Understanding the Language of Female Breakups

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I met my best friend Olivia (not her real name) during my time in an overseas program in Tel Aviv. We were inseparable. I got her through drunken nights, talked endlessly about her boyfriend—who wasn’t really her boyfriend and who wasn’t all that interested in her. We cooked together, smoked hash together. We, as one friend commented, “Gelled into one person.”

Six months later, when the program was over, I lived in Manhattan with my mother and Olivia lived on Long Island with her family, and our friendship continued. Her not-so-much-of a boyfriend was gone and it had become her turn to talk me through a slow breakup with an awful boyfriend, who had not only told me that I was a terrible writer but also that he had decided to see other people.

I also need to mention to you that this boyfriend was extremely good-looking. He was like Jon Hamm in that episode of 30 Rock where people just wanted to do things for him (like buy his groceries or pick up his mail) because he was so good-looking. Before iPhone selfies, this boyfriend filled up disposable cameras with pictures of himself; he was that good-looking. Olivia was also enamored with him and was equally, I believe, enamored with my initial indifference towards him.

Olivia decided that he and I were the most adorable couple and that we would live in an apartment together in Harlem and maybe one day have babies. I only dated this guy while in an overseas program for three months and Olivia already had a plan for us. I’m also telling you this, because I think my friendship with Olivia had something to do with, or at least was intertwined with, me sleeping with him.

Back in the States, after the good-looking guy and I broke up, Olivia and I talked every day. That’s what you do when you’re twenty-one years old, freshly dumped, quitting a two-pack-a-day habit, and having an existential crisis about the morality of Israeli politics.

I’d start my morning by calling Olivia, talking over coffee like we did as roommates in Tel Aviv. Until one day Olivia said to me over the phone: “We don’t have to speak every day, you know.”

I pretended like it was a good idea. “Of course we don’t have to talk every day,” I said, laughing it off because in her eyes, I was the more level-headed one. The calmer, cooler one. The one who snagged—albeit briefly—the extremely good-looking guy. We hung up and I cried the whole night because I wanted to talk to her everyday about my small, crumbling world—and I missed her.

After her comment, I shut down. No more guys. No more new friendships. No sex for two years. I found a therapist in Greenwich Village who taught me about patterns and boundaries. I stuck to my best friends from high school, traveling out of Manhattan by bus every weekend, sitting late night with girlfriends at a flashy diner on the highway, drowning my sorrows in disco fries.

After years of trying to understand it, I came up with this: In Tel Aviv, Olivia saw me as a together girl, someone who was secure and confident. I had a hot boyfriend. I was impulsive. I was that awful Don Henley song: I never looked back.

But now, back in New York, I was the insecure one. Confused about my future. Anxious without my cigarettes. Eating every piece of bread in front of me. Living with my mother on the family-friendly Upper West Side of Manhattan where everybody seemed to be walking a baby stroller, and feeling no connection to the downtown campus of NYU where I had just transferred. I was a lonely, tearful mess. I felt used by Olivia. Maybe my breakups were exhausting to her. Maybe I was too needy. All of it was possible. I over thought every moment of that friendship and was tormented by it for years.

*

The most painful friendship stories are breakup stories, or as Stanford University linguist Deborah Tannen, coined them “friendship cutoffs.” Tannen, who spoke to eighty women and girls, ages nine to ninety-seven, for her new book, You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships, has been talking to women about their relationships for years. Her other books explore the inner world of female relationships, with titles like You Were Always Mom’s Favorite: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives and You’re Wearing THAT?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation.

In her research, Tannen found that friendship cutoffs were the most agonizing relational break for women—leaving them wondering what you did to cause your abandonment for years after the friendship is over. “When someone you’ve been close to, who has been part of your life, suddenly refuses to see you or speak to you,” Tannen writes, “her departure leaves a hole in your life and your heart.

Tannen had her own cutoff story with a best friend from high school named Susan. One day, Susan decided to stop speaking to Tannen. No explanation—Susan just refused to have anything to do with her. Tannen never stopped thinking about the abrupt breakup; fifty-four years later and she’s not only writing about the experience, but admits that scrutinizing why Susan cut her off was a reason for writing and researching the book. Through a mutual friend, Tannen contacted Susan and found the answer: Susan’s older brother decided Tannen had been bad influence. He had demanded Susan stop being friends with her. “Looking back, [Susan] said, she thinks he was just jealous,” Tannen wrote. “And it broke her heart at the same time that it broke mine.”

There’s only one chapter in the book dedicated to friendship cutoffs, yet most of the book leads up to that unfortunate and inevitable moment in a woman’s life. Chapters focus on the linguistics of female friendships, such as “troubles talk” (digging deep into a problem with other women), conversational style (which can lead to missed signals, miscommunication, and most damagingly, misjudgement about others’ intentions), and interrupting. Women, Tannen observed in her research, tend to interrupt each other more than men because we see it as “latching on to each other’s sentences” rather than an intrusion of conversation. All of these linguistic dissections fold back into examining why a friendship ends or persists.

The answer, it seems, depends on Tannen’s concept of “troubles talk.” If you’ve ever read a pop psychology book—think Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus—you’ll learn men generally want to “fix” a problem which is the opposite of troubles talk. But Tannen argues that it’s not that women don’t want to fix a problem—but first we need details, an investigation.

Digging deep, Tannen writes, is a crucial piece to women’s conversations: And what did you say? What did she say? And why do you think she said that? And how did that make you feel? This careful exploration sends a meta-message of caring. If you don’t explore the problem (or if in my case, your friend says, “We don’t have to talk every day”), you’re telling your friend that you essentially don’t care what she has to say.

And look, most friends at a certain point don’t care what their girlfriend has to say, but this shouldn’t stop troubles talk. You still have to listen. It’s a conversational ritual, Tannen writes, even if a friend’s problems aren’t all that easy to sympathize with. This is simply what we do. When we don’t, it can lead to a breakdown in conversational style, or missed communication opportunities, or some kind of fracture.

Lately, I’ve heard so many stories about friendship cutoffs—new friends who’ve stopped talking or old friendships disintegrating—that I wonder if women can recover from friendship cutoffs at all. “I never spoke to her again,” was the most common ending of friendship breakup, Tannen says, which should be baffling to all of us. Women will drag out a damaging relationship with a man for years, tolerating all sorts of horrible behavior. But if a woman hurts you, it seems practically impossible for the friendship to recover.

One the most famous of friendship breakups—one that I’m continually fascinated by, maybe because they seemed to show true love for each other so publicly—was between Winona Ryder and Gwyneth Paltrow. In 1997, Ryder and Paltrow were best friends. They shared an apartment together. Paltrow dated Ben Affleck and then introduced Ryder to Matt Damon. (Granted, Matt Damon was no Johnny Depp, but he was intelligent and stable and that seemed appealing at the time.) With their pixie cuts and midi skirts, prancing around Hollywood, they felt like alterna-girls who were too cute to ignore. Yet, by 1999, after Paltrow won the Best Actress Oscar for Shakespeare in Love, the once-inseparable pals were over. The good old days where Paltrow and Ryder giggled in the fashion show front row, smoking cigarettes, were gone. Their thin arms intertwined as they escaped the paparazzi glare no longer.

Rumors about the demise of their friendship centered on a salacious piece of gossip that Paltrow stole the Shakespeare in Love script from Ryder’s coffee table. After 1999, the story and the friendship wasn’t discussed by either woman until ten years later, in 2009, when Paltrow dropped an explosive blind item in her Goop newsletter. “I had a frenemy who, as it turned out, was pretty hell-bent on taking me down,” she wrote. “This person really did what they could to hurt me. I was deeply upset, I was angry, I was all of those things you feel when you find out that someone you thought you liked was venomous and dangerous.”

But the real giveaway was when she admitted: “Something unfortunate and humiliating had happened to this person. And my reaction was deep relief and… happiness.” At that point it seemed Paltrow was practically pointing the finger at Winona Ryder and her infamous shoplifting incident. The Internet went bonkers.

Elaine Liu of Lainey Gossip offered some insight into the feud at the time; Liu explained that the role had probably been Paltrow’s all along. (Apparently, Paltrow had a long-standing relationship with Harvey Weinstein, who produced Shakespeare in Love, and the movie had been on the table for a while.) Yet, the stolen screenplay story seemed so believable because it tethered two popular concepts about the women: Paltrow’s drive for perfection (the uncoupling, the easy cookbooks, the body) and Winona’s propensity to be a bit of a mess (the breakups, the depression, the shoplifting).

Maybe one day, the gossip gods will deliver an account of what actually happened between the women, but for now, all we have are Paltrow’s carefully chosen words: “venomous” and “dangerous.” When those words aren’t being used to describe a deadly carpet viper, they bring insight to Paltrow’s side of the story. It was clearly a painful time for her—she admits this as much in the article. But the fact that Paltrow dug up the story for use in her very successful website and lifestyle brand, tells us, in a way, what Tannen has detailed, which is that this was a friendship cut off and Paltrow never really got over it. Of course, Paltrow could have dredged up the story for page views purposes, but I’m going stick with the never-got-over-it theory. I’m guessing that the two women, like many of us who have experienced a friendship cutoff, didn’t talk about it. That one day they were talking and the next day, they simply were not.

*

Science tells us that this isn’t a typical response for a woman—to shut out a friend. In 2000, a study out of UCLA found that women respond to stress differently than men. Instead of choosing between “fight or flight”—which has always been the conventional wisdom around our reaction to stressful situations—women “tend and befriend.” In other words, women don’t just run when there’s stress—we run in a straight line to our friends.

This research, Tannen explains, is why problems with friends can be more distressing for women than it is for men. It’s more than just a shitty feeling to have a crisis with a friend; it goes against our nature and our chemical makeup. Maybe this is why a gay girlfriend once told me, “Lesbians never break up. We just don’t want to hurt each other.” She continued, “It’s always, ‘Are you okay? Are you sure you’re okay? No, are you okay?'” It’s also probably the reason why women who say they don’t trust other women or who announce, “Women will only stab you in the back,” (as I saw once in a post on Facebook after the Women’s March) are so adamant about their belief. They’re writhing in pain from whatever happened to them—with another woman. How can they go back to that well if what was in the well is the source of their anguish?

This position, that your friends are who you run to in distress, is a position that the entertainment world has understood for a long time. Thelma and Louise didn’t drive off that cliff separately. They drove off it together, with glee and with power. There’s no Romy without Michelle. No Edina without Patsy. No Ilana without Abbi. You think Sally Fields cried by herself after her daughter died in Steel Magnolias? Of course not. Over and over again we are told that a female friendship is a relationship that takes precedence over everything else in your life—over your kids, over your lover, over your spouse—and if we don’t have that relationship then we are lost. We’re goners. We’re flying in the wind on our own posting angry messages on Facebook about how women can’t be trusted because they’re all fake bitches.

But recently, some more realistic dynamics outside of the perfectly supportive and harmonious female relationship have been explored in the pop culture realm. In Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach’s 2013 film, lead character Frances, played by Greta Gerwig (who also co-wrote the film) describes her relationship with her best friend Sophie like this: “We’re exactly the same person but with different hair.” Except here’s the thing—they’re no longer the same person and they’re not really friends anymore. (And who says it’s so great to be exactly like someone else, anyway? Isn’t that what twins hate about being a twin—that they have no individuality?) The film is unusual because it explores the unraveling of a female friendship, and how without that friendship, Frances is able to evolve into her own person.

In the last season of Girls, half of the women are no longer speaking to each other. In a bathroom scene where all four characters are gathered together, Shoshanna, the most optimistic character at the start of the series, has morphed into a jaded surgeon, dissecting the reality about her friendships with these women. It’s over. There’s no saving it. She tells them that no, they can’t hang out together anymore, and then after a deep breath, gives the friendship a time of death. “I think we should all just agree to call it,” she says. “Okay?” No one disagrees.

In 2015, Diana Gettinger took the idea of a friendship cutoff to the next level with her web series “Ex-Best.” Gettinger told Vogue that she made a card for writer Monica Hewes, her real life friend who also plays her ex-friend on the show that read: “If we’re still talking at the end of this, just know that I really love you and I’m really excited to be on this journey.” I felt glad to read this only because it means that Gettinger not only understands the friendship breakup, but that a friendship is messy—that there are risks involved and in taking on a role about the demise of a friendship could risk their own real-life friendship. I can’t help but focus on this part of her statement, “If we’re still talking,” because, after all, talking is the key word here. It makes me root for them—though I have to tell you, anytime real life friends or lovers decide to film a breakup story (see Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in By the Sea, for example), you are running a high risk of demise. Too many lights shine in all of the wrong places. There are too many scars and words that shouldn’t have been said. It’s like couples therapy; sometimes you should opt not to go.

The pain of a lost friendship is familiar to all of us because we’ve all been through it. I’ve left out many other friendship cutoffs since my breakup with Olivia. And you know what? There were plenty of them prior to her as well. It doesn’t make me a serial friendship-ender—some of my friends have been in my life since kindergarten—it just means that it’s incredibly common for women of all ages.

Look at Paltrow and Ryder. After their cutoff, Paltrow went on to have another public breakup with Madonna. (Side note: Can you even imagine being friends with Madonna? It must involve being, first, completely enamored of her, and then next, having to listen to her talk about herself nonstop for the rest of your life.) Paltrow’s next best friend, according to Paltrow herself, was Beyoncé. Paltrow made sure to name-drop that friendship over and over and over, but they haven’t been photographed together for years. I’m just saying.

Female friendship, however necessary it is in our lives, and for all the joy it brings us, for all its love and support and kindness and generosity, can be a real mindfuck when it ends.

*

About two years ago, I had an odd interaction with a friend of Olivia’s. It was a party in Los Angeles. I hadn’t seen the woman in a long time, around twenty years; our only connection had been Olivia.

“I have to tell you something,” she said, pulling me aside to talk. “Olivia felt really hurt, devastated, by the end of your friendship. She never knew why you stopped being friends.”

“How could she not know why we stopped being friends?” I said, shocked. “Olivia said to me, ‘We don’t have to speak every day.’ Then she never called me again.”

But was this really what happened? Olivia put the breaks on the intensity of our friendship, but wasn’t I was the one who pulled the “you are dead to me” card? Wasn’t I the one who decided that the friendship was over because she wasn’t interested in a daily rundown of my “troubles talk?” Didn’t I determine that once the extremely good-looking guy was over me, Olivia followed in his path? Is it possible that Olivia tried to contact me after that conversation? Maybe there was a phone call. Maybe there was a voicemail. And maybe I chose not to call her back.

I flipped through the friendship cutoff chapter in Tannen’s book to see what she had to say about this. And there it was, a declaration that seemed to vindicate Olivia and suddenly, implicate me: “Women who told me they had been cut off always said they’d been devastated… and almost always said they didn’t know why they had been cut off,” Tannen wrote. “But women who told me they had cut off a friend could always tell me why.”

I knew exactly when the friendship ended.

Olivia, so I was told, did not.

For so many years, I held on to this friendship cutoff story as a turning point in my life. Olivia was the quintessential heartless friend. The kind of girl who unloads you. In the middle of a breakdown! I was the victim—wasn’t I? I was most definitely the victim of a callous comment. But when I looked back on it, it seemed that I was the one who cut her out.

Friendship, like romantic love, wrote Tannen (with inspiration from philosopher Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet) is “for your growth” but also “for your pruning.” Olivia, it appears to have been, in Tannen’s words, “for my pruning.” And the loss of that friendship created some space, or growth, as Tannen would say, to stay in touch with two other women—Sara and Beth—from the overseas program. Sara and Beth both became therapists and, in short, wanted only to analyze and overanalyze and then reanalyze every single element of our lives. They’re two of the most thoughtful, empathetic, and caring people I know. In the twenty-five years I’ve been friends with both women, they’ve never once told me to call less.

We don’t get to absolve ourselves from the lingering pain of female friendships. We don’t get to remove ourselves from it because it is who we are; it’s how we’re built. While I might never forget my friendship with Olivia—honestly, there were lovely times, and even after all those years, I still remember them fondly—the friendship, sadly, has become defined by our last conversation. You don’t have to call me every day.

I wish I had talked to her about it. I wish I had been able to strike up the courage and put my wounded pride aside and say to her, “That’s really hurtful. It blows me away how hurtful that is.” As Tannen hammers home in You’re the Only One I Can Tell, talk is the glue that holds women’s relationship together. The communication is all we have. It’s through language—even prickly, awkward language—that we can more deeply understand each other and make our friendships stronger. (Or learn that we need to let them go.) If talk is the glue that holds the relationship together, then without it, all we have left is the silence.

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Image credits: feature image, image 1, image 2, image 3, image 4.


Hayley Krischer is a writer who lives in New Jersey. She’s written for The New York Times, Lenny Letter, Marie Claire, The Village Voice and more. You can find her on Twitter at @hayleykrischer More from this author →