If I had to put money on the table next to what I thought was a primary barrier to women building new friendships, I'd put it next to a mistaken view of what mutuality means. Sure, lack of time will be listed as a more common excuse, but when a woman decides to be more proactive about fostering healthy friendships around her, the fear of unequal give-and-take can stall many budding friendships before they have a chance to get started.
Our Fear of Unequal Give-and-Take
We use language like "the ball is in her court" and "I don't want to impose" and "I invited her last time so this time I'll wait to see if she reciprocates." We justify our wait-and-see approach by reminding ourselves that we sent the last email or initiated the most recent plans, and we conclude that we're always the ones doing the inviting. Not this time, we say. This time it's her turn.
While we may not call it a fear of rejection, we are in part acting out of that fear. We don't want to come across as desperate. We don't want to feel like we're putting ourselves out there all the time, unsure if it's wanted. We've been told we don't need to put up with any behavior that isn't perfectly mutual. We want to feel like they like us too. We want to feel wanted. We definitely don't want to be the ones who give more than we receive again. So we protect our egos and wait her out.
In the meantime, our budding relationship never gets momentum so it never really happens. And we're left complaining that no one out there seems to be interested in a mutual friendship.
Our Misunderstanding of Mutuality
On Friday evening I was sitting in a room with two friends. Both lean toward introversion when it comes to interacting with people. (Which means they have amazing people skills but being around people can cost them more energy than it gives them.) I was basking in the glow of how intimate those relationships felt, both of them so able to engage in deep, beautiful, meaningful conversations. Their questions were thoughtful, their intuition spot on, and their love so genuine.
But if it had been up to either of them to get the three of us together it wasn't likely to have happened. I initiated.
As I had the week before.
And as I had the week prior to that.
The truth is that there are just many, many people out there who have so much to offer a friendship-- but initiating and scheduling may not be their forte. That doesn't mean they don't love us or want to be with us. And it certainly doesn't mean they don't have other meaningful ways to give to us. It just means they aren't going to assertively send out the invitation. Or if they do, it won't be as frequently as it might be for some of the rest of us.
This is not limited to introverts. Take any self-awareness inventory and there are always types of people where scheduling and initiating will not come naturally for them. I've been studying the Enneagram which has nine types of people, and three of the types are withdrawing types, which means they tend to step back or retreat when there is stress (which any new situation can cause.) So that's at least a third of our potential friends who won't be out there trying to schedule time with us.
Even beyond personalities and types, we know that we all have different love languages. Someone with the love language of quality time might tend to be more aware of reaching out with invitations than someone with the love language of gift giving.
Just add stress and busy-ness to any of our lives (even those of us who are extroverts, schedulers, and assertive types) and we may not reciprocate in the way you want, when you want. But that also doesn't mean we wouldn't make great friends who will give to you in other ways!
What Does Mutual Really Mean?
As I sat there Friday evening thinking how lucky anyone would be to have these two individuals in their lives, it occurred to me how few people will get that opportunity if they only build a friendship with someone else who reaches out an equal amount.
Mutuality cannot be confined to 50/50 scheduling. Equality doesn't mean sameness. Being in a give-and-take relationship doesn't mean we give-and-take in the same ways.
For those of us who live with someone-- we know that having someone else divvy up the household chores doesn't mean we each vacuum half the room and cook half the meal. It means I tend to track our finances and he tends to make sure dishes don't pile up in the sink. Balance doesn't mean we split up every chore, but that we both contribute to the overall picture.
Somehow, in friendship, we have elevated the scheduling and initiating "chore" to becoming the litmus test for an equal friendship.
What we risk if we wait for equal initiations is missing the gift that introverts or non-initiators can bring to our lives. And we risk feeling rejected if we wrongly attach that meaning to their lack of initiation. And worst of all, we're still left without the friendships that we crave because we just sat and waited, allowing the momentum to falter.
Give. Give. Give.
I am all for balanced friendships. I don't want you to feel used. I want you to be in a relationship that feels mutual.
But if you are a GirlFriend who is good at initiating-- then do it. Generously. Invite her five times in a row. Be the one who is okay calling to start the conversation. Give where you're best, knowing you will be blessed by how she gives to you in different ways. And know how lucky you are that you have the ability to give in a way that starts friendships!
And if you recognize that you're someone who struggles to initiate-- then at least be sure to tell your friends/potential friends how much you appreciate it when they do. Express your gratitude, lest they ever feel that you're not interested. Tell them what it means to you that they keep calling. Recognize that this gift they give is a necessary ingredient in the building of a friendship.
What we need is a little less judgment of each other and a little more hopeful curiosity to discover and appreciate who the other person is.
I blogged on the perceived imbalance in give-and-take friendships for a two-part series for the Huffington Post: In Friendship, Do You Give More than You Receive? and Six Ways to Bring Balance to Your Relationships if you're interested in more reading on this subject.