Is this the trouble with girlfriends? They tell us what we want to hear?
That’s what controversial writer Lori Gottlieb (she of “Marry Him: The case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” fame) suggests in a piece in the July issue of Marie Claire that I came across the other day. She’s writing mainly about bad boyfriends and dating dilemmas (that is, after all, her shtick), but some of what she says applies to other issues, too. Such as what to do with our lives. (Full disclosure: Gottlieb was gracious enough to give us an insightful interview for our book.)
She starts the piece by referencing SATC, not at all favorably. But if you can get beyond the dig at Samantha, head down to the boldface (mine) at the end of the graf. That’s where the truth hangs out:
Remember the scene at the end of the first Sex and the City movie, when the fabulous foursome was sitting down to cocktails? Samantha had just left Smith, her gorgeous, adoring boyfriend — whom she loved and who had lovingly supported her through breast cancer — because “I love myself more.” That’s right: She dumped a keeper using what was arguably the most idiotic grrrl-power proclamation in the history of chick flicks (and there’s some formidable competition there). And how did the gals react? They toasted her! As always, the bobble-headed brunch mates unquestioningly took her side. And something dawned on me: This is exactly how I am with my friends (minus, perhaps, the four-figure handbags). Just like the girls did in every episode of SATC — and in the new film, currently luring Miatas-ful of women to theaters like well-shod moths to a flame — we cheer each other on, thinking we’re being supportive, when often we’re just enabling bad choices. To put it plainly, we’re one another’s yes women.
One another’s yes women? Enablers? Ouch. But there it is. In our efforts to be supportive, sympathetic and sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice to our girlfriends, do we get caught up telling our besties only what we think they want to hear? Are we reluctant to tell the truth if it means we might lose a friend? And do we seek out friends who will serve as our personal echo chambers, who cross over that thin line that divides support from enabling?
This may be a silly example, but when was the last time you told a friend that, um, she looks bad in green? Or continued to hang out with someone who would say as much to you? Even if you really do, you know, look like shit in green. But let’s get back to Gottlieb, who puts herself in the picture:
I’ve always enjoyed the unconditional support of my female friends. Life can be a rough ride, and I count on that cheerleading squad when things get me down. But for women, a bit of consolation can balloon into a complex system of chronic ego-inflation. Was the lawyer boyfriend who didn’t call me for a daily check-in when in court “too into his career,” even though he was really attentive the rest of the time? Probably not. But I heard a round of hurrahs from my friends when I broke it off. And the next guy I dated, who never responded to my e-mails, was he secretly gay? “Yes!” shouted my book group, practically in unison. Look at you, they said, successful, smart, and cute! He must be gay. We “yes” our friends into false presumptions and bad decisions — tell your demanding boss off! Buy the $700 Alexander Wang stilettos; you’ll wear them everywhere! — convincing one another that anyone who disagrees with us is wrong because, according to those who know us best, we’re always right. But instead of a frenzied pack of enablers nurturing our self-delusion, what we need is someone brave enough to give us the truth.
Clearly, this girlfriend stuff goes beyond shoes or boyfriends, and that’s where it all gets truly dicey. Because with larger decisions this echo chamber business can do some significant damage to our ability to choose for ourselves — and feel comfortable with our decisions when we do. If we surround ourselves with friends who tell us what we want to hear, who validate our every choice, what then? Do we ever learn to think critically about our own decisions? Trust our own guts? Decide what to do with our lives without looking outside for someone to say, “You go, girl!” And do we automatically disregard anyone brave enough to play the devil’s advocate? It’s like faux-empowerment. We tend to believe what we hear — and yeah, it might be what we really need to hear to pull our chin off the ground — but what we’re left with if we don’t watch out is the idea that we are so goddamn fabulous, so absolutely right, that we deserve nothing short of perfect. And that, dear reader, is something that almost never ends well.
Not coincidentally, I keep thinking of that classic Jack Nicholson snarl from “A Few Good Men”: “You can’t handle the truth!” Well, you know what? Maybe we could, if we got used to hearing it more often.
In other words, tell us what you think. As opposed to what you think we want to hear.