In many ways, the #MeToo movement has brought out the best qualities of women’s friendships. The kind of validation and support at the heart of the #MeToo movement—“empowerment through empathy,” as its founder, Tarana Burke calls it— is an important part of women’s relationships with one another.
But there is also a less favorable quality of many women’s friendships that has become a factor in the #MeToo movement: a hesitancy to discuss conflict.
In the course of interviewing nearly two hundred women for my book on women’s friendships, I learned that one of the hardest things for my interviewees to deal with was conflict with one another. For many women it just feels more natural to be supportive, loving, and attuned than to disagree or be angry with one another, or to be envious or jealous. Yet all of these feelings can emerge in friendships; and they are often silently present in connection with #MeToo as well.
Abuse of power, sexuality, and inequality—the lid has been taken off these issues by the #MeToo movement. We can talk about them in public, in many cases for the first time. But conflict and anger, jealousy and frustration—the lid is still on, especially in conversations among women friends.
In another informal survey, I heard from many women who supported the #MeToo movement yet felt that it was hard to talk about the nuances and complexities of the problems, even with close friends.
“When a man—or a woman—uses power to mistreat a woman, he needs to be stopped,” said Hannah*, who is in her late thirties. “But I don’t know what to say to my friend who is all gung ho about women’s rights when she tells me how she’s been mistreated by men all of her life. I mean, we need to help women who have less power and can’t stand up for themselves. The problem is, I know she’s had some hard times, and I do feel sympathetic to her, but that’s not her situation now. She’s got a wonderful husband who adores her, but sometimes she treats him like shit. I don’t want to stop being friends with her, but I don’t like listening to her bending the truth. And she doesn’t seem to want to be friends with me unless I agree that she’s a victim and that all women are victims.”
In friendships, women tend to want to support one another, sometimes at the cost of their own opinions and beliefs. But as Louise Eichenbaum and Susie Orbach put it in their book Between Women, such undifferentiated agreement can lead to a merged attachment, in which differences are unacceptable.
So it’s not necessarily surprising that women who publicly question any aspect of the movement are finding themselves quickly shut down. In one of the most recent examples, Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, became the target of feminist outrage after calling for greater transparency in a sexual misconduct case of a former college professor. Atwood says that she “ended up in the firing line simply for insisting that due process be applied and everyone’s rights be respected.”
Solidarity has always had both positive and negative components. For women, friendships have often been a way of providing empathy and understanding in a world that does not always support us. But as Daphne Merkin wrote in a recent NY Times editorial, “it is not a good sign” when we cannot explore differences, or express differences of opinion in public. She worries that there is a “sort of social intimidation that is the underside of a culture of political correctness, such as we are increasingly living in.”
This same social intimidation is a frustration many women expressed in my interviews with them. Sometimes women use indirect intimidation to protect friendships; yet such intimidation eventually backfires, destroying not only friendships, but sometimes self-esteem and self-confidence. For instance, Annmarie* was in her late twenties when she realized that her group of friends had been putting indirect pressure on her for years. “I always felt that I was somehow a disappointment to them when I didn’t want to go out partying all night; but I was starting to feel like partying, drugging, and drinking was interfering with my ability to do my work. And my career was important to me. As I started to pull away from them, I realized that for years I’d believed them when they told me I needed them to show me how to dress and how to attract guys. It was a subtle message that on my own I just wasn’t good enough. I can’t even tell you exactly how they communicated it—well, by teasing me and saying things about any outfit I bought without one of them along to choose it. It finally hit me that they weren’t going to be friends with me if I didn’t want to be just like them. And that’s a price I’m not willing to pay anymore.”
The #MeToo movement is clearly not pressuring anyone toward self-destructive behavior, but the backlash toward women who express disagreement or dissenting opinions does leave some women afraid to talk about their own thoughts and feelings. This is a shame, since one of the major contributions of the movement has been to allow women an opportunity to say things that not everyone wants to hear.
Empathy, understanding, and validation are important components of women’s friendships and of the #MeToo movement as well. But in both cases, we need make room for other uncomfortable feelings, like frustration with one another, disagreement, and even doubt and confusion. Because if there is no room for difference of opinion or complexity of thinking, there will be, ultimately, no room for either our friendships or the movement to grow.
*Names and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy
Diane Barth, LCSW, is the author of “I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women’s Lives.”