I'm reminded of my friends Cynthia and Elinor, whose bitter falling-out sent shock waves through our entire circle of friends. These two women had been close since college, having settled in the same midwestern city, and their blend of intimacy and rivalry seemed to work for them. When Cynthia went into business for herself as a marketing consultant, it was largely Elinor's mixture of support and prodding that had gotten her to take the leap. A few years later, Elinor began thinking of setting up her own consultancy -- and Cynthia was there to challenge and encourage her. For nearly two decades it seemed that their friendly competition was actually good for them both, spurring each woman on to new achievements even as she continually measured her accomplishments against those of her friend.
Then Cynthia got engaged. Both women had had brief, unhappy first marriages and a long stretch of relatively satisfactory dating, but when Cynthia found her new love, Elinor was going through a dry spell, feeling lonely and unappreciated. The lack of male attention was particularly hard on Elinor, a stylish, exuberant woman who was known for taking center stage at any party.
Although Elinor herself didn't particularly want to get married, she had a hard time watching Cynthia snag what society still considers a woman's ultimate prize. And when she learned that her wedding invitation was for one only, she was outraged.
"How can she expect me to show up at her wedding without a date?" she fumed to any of us who would listen. "All of her other friends are married. There won't even be anyone there for me to dance with! It's her big day, sure -- but does she have to rub it in that I'm alone?"
Cynthia, for her part, was deeply wounded that Elinor seemed more interested in her lack of dance partners than in Cynthia's wedding. "I've waited so long to find someone, and now that I have, she can't even be happy for me," she'd say tearfully to me and our other friends. "Can't she ever think of anyone besides herself?"
Eventually, Elinor confronted Cynthia in an angry conversation that left both of them hurt and upset. By mutual agreement, Elinor stayed away from the wedding, and the twenty-year friendship ended. When I thought of how much the two women had meant to each other and how intensely each of them had approached this final encounter, I was shaken by the idea that female rivalry could run so deep. What had seemed a friendly and useful competition had turned into a painful contest.
It wasn't only my friends who suffered from female rivalry. I remember when I was just sixteen years old, during spring vacation, being whisked off to an early lunch by my best friend's brother, only to discover, to my astonishment and hurt, that she was expecting some college boys to drop by and didn't want me there to compete with her. When I started college at Sarah Lawrence, I soon noticed that while some of my classmates were indeed true friends, others seemed to resent that I had a boyfriend. It didn't help that Sarah Lawrence, a former girls' school, included very few straight men among its student body -- an early lesson in how competing for items in short supply often brings out the worst in women.