertive than most women; but I tell myself, well, more women ought to learn to be more assertive, I wish I could have just learned some other way. Of course, I’ve learned traditional female forms of speaking, poise, etc., for my own safety, and to emphasize my femininity to people. But when I try to slow down and work something out, people get angry… people abandon me… even fellow feminists well-versed in these sorts of things will abandon me. It’s made me feel poisonous, worthless.

    Lordy Lord, this is gonna take some time to process. Somebody pass me a teddy bear… and be my friend… pwease…

    (These sorts of abandonments leave me wondering all sorts of things. Is it something I did? Or is it something I am, something about me that puts people off? Waaaahhh…)

  13. Elee says

    Never seen it from this point of view, it certainly gives me something to think about, though nothing comes to mind explicitly in the way “OMG, so true”. I have certainly seen similar behaviour patterns in middle school but dismissed it as overall behavior because, well, school age, learning to socialise. (You were either completely loyal to your girl friends or an outsider/traitor/whatever. No middle ground. Because it is unthinkable that a person can be friends with people who aren’t BFFs too. Actually, I believe this kind of enforced solidarity was listed in Geek Fallacies.)Tina, here have a teddy bear. :-D I have at least a dozen of them, and a herd of sheep, too.

  14. Patrick McGraw says

    The geek fallacy of no-conflict-ever is slightly different. Basically, it regards socially ostracizing someone as the Worst Thing Ever, because that’s what geeks were so often subjected to during their formative years. So there’s a similar failure to resolve disputes (worse for women, as Jennifer described in the article), but it also involves hanging around people you despise.

  15. photondancer says

    I think the conflict management issue is distinct from the loyalty/hanging out with people you despise issue. The latter is definitely found among men as well as women. I recently reread Trainspotting and was struck by the honesty with which the fraught relationship everybody had with Begbie (the psycho, in the vernacular sense) was laid out. I’ve seen similar “I don’t like him but he’s my mate so I can’t leave” attitudes in my life.

  16. Julie says

    I’ve seen “Trainspotting” mentioned so many times lately, particularly on this blog, I think I’m going to have to watch it!

    Re: Socialization and ostracization: my own experience wasn’t quite ostracization–if I *was*, I either didn’t realize it for a long time (I was a very undersocialized, awkward and ultra-shy child). With regards to other female girl frendships, I had some throughout school, of varying degrees, and oftentimes, the dropping was mutual. Sometimes we’d talk it out, but often-enough, it was “Eh, see you around when I see you around.”

    Even now, I’ve had adult friendships where most of a group I was friends with for a couple of years just…stopped talking to me, or the others in the group. Friendships drift apart. One woman at a temp job I had about 9 years back shunned me suddenly and completely from one day to the next, and could never or would never tell me what went wrong. We were pretty tight, too. I was hurt, but got over it.

    I think that male friendships tend to get overly worshipped in this culture. Most of the movies, books, TV shows, etc celebrate buddy friendships and I think “buddy friendships” are idealized. I’ve seen my husband’s friendships with other guys, and believe me, they are NOT what is shown in the media, either. He will negotiate conflicts with them, but those are usually his business friendships. Personal friendships, he tends to dance around, just like the women do in Jenn’s post.

  17. sbg says

    One woman at a temp job I had about 9 years back shunned me suddenly and completely from one day to the next, and could never or would never tell me what went wrong.

    I wonder if there’s a fair amount of “You should know what you did to cause this reaction! I shouldn’t have to tell you!” in this type of behavior. As if we can all read minds, suddenly, when it comes to the whys and whats of other people’s actions. Which, no. It usually doesn’t work that way.

  18. says

    There’s often a frustrating amount of “But you’re a woman, and therefore should be able to read my thoughts telepathically” in most any social interaction. This is one of the assumptions I hate most, because I actually am really good at intuiting motives you don’t even know you have, but you’re really not going to like it if I bring those up. Therefore, I prefer to let you tell me what it is you want me to think about your motives. Or go away. I’m flexible.

    • says

      Me, on the other hand, I suck at picking up subtle clues. So no, unless Offended tells me what could I’ve possibly done to merit his/her cold shoulder*, no, i shouldn’t (I couldn’t) know.

      I’ve seen lots of conflict, esp. couples, for this imbecilic “you should’ve know” thing. Sorry, I have no crystall ball, and I have better things to do than playing charades with oversusceptible jerks.

      *of course we talk about petty arguments here, not real conflicts. And still.

  19. TurelieTelcontar says

    I wonder if there’s a fair amount of “You should know what you did to cause this reaction! I shouldn’t have to tell you!” in this type of behavior. As if we can all read minds, suddenly, when it comes to the whys and whats of other people’s actions. Which, no. It usually doesn’t work that way.

    I had that kind of behaviour as well, as a teenager, but have stopped when I figured out it was childish, and why I was doing it: I wasn’t actually expecting the other person to know what they had done. It was more that they had hurt me, and I was feeling that hurt, and as long as they didn’t know why, I could feel that way without them being able to tell me that my concerns were invalid, or that I was hysterical.
    It was basically a way to deal with feeling hurt by one thing without having to deal with the added hurt of those feelings being dismissed as well. I wonder whether this reason holds for other people too.

  20. photondancer says

    turelie, I know I have reacted like that on occasion, especially if the person has shown in the past that they are likely to dismiss or scoff at my hurt, or be affronted and explain at length why there was nothing wrong in what they did. I wonder how much that ties in with the original post? that the silent treatment is not always a form of bullying, but may be withdrawal from a battle one would rather not fight

  21. says

    silent treatment is not always a form of bullying, but may be withdrawal from a battle one would rather not fight

    But that right there says a lot about the person’s attitude toward the friendship. In my experience, people who can’t be bothered to endure a bit of discomfort to work through an issue are certainly not going to be bothered to have my back if I’m ever going through something really difficult. I’d actually have more hope for the friendship if I thought the silent treatment was just a case of my friend following her gender programming unthinkingly.

  22. Lara says

    @Jennifer Kesler, the “people who can’t be bothered to endure a bit of discomfort to work through an issue are certainly not going to be bothered to have my back if I’m ever going through something really difficult” thing stings. I can tell you that I learned growing up that it was physically unsafe to even bring things up out loud.

    However, as long and hard as I’ve had to work for years and years to overcome that visceral fear and do better, I’m the friend who always sticks by my friends in trouble. (As an abuse survivor, I’ve turned that negative ability to put up with abuse into a positive ability to buck social pressure. Yea me!) :) I think you might be equating learned conflict avoidance with a lack of loyalty, which I think is often not the case.

    I’m a faithful and loyal friend, not a fair-weather friend, but I still struggle with being able to bring up issues in a relationship, because that has always had such awful results, even in adulthood. One rule I learned early is that many people just don’t want to hear it from women. They may not like it coming from men either, but they’ll put up with it and go through the process because menz is important. Women, in my experience, don’t tend to get that willingness to go through the process from others.

    I was (am!) so jealous of my sister — she constitutionally can’t let an interpersonal problem just sit there. She has to bring it up and work through it. Where I am scared to bring things up. Wow, I wish I couldn’t let it lie either, and felt compelled to work it out — that would be a great, great thing. She is such an admirable woman.

  23. says

    Lara: I think you might be equating learned conflict avoidance with a lack of loyalty, which I think is often not the case.

    Okay, but the net effect is the same. I’m an abuse survivor too, and one of the many issues I had to work on was learning how to pick friends. “Avoid abuse” was the only criteria I had at first, and it led to a lot of unhealthy relationships, because not all unhealthy relationships are in fact abusive. I eventually learned that women who do the silent treatment thing are NOT compatible friends for me.

    What do you want me to get out of your comment? I’m asking that sincerely. If you think I’m underestimating how hard it is for some women to bring up problems, that may be. But if you think I should maintain friendships with women who, for whatever reason, don’t have my back – been there, done that, got the stabbing scars to prove it.

  24. Lara says

    Jennifer Kesler:

    What do you want me to get out of your comment? I’m asking that sincerely. If you think I’m underestimating how hard it is for some women to bring up problems, that may be. But if you think I should maintain friendships with women who, for whatever reason, don’t have my back – been there, done that, got the stabbing scars to prove it.

    The quote about “can’t be bothered” is an assumption. If someone’s giving you the silent treatment, you really don’t know what’s going on inside them. I don’t do the silent treatment, but I do have a hard time bringing things up, so sometimes issues don’t get talked about, and the friendship gets quiet for a while. This has *nothing* to do with whether or not I have my friend’s back, or how loyal a friend I am, or how important the friendship is to me. It’s about past abuse issues that I actually am actively dealing with. It’s not about you, or the friendship.

    I have my friends’ backs. Since I maintain very few close friendships, those people are extremely valuable to me. And yet — it’s still hard to bring things up, and sometimes I don’t, and I should, and I try, and sometimes I do. It’s a process. Your comment read to me like “If you aren’t open and communicating with me when any problem arises, then you don’t care about the friendship.” My array of flaws and mistakes is about my own struggles and doesn’t bear on the affection and loyalty I have toward my friends.

    That’s what I wanted you to get out of my comment. I didn’t say anything about maintaining friendships with people who stab you in the back. While I may not be a super communicator as a friend — yet — I would *never* stab someone in the back, or just “not bother.” That’s not how it is at all.

    It’s obvious that some women do give the silent treatment because they really don’t care about their friend or the friendship. I wanted to speak up on behalf of those of us who do care, but who look bad in this arena because our current toolset sucks. The fact is that not everyone is going to want to be my friend while I’m going through this learning process, and I understand that. Everybody’s at a different place. I just don’t want to have my internal intentions judged during the very time when I’m working so hard to change.

  25. says

    Lara,

    There is a big difference between not being assertive and actually refusing to speak to someone in a pointed manner designed to make them feel bad. The comment I was responding to stated that “silent treatment” could be a withdrawal from conflict rather than a passive-aggressive weapon, but that’s simply not true. Going silent is not the silent treatment. Failure to assert is not the silent treating. I thought everyone had experienced the silent treatment, but perhaps not: it’s when someone pointedly ignores your existence, pretending they don’t see you when they pass you, refusing to speak to you, except possibly through intermediaries, etc. That is a calculated, aggressive move and not, I think, what you’re talking about.

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