When Friendships Stray: Unhealthy relationships among women
“How did this happen?” asked the woman sitting across from me in my office.
“Our relationship started out as one of the best friendships I’ve ever had. I feel like I have waited for years to have a close friend, someone who lights up when she sees me. I guess she got tired of me because now she won’t even talk to me. I feel like someone has punched me in the stomach. I wake every morning and wonder if she will ever call me again.”
Another woman spoke with me on the phone and said, “Neither of us has ever been involved with another woman before. In fact, I’ve never had sexual feelings for women, but somehow we’ve gotten physically involved with each other. I know this is wrong, but I don’t know how to salvage our relationship. I’m afraid you will tell me I need to give her up. Is there any way to fix our relationship and still be friends?”
A third woman asked me, “Is it normal to want to be with one friend all the time? My husband works long hours and he isn’t around much. My friend is available, and she understands how I feel… even before I tell her. I think we are too close though; my husband seems jealous of her. He thinks we’re too dependent on one another.”
“My last female friend and I became so enmeshed that I couldn’t make decisions without talking it over with her first. When she moved away, I thought it would kill me,” said another woman. “Our relationship was unbalanced, but I couldn’t see it until we were apart. How do you know when your friendship is too close in an unhealthy way?”
These are questions often asked by women who are questioning the health of their friendships. In addition, women who have turned away from a homosexual life often express concern about becoming involved with women in an unhealthy way. They want to know how to develop new friendships that will reflect their growth and refusal to connect with others improperly. In this article, we will explore why and how friendships go wrong and how to repair the damage between women who have an unhealthy relationship.
Designed with his image
Women are relational beings. It is a fact that few would argue. Even our play from childhood reflects how we feel about relationships. It has been said that little boys play “side by side” while little girls play “face to face.” I see the truth of this desire for relationship as I watch my daughters and their friends play. Tears and frustrations surface often for them. If one feels left out or ignored by someone they want to be connected to, they react strongly. While these eruptions in their friendships eventually calm down and they return to playing and enjoying one another, their passion for wanting to be loved and included remains very important to them.
God has built within us all a desire to connect. God himself experiences ongoing intimacy within the Trinity. In turn, he has fashioned us to experience some of the connection he enjoys by giving us other humans to know and love. These friendships enrich our lives, giving meaning and purpose in ways that living in isolation will not.
Sometimes, however, we take the beauty of friendship with another human and expect it to fill us in ways only God is meant to do. When does friendship enhance life properly and when does it become unbalanced? Let’s look briefly at how unhealthy relationships develop for some women.
The desire for connection gone wrong
1. An unhealthy relationship starts with relational disappointment carried over from childhood.
None of us had the perfect parents. None of us will parent perfectly. All of us have scars and wounds left over from the effects of interacting with parents, siblings, extended family, teachers, and other figures we thought should love us, but frequently failed to do so well. All too often these relationships included sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of the worst kind. Some women grow up and find a way to integrate their past and move on to live life with a balanced understanding for relationship in their lives. Still other women reach adulthood vigilantly searching for the significant figure that will love them in some fashion so as to erase the memory of the pain they have endured.
No woman vows this consciously, saying in her heart, “Since my trust has been betrayed in my childhood relationships, I will look for and find someone to fix this hole in my heart.” However, we all, by trial and error, find what works for a season to fill us relationally. Our self-focused goal is primarily to minimize discomfort and maximize the experience of acceptance and love. If our lives are motivated by avoiding abandonment or looking for acceptance and approval, we relate in ways that flow from an empty heart mainly concerned with itself, not with God or others. Once we engage in a relationship that we think will satisfy us continually, we begin to find ways to manage the relationship so that we don’t experience the sting of loneliness again.
2. An unhealthy relationship continues for the purpose of satisfying a nagging sense of emptiness.
As some women search for someone to love them unfailingly they often attach themselves to another woman who appears to offer the nurturing they long for. Like “hand in glove,” these relational dynamics seem to fit—temporarily.
For example, there are some women whose stories compel them to be the “rescuer”; for others, their stories compel them to be the “rescuee.” When these relationship designs match, an intense connection can begin to fill up a hole in each that gives a temporary sense of satisfaction. However, requiring another person to “fix” our empty broken hearts is a tall order and can quickly become a burden. Such was the case of Anna (fictitious name) who called my office for help.
Alone and rejected from a failed seven-year marriage, she poured her heart out in a women’s prayer meeting at her church. Her vulnerability touched something deep in Carol (name has been changed), and she invited Anna out for coffee. As Anna talked about her life, Carol felt herself drawn towards Anna’s pain and sorrow. Carol knew all too well the pain of divorce, having experienced it just four years prior herself. Carol also felt a familiar pull to take care of Anna, but she had always thought it was a sign of compassion for others.
Carol kept checking on Anna over the next few days and surprised her with a homemade dinner for her and her kids. It felt so good to have someone help with the household chores. Another adult pair of hands lightened her load, so Anna gratefully received the help offered. Anna also enjoyed the companionship of another woman who seemed to understand what she felt. Within weeks, it seemed, Anna and Carol were inseparable, and Anna’s children began to think of Carol as a permanent appendage to their mom.
Carol also enjoyed a burst of zeal for this new friendship. Anna’s children played a unique role in her life since she was childless herself. It felt so good to lighten the burden of her friend, and she thought often of ways to brighten her day. It was not unusual for Carol to invent reasons to either see Anna or at least talk to her daily.
Eventually, though, the children grew to hate the talks between the women that often robbed them of their mom’s attention. They grew tired of Carol’s presence and resented going everywhere with their mom’s friend. Because Anna felt the children’s remarks were ungrateful and demanding, she dismissed their complaints to the notion that they expected to always have their mom all to themselves. She found herself frequently defending her relationship with Carol to her own children.
It wasn’t unusual for the women to hug when they saw each other, but late one night after a particularly long, intense talk, their hug seemed to last too long. That hug stirred something in Anna that kept her up all night wondering what was happening to their relationship. She felt something was wrong, but wasn’t sure what. Hugging Carol seemed inappropriate, but what could be wrong with a hug? She finally decided it was best to put some distance in their relationship until she could sort out what was bothering her.
The next morning, the two women talked about how close they were becoming. It surprised Carol when Anna suggested that they might need to include others in their relationship or spread out how often they saw each other. Fearing Anna might be forsaking the relationship, Carol became upset and moped through the rest of their breakfast. The sulking made Anna realize that to pull away would result in disapproval and resistance from Carol. Not wanting to disappoint the woman who had done so much for her, Anna scrambled to reassure Carol that everything would be fine. But Anna began to feel fearful that her friendship may not be so healthy after all.
3. Unhealthy relationships remain exclusive, unusually intense, and resist attempts to manage the frequency or intensity of the relationship.
As we saw in Anna and Carol’s relationship, friendships that are earmarked over “matching” pasts often sprout up over short periods of time and become intensely intimate. These friendships can be like a seed that finds soil in the cracks of pavement and germinates, sometimes even blooming flowers. But the roots of these tiny plants can’t grow deep, and the plant itself is not in the right place.
So it is with unhealthy friendships. Perhaps the friendship started out well, but the intensity and exclusivity of the relationship has resulted in strong feelings of protective loyalty and impenetrable cohesiveness. As a result, it is often very difficult to objectively evaluate the dynamics of the relationship.
Sometimes when the intensity builds, a desire grows to express the closeness and intimacy being enjoyed—in a physical way. When this happens and appropriate boundaries are crossed, the friendship can become sexualized. No one is more shocked and confused when these sexual feelings begin than women who have never thought of themselves as homosexual in orientation. The process of sorting out a relationship that is unhealthy is difficult and often painful, but it can be done.
Hope for healthy relationships: steps to freedom
When involved in a friendship that has turned into something unhealthy, you may wonder if you can ever break free. If you have a history of these kinds of friendships, you may even question if you are fatally flawed and are destined to forever develop unhealthy relationships with women. You may have even determined to keep everyone at arm’s length from your heart, erroneously thinking this will keep yourself and others “safe.”
However confused you may be about your ability to relate in healthy ways, God’s promise to forgive and make you new reaches the deepest of relational problems. We often don’t turn to God for help until our relationships make us miserable or fall apart. Such was the pattern for the nation of Israel.
In the book of Isaiah, we find God using his prophet Isaiah to caution Israel from trusting the strength of their foreign neighbors’ armies to rescue them. In chapters 30 and 31, Isaiah warns them not to depend on alliances with Egypt or to trust in their swift horses and chariots. He wants them to turn their wandering hearts back to him as their God. His plan is to protect them and deliver them on his terms. Israel experienced disappointment, misery, and literal torment when they disobeyed God. Similarly, unhealthy alliances with other women often result in some type of agony, as we see from the examples of real conversations I have recorded at the beginning of this article.
Finally, God speaks to Israel through his servant Isaiah again in 50:10-11 about the consequences of finding solace in anyone other than him.
“Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the voice of his servant?
Let him who walks in darkness
and has no light
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on his God.
Behold, all you who kindle a fire
who equip yourselves with burning torches!
Walk by the light of your fire
and by the torches you have kindled!
This you have from my hand:
you shall lie down in torment.” (ESV)
Like Israel, his love for us is demonstrated in how he will not permit us to depend more on his creatures than we depend on him. In fact, God will lovingly allow our worlds to collapse so we will experience the torment of our persistent pursuit of any torch we depend on to light our path and find our way in this dark world. He knows our hearts will build an idol out of anything, and he will keep exposing the inability of our idols to save or satisfy our hearts built for him. However, he never intends us to live a lonely, unattached life.
Admitting the truth
Facing the truth that your friendship is not healthy for you or the woman with whom you are in relationship is a brave step towards freedom. It is crucial to find the time to be alone and to reflect on what has made this relationship unhealthy. Creating space to reflect, apart from this woman, allows you to think and feel for yourself without the complications of handling her thoughts and feelings. Developing your own sense of self is not only a good place to start, but is also foundational to building healthy relationships.
Also, facing our God-given design for companionship and connection is an important step to health. Nevertheless, only the bold can admit they want to be loved but may have gone to wrong sources to get it. Fundamentally, these kinds of relationships are taking a God-given longing and squeezing people to fit a hole in our hearts that only God can satisfy.
Inviting others to help you
The next step will be important. It is vital to name out loud to others the conclusions to which you have come about your relationship. It would be easy to get confused if you are isolated from others who could give you a much needed perspective. It is also easy to waver from your convictions if your decision is being challenged by the woman with whom you are involved. Mature and committed friends are necessary to help you disengage from the relationship in question.
Inviting a few women, perhaps from church or from a Bible study group, into your life will ensure accountability and give you objective evaluations about your relationships. If your relationship has crossed sexual lines, be sure to confess this to God and your support system. Crossing lines sexually doesn’t mean you are a worse sinner than most. It only means you must avail yourself of helpful support and accountability to continue walking the path of relational integrity. Exposing your relationship to mature women who will help you grow will put to death the desire to keep the relationship exclusive or “secret.”
The significance of grieving
Learning how to live as a separate woman apart from the woman with whom you had a relationship will be difficult at first, especially if you had daily phone contact or visits. There will likely be a time of loneliness and grieving as you begin to live your life without the influence and affection of someone who was so vital and important to you. This would be a good time for you to draw near to God, spending a significant amount of time talking and reflecting with him about what you are experiencing as you separate from the other woman.
As you grieve the loss of relationship, you might find yourself sorrowing over the damage you feel from the unhealthiness of your friendship. This kind of inventory is important for your growth as a new woman, open to new friendships. You may begin to see how being exclusive warped your openness to others and how you may have allowed this woman to be important to you in a way that inhibited your development as an individual. You may also see how your friendship may have damaged others who tried to offer you friendship, or how you may have used this person to escape pain or loneliness by the intensity of the relationship. This grieving is an important part of the process of repentance that, over time, will give you a new perspective and help you make the necessary changes to love others from a new heart.
Setting new boundaries
The next step is to develop and begin to practice certain relational limits in all your relationships for your own health and growth. As you reflect on how to set limits you can begin to identify some of the dynamics of unhealthy relating patterns. Asking God to help you uncover a relational agenda of trying to fill yourself inappropriately will be helpful as you begin this journey. Pay attention to what he shows you as you investigate what you want from others. Begin to talk openly with your support system about how to get these needs met safely and appropriately. Allow yourself to watch how other women relate to one another and begin to label what makes their friendships healthy. Ask the women in your support system to help you by offering you feedback when they sense you doing something that feels uncomfortable to them.
Some examples of relational sins may be how you always appear needy and dependent so that others feel pulled to take care of you. Perhaps your style is to always rise to the occasion of taking care of others, making them feel indebted and obligated while making yourself feel competent and superior. Maybe you relate to others by keeping the relationship intense all the time or being emotionally erratic in disruptive ways to manipulate or control the behavior of another. Asking a few trusted and mature friends to honestly tell you how they see you in relationships will be invaluable to your development as you learn how to keep personal boundaries.
Risking and choosing to love again
Finally, there is no fail-safe code to personal relationships. Even if you watch carefully and try your hardest, you can be sure you will slip up and find yourself looking for someone to fill your empty heart in a way that keeps you from needing God. Our hearts are endlessly creative in looking for some way to avoid needing a God who won’t be managed or behave predictably. The Israelites are an example of how easily we replace God with something or someone we think might do a better job of satisfying our hearts.
No sooner had the Israelites experienced a miraculous exodus from the slavery of Egypt and a miraculous rescue from their enemies, than they became restless. When their tangible leader, Moses, disappeared from their sight while camped on the foothills of Mt. Sinai, they begged Aaron to fashion a god for them that they could see, touch, and ultimately control. One thing led to another, and they soon found themselves rationalizing their “needs” so they could indulge in immorality.
You would think they would have already learned their lesson to depend on God alone, but they had to learn this important lesson again. While traveling in the wilderness, they tried to save enough manna to free themselves from the trouble of going out the next day and dependently receiving from God the daily supply of food he provided. Imagine their surprise the next morning when, after sleeping in, they found maggots in their manna. God intended for the Israelites (and us!) to find him to be the “Living Bread.” His desire for Israel and for us is to remain dependent on his daily provision for our hearts and our souls, as well as our stomachs.
Part of learning this dependency is the practice of inviting God to reveal to us which idols he wants us to destroy with his help. It is not work for the faint of heart. A deep look at our sin must involve the necessary trip to the foot of the cross to be cleansed and made new. However, a woman who develops the habit of returning to her Creator again and again will find the cherishing she longs for as she hears her Father remind her of his Calvary love. In his presence, she will receive the courage to love others in new and healthy ways that will continually bless their life here on earth.
As women we can enjoy relationship as God intends. The experience of knowing another’s soul is a privilege that gives us a glimpse of the intimacy we were designed for, as well as point us to the eternal enjoyment of God and his people that awaits our souls. God will reward us with meaningful relationships with other believers as we daily invite him to fill us. Let us enjoy him by uniting our hearts with his. Then we can in turn offer the source of our satisfied hearts to others.