In my last column, I introduced you to Susanna Sonnenberg’s She Matters, a memoir of the author’s twenty most important female friendships. I already told you that it’s a stunning, shimmering read.
The book also has utilitarian, self-helpy applications. It got me contemplating the power of friendship, and the criminal mistake of being a lazy pal. I very much doubt that it’s a coincidence that since reading the memoir, I cooked dinner for an interesting woman whom I recently met at a party. And when an old friend asked me to meet up with her for workweek nontoxic facials — an activity that sounded about as appealing as eating fish broth for dinner — I said okay.
Here is the second half of my interview with Susanna. (I think I can call her that by this point.)
LM: Do you feel like you’ve become better at knowing when to cut a cord with a friend as you’ve gotten older?
SS: I’m definitely better at knowing when a dynamic is destructive to me in some way. I can recognize it more quickly. That said, I think I’m more compassionate toward others, and more compassionate toward myself. I’ve let go of a lot of this idea of the perfect friend who’s going to answer all the longing within me. I’ve let go of that expectation of what other people will provide.
LM: My mother-in-law says that when she was my age, when friends disappointed or hurt her, she would want total blackouts. And now that she understands you can’t always expect as much, a big regret of hers is not having accepted people on their own terms. If somebody essentially says, “Let’s take a step back. I’ll go from being an intimate friend to somebody who you have dinner with twice a year,” she’s okay with that.
SS: I think that’s an amazing thing she said, that you can still draw important things from someone even if the relationship doesn’t look like what it used to; even if it’s just twice a year. I try not to insist anymore — “It has to be like this, if you really love me it will be like this.” I try not to put my friends through tests.
LM: What’s the best novel about female friendship?
SS: There’s a recent novel called My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. It’s the most powerful depiction of friendship I’ve ever read. It’s told in the first person, and it’s set in the 1950s in Naples. The narrator has this best friend. They love and hate each other. They scare each other; they support each other. They go through virtually every kind of human interaction together.
LM: I like that idea, that friendships aren’t binary. I was talking to a male friend about your book and how much I loved it, and he said, “But where’s the narrative? Sounds like it’s twenty chapters with no arc.” And I said, “That’s what being a woman is.” Things can trickle out or reemerge, but rarely do they ever truly end. There’s lots of overlap.
SS: Yes, there’s lots of overlap. There’s lots of coming back. With the exception of the break-up story in friendship, I think you’re right — there’s no neat narrative. There’s no clean beginning, middle, and end.
LM: You’ve lived in Missoula, Montana, for twenty years. I imagine your community there has read the book. What were your friends’ reactions?
SS: A lawyer once told me, when she was vetting my first memoir, that people will never be upset about the things you think they will be upset about.
LM: Do you feel like you walked away from the project with a better understanding of your flaws?
SS: Yeah. I became sad writing that book, because as I wrote one chapter after another, I began to see the emerging patterns of my need, and how much my friends are up against when they want to be friends with me. I’m a very loyal friend. I’m incredibly supportive. But I demand a lot; I want a lot. It’s intense, and that can be too much for some people. But it also attracts the people who can handle it.
LM: The word intense is one that comes to mind a lot when reading your book. You paint yourself — I hate to say as “needy,” because it’s such an ugly word — but you do paint yourself as aware of the fact that you don’t want a superficial relationship and refusing to settle. You want honesty and secrets, and you want your friendships to grow. One of my biggest problems with friends is when, no matter how many times you get together, you don’t feel like you’re learning more about them. They can be amusing, but they’re not giving you any more of themselves than when you just met.
SS: Men like to operate that way. That’s a generalization, I know, but it’s often true. They do get something from these relationships; there’s something to be said for being accompanied through an experience even without a great understanding of the depth of the other person.
LM: Yes, your descriptions of your husband’s fishing trips with his friends, where nobody talks about anything except the fishing or the landscape, were mind-boggling. All I could think was, “This is exactly how I am not wired.” But there’s something admirable about people who are simply curious about learning skills, or about other worlds, and who thrive on an exchange of information, rather than self-exposure.
SS: But women are about relational experience. To me, that’s what so profoundly nourishing and fascinating. And those friendships you describe, where you see each other for dinner and these friendships stay at the same level no matter what: I get bored really fast with that.
LM: I agree. There are people who make an art form out of not being intense. They can remain on an amusing yet completely repetitive level. I can’t operate that way.
SS: What do you want out of a friend?
LM: It’s very basic. I want a friend I can call on the telephone if I’m upset about something that happens during the day. And I would want the friend to feel free to do the same. I know that doesn’t sound very special.
SS: But it’s elemental.
LM: I think these things ebb and flow, and I’m in a ebb right now. There’s lots of e-mailing and social media and working in my life. People are busy. That’s probably why I drove that friend away. I called her and needed her. It was probably too much.
SS: Do you feel that you needed her too much?
LM: I probably took advantage of her availability. Looking back, I was probably tone-deaf to the fact that it wasn’t working for her, and I didn’t realize that until there was a sudden rupture. There’s this strange thing that can happen where one person is aware of the fact that the friendship is over, and the other one is clueless.
SS: Which leads to that crushing feeling of humiliation that you suffer after a friend dumps you.
LM: Yes. These things don’t come out of nowhere. If someone is suddenly enraged over something that makes no sense, you realize this has been building up within her all along, without your knowing. That’s embarrassing.
SS: I think being a new mother can lead to ruptures, but it can also be protective against other shit going down. For as devastating as the rupture is, I imagine it would be so much worse for me before I became a mother — partly because my own identity shifted so much when I became a mother. The rupture was crushing to my self-esteem and my identity, but not demolishing.
LM: On the other hand, you’re more isolated as a new mother. If you’re suffering a horrible breakup with a man, you can distract yourself with a new romance. You can’t conjure a replacement close friend. Or maybe you’re just very good at making friends. I find it can be hard to meet a woman you’re intimate with.
SS: One thing I have learned that I don’t think I knew ten years ago is that intimacy is not something that can be ordered up. It has to be built. By definition, it comes from an evolution. And I think I used to demand that kind of instant intimacy. I may not be more patient, but I do understand.
LM: You talk about that in your book. How when you quickly strike up a codependent, buzzy, “I’m going to tell you every dirty secret” relationship — these friendships don’t have the history or bones they need to hold them up, and they can fall apart really quickly and leave you feeling so exposed.
SS: I think that’s at the heart of every friendship: “If I show you this, will you still love me? If I show you this, will you still be with me?”
LM: So you’re saying we’re programmed to expose and confide?
SS: Well, you and I are.