Kelsey Minnick, Ph.D.
How Friendships Between Women Create Unique Tensions... and Potential
"The greater the tension, the greater the potential."
Carl Jung said this, and I've often seen it used in conflict resolution spaces. But that's not the whole quote. He goes on to say, "Great energy springs from a correspondingly great tension between opposites."
For me, this extra bit of commentary changes the whole ethos of the statement! "Potential" is no longer about it's connotative form of "positive promise" but rather about capacity for reaction. And if I've learned anything in my time as a communication professional, it's that "reactivity" is not exactly the healthiest space of being.
Here's what I know: that "energy" Jung was referring to may be inevitable, but that doesn't always mean the energy is good. What happens when "the greater the potential" becomes "the greater the potential for disaster"? Tension can be both a gift and a burden, an opportunity and an obstacle. Tension - and the energy it produces - is inevitable; it's a reaction to opposites. From a communication standpoint, it's best that we know how to identify sources of tension in relationships so we can cultivate that potential, those reactions, that energy production... into something good.
Communication tensions are very real thing within interpersonal communication theory. We often hear them referred to under the umbrella of dialectical tensions. A dialectical tension is a contradiction - a discursive struggle - between two or more individuals at the relational level. It manifests through paradoxical traits or characteristics that can fuel competing desires.
Connection vs Autonomy: the competing desire to be both intrinsically attached on an emotional, physical, or mental level while also independent of reliance upon another for your emotional, physical, or mental needs. Transparency vs Privacy: the competing desire to both disclose and be disclosed to while also maintaining certain assumptions of privacy and wanting a lack of interference. Predictability vs Novelty: the competing desire for both comfort as it comes with understanding and routine while also craving spontaneous interaction. These are the common dialectical tensions that you see in most relationships, but how might communicative tension show up specifically in friendships between women?
The current series I'm doing on my social feeds focuses on this particular relationship and the unique factors that separate this platonic form of intimacy from other platonic communications. Women experience the world through a very specific lens of engagement thanks to centuries of systems that have catered our communication and interactive modalities to distinctions of gender; particularly, how certain genders operate and interact within the public and private spheres of awareness. Understanding modern, cultural roles for women can be attuned through a perusing of Western history, for sure, but how might women complicate and disrupt their own "assigned roles" when they engage in intimate forms of platonic connection with other women? What happens when relational development is allowed to operate outside of the policing eye of dichotomy? Truly, it must be known that women have opportunities to show up for one another in ways that are rare and profound thanks to the very institutions that, while relegating much of the "feminine" to the private sphere, simultaneously let platonic touch, confessional rhetoric, and habits of caring abide?
It is because of this very unique approach to understanding the heavy role that communication plays in fostering healthy, necessary feminine connection that I believe we must also make space to acknowledge the unique dialectical tensions that may arise by the very nature of this relationship. Like much of my own motivation to do a series on women friendship, I am fascinated by feminine modalities of connection and where/why they go awry.
"The greater the tension, the greater the potential." So what how does feminine connection fuel competing desire? What paradoxical energies do we see most often in friendships between women?
There are five communication tensions that I think should be addressed in all women friendships if that friendship wants to cultivate "reactions" that are proactive.
DISCLOSURE vs. GOSSIP
AVAILABILITY vs. ACCESSIBILITY
COLLABORATION vs. COMPETITION
MOTIVATION vs. COMPARISON
INTIMACY vs. BOUNDARIES
DISCLOSURE vs. GOSSIP
Disclosure is a crucial element in any relationship - it's one of the qualities that moves a connection from impersonal to interpersonal. We want our friends to come to us with their thoughts, their dreams, their worries, their fears and we want to feel as if we can share with them, in turn. And we also want the TEA! Women go to their feminine counterparts to discuss the ups and downs of their life, but also the ups and downs of other's lives that they're in relationship with. It's natural and often (contrary to cultural belief) benign (Robbins and Karan, 2019). In a study done in the Review of General Psychology from 2004, social scientists found that "Gossip in this broad sense plays a number of different roles in the maintenance of socially functional groups through time."
But even if the highest percentage of this "gossip" is benign, it is still necessary that disclosure and gossip aren't conflated because they serve different purposes. Too much of one versus the other can lead a relationship to either isolation (disclosure without context of group dynamics) or emptiness (gossip as a placeholder for personal responsibility). Social context - and how it affects each individual - is a unique fodder for gossip as a function for dyadic friendships that exist under the context of larger groups, but the element of disclosure is also necessary to keep the connection rooted in a dyadic commitment. Ask yourself how often your conversations come back to the health your relationship as opposed to the health of others? If you feel like your conversations often come back to larger dynamics involving group engagement, try reframing your questions back to personal response (how did it make you feel when that happened?).
AVAILABILITY vs. ACCESSIBILITY
At first glance, many would assume these terms are synonymous... but their differences are key to understanding why many women feel a tension in their platonic relationships with other women when it comes to time and energy. So let's break this down:
Availability refers to how our time/energy is being used in relation to modality (a particular mode in which something exists or is experienced or expressed), while accessibility refers to how our time/energy is being used in relation to functionality (the quality of being suited to serve a purpose well). When our friends are "available," we can approach them with our time and energy and expect them to give of their time and energy, as well. But when our friends are "accessible," they are also utilizing that time and energy in a way that is efficient and contributes to the health of the relationship.
The truth is that we aren't always accessible when we are available, and that's normal. Availability - the willingness to just show up - is better than nothing; but only when there is an explicit understanding between individuals that availability may not equate to accessibility. Oftentimes, this comes back to a willingness on the part of both women involved to be transparent about their capacities. How can we ask for what we need from our friends in a more honest way (i.e. I know you said you're free tomorrow night but I really need a more intentional hang - can we skip the movie and do dinner instead?) and also letting ourselves be content with just being available (I've had a hard week, but I don't want to cancel our happy hour - do you mind if we just go for one drink so I can go home and reset?).
COLLABORATION vs. COMPETITION
Within interpersonal theory and conflict resolution practices, there is a certain approach to conflict management (how we manage our own responses to debilitative emotions and actions) that revolve around "concern" - in particular, a concern for self (assertive) and a concern for others (cooperative). When we experience a disagreement, an argument, or a difference in perception within our friendships with other women, we can default to a few options, each a particular combination of those concerns. When we have a lower concern for self and a lower concern for others, we tend to engage in "avoidance." When we have a lower concern for self and a higher concern for others, we tend to engage in "accommodation." For this particular dialectical tension, I want to focus on the differing approaches to conflict that can arise from a state of high concern for self: collaboration (higher concern for self, higher concern for others) or competition (higher concern for self, lower concern for others).
Notice I'm using terms "higher" and "lower" instead of "high" and "low" because these orientations are constantly in fluctuation - there is no official standard for how we hold space and esteem for self in relation to others. It's this fluctuation, particularly , that allows us to break away from our ideas that competition is always a bad thing. Like with any tension, we are looking at how these competing desires need to find balance.
Collaboration and competition can blur when the concern for others (in this case, the friend with whom you are in conflict with) slides along the axis to varying degrees. This usually isn't because you don't care for the individual; rather, this often comes back to the weight and rigidity of your boundaries around the difference in perspective. Collaboration asks that the level of communicative tolerance be high - high enough to potentially bend or sway your own perspective. Competition is focused on creating a harder boundary, which can be necessary for the survival of your emotional, mental, and physical health. It all comes back to context and the motivation for where your concern lies. Collaborative communication takes time and process for understanding motivation and holds space for tolerance. Competitive communication challenges and teaches new boundaries.
MOTIVATION vs. COMPARISON
Do you ever contemplate the role your friends play in your own personal growth (and vice versa)? Our propensity for "betterment" (whatever that may mean) is usually propelled by our environment, a big part of this being our reference groups. In sociology, a reference group is any demographic or group to which an individual would compare themselves; often, these reference groups align along very specific identity markers. Cis-women will usually have reference groups of other cis-women, and you'll see the groups become even more specific along the lines of age, sexual orientation, race, social class, etc. Comparison becomes a huge aspect of our self-concept (how we describe and evaluate ourselves) along with basic biological traits (personality) and reflected appraisal (behavior modification based on feedback).
Comparison is natural, but within the context of friendship there is opportunity for our reference groups to also become our motivation for personal growth or inspiration. The tension within this space is not about creating a dichotomy of "good/bad" between comparison and motivation, but understanding how each space of reference fuels a different communication dynamic and communication climate within the relationship. Comparison can lead to intrapersonal thoughts that fall under evaluative modes of esteem and behavior, which highlights difference and singularity. Motivation can lead to intrapersonal thoughts that fall under descriptive and future-oriented modes of esteem and behavior, which can highlight gifting and collaboration. BOTH are necessary for fully-developed introspection.
INTIMACY vs. BOUNDARIES
This last tension all-encompassing; it holds space for all of the communicative realms of negotiation and paradoxical feelings that could arise within platonic relationships. Platonic intimacy needs to be normalized (I wrote a whole rant about this previously) but our ability to verbalize and express our boundaries around that intimacy is a required addition to the dismissal of its taboo. In the realm of intimacy, a boundary is less like a "line in the sand" and more like a "fence with a gate." The gate can be open or closed, but the integrity of the fence isn't compromised with either decision.
Learning new realms of intimacy as they become available to us can cause us to restructure our boundaries: what once felt vulnerable now feels rejuvenating, what once felt inaccessible now feels within reach. It must be acknowledged, however, (especially in platonic relationships between women) that the restructuring of boundaries will look very different between individuals in regard to pace, intensity, breadth, and comfort. While many women have a cultural advantage for access to deeper forms of platonic intimacy, there is still a lot of unlearning to do around the roles that women play in each others lives and what guards need (or need not) be in place. Making sure that you communicate openly with your girlfriends and other women you are in relationship with about how your needs for intimacy may be similar or different from their own can create a better interpersonal approach to relational boundaries.