It was the early 1970s and my mother, Jackie Pratt, was a community college student dating a smooth brother with a red convertible Cadillac. "I thought I was all that," my mother recalls. That is, until Ma introduced her new super-fly man to her best friend, Madeline Oden, who was immediately suspicious. "I told her he was too fast for her," Madeline says.
My mother never thought Madeline could be jealous of her man, and she decided to continue dating the guy despite her warning. But their next date would be their last. "One night, he introduced me to his, uh, whores," Ma says, chuckling at her past naivete. "Um-hmm," Madeline says with a slight "I told you so," edge to her voice. "He thought she was going to be another one of his 'women of the night.'"
Madeline had my mother's back. Another major reason my mother and Madeline have remained friends since before their college days, she says, is because they were never jealous of each other. However, if a recent ESSENCE.com poll represents reality, the type of friendship they share may be a rarity.
When asked, "Do you get along better with your guy friends or women friends," the majority -- 57.7 percent -- of ESSENCE.com visitors said they get along better with guy friends. In addition, 33.6 percent said they get along with both men and women, while just 8.7 percent said they get along better with their girlfriends.
Why ladies prefer gentleman friends
Experts and other sisters agree with my mother and Madeline: An unspoken competition between many women (fueled by jealousy) often undermines our friendships. Bernadette, a 27-year-old teacher, and my favorite girlfriend, probably has as many male friends as girlfriends. But because she's been scarred by her best friend, she sides with the majority of the survey respondents.
"Diane* thought I wanted this guy who was giving her money and stuff," Bernadette says. "He liked me, but I would never talk to a guy if I knew she even used to like him in kindergarten." Nevertheless, Diane accused Bernadette of flirting with the guy. Bernadette denied it and a bitter argument ensued, bruising their 14-year friendship. "She didn't even like the guy, so it was probably a competition thing on her part, but not on mine. I was really hurt," Bernadette says. Since then, Bernadette says she trusts her male friends more. "There's no competition ... they aren't as judgmental as females," she notes.
"I think the question hits on the trust factor," says Darryl Mobley, publisher of Family Digest, a quarterly magazine about Black family issues (familydigest.com). "Women trust a guy to tell her what he really thinks because he is not competing with her."
A generation gap
Dr. Joyce Morley-Ball, a marriage and family therapist who co-hosts a call-in show on Atlanta's V-103 radio station every Sunday night, thinks the ESSENCE.com survey results reflect today's younger women.
She says that several factors keep us at odds with our female friends, or prevent us from forming healthy friendships with each other. For one, we relocate more often than previous generations, making it more difficult to make friends. Add that to the fact that we don't have frequent fellowship with our neighbors like our parents and their parents did. Most importantly, she said, as African Americans climb the social ladder, competition for the small pool of college-educated, professional men worsens among women.
She adds that younger women, who are more likely to have been raised without a father in the home, get along better with male friends because those relationships teach them how to understand the other men in their lives. When young women "fall out" with those male friends, however, it hurts less than when they fight with girlfriends, Morley-Ball says.
Building female friendships
But once we detach our sense of womanhood or self-esteem from our looks, wealth and status, jealousy will diminish and our friendship bonds will strengthen, experts assert. How do we do that? "It starts with the mother-daughter relationship," Morley-Ball says. "And we need to form groups with older women mentoring, modeling, teaching and talking," she adds.
"If we had better relationships with each other, we could be more powerful," Morley-Ball says of Black women. "But we have to talk about it." By talking about our relationships in support groups or book clubs we can begin to see other women as allies instead of as potential enemies. That dialogue can go a long way toward creating friendships -- both male and female -- that last a lifetime.
*Name has been changed