Why do I need friends who aren’t like me?

While I was in treatment for an eating disorder, my nutritionist urged me to attend a support group for women with anorexia and bulimia. Reluctantly, I went. Once.

Though the other women were in various stages of recovery, most seemed to be stable. They

  • shared their feelings and conflicts over food,
  • compared notes on how well they were doing with the doctor or nutritionist-designed diet program
  • talked about how this affected their relationships with their children or husbands or other family members.

The leader kept the discussion on track so no one played comparison games of “I’m a ‘better’ anorexic than you are!” All in all, a good group.

But I walked away depressed. I could relate to their struggles, but I had this eery feeling that staying with this group would be unhealthy for me. For me to truly recover, I needed to be around people who didn’t have eating disorders. I needed friends who had healthy eating habits, who didn’t obsess over gaining a pound, who didn’t blink an eye at eating an ice cream cone.

I needed friends who weren’t like me.

A while back, a friend told me this story. Her friend Caroline (not her real name) attended a ladies’ brunch at her church. During the brunch, she attempted to converse with the other women at her table. Every woman there was married and had children and grandchildren. That is, everyone except Caroline.

Caroline is forty-something, never married, no children; obviously, she didn’t have that particular thing in common with them. No matter. She tried to talk to them anyway. She wasn’t terribly uncomfortable with the endless sagas of their grandchildren, photographs of the sweet darlings, or the laments that “they grow up so fast” or complaints about their husbands.

But each time a woman introduced herself, she asked Caroline, “Do you have children? Are you married?” When she said ‘no’, the conversation flagged. It was as though they were baffled by what to talk about with a childless, single woman. Caroline told my friend,

“They seemed more uncomfortable by my presence than I was with them.”

My friend wondered aloud to me, “Don’t they remember what it’s like to be single?”

Actually, probably not. I imagine that many of these women are like me: married young (22 in my case), didn’t work outside the home for long (if at all), and grew busy with their children. None of these things are bad; neither is marrying late (or not at all), having a career or never having children.

What’s pathetic is that these women didn’t know what to talk about with someone who didn’t share their life circumstances.

For years, their time had been focused entirely on their kids and husbands and friends who also focused on kids and husbands, until finally, they no longer knew anyone who wasn’t a wife and mother. So when Caroline popped up at their ladies’ brunch, they scratched their heads over what to say to her.

I have to admit, I felt superior to “those women”. I was pregnant with my first child and I privately vowed that I would never, ever, let myself become so baby-brained until I couldn’t talk about non-mommy topics. I would continue to passionately discuss Melville and his obsession with cannibalism, Derrida and the “presence of absence”, and participate in enthralling conversations about impressionist painters, gender theory and the history of the Julio-Claudian dynasty in the Roman empire.

Ah, yes, I would never be one of “those women”. It was beneath me.

Sigh. Pride goeth before a fall. . . .

Several years later, I was talking to a fellow gym member. She had always been friendly, ooh-ed and aww-ed over my little girl, and admired my buff biceps. (Glad to know all that weightlifting paid off!) As we waited for the gym to open, I asked her the first question that came to mind.

“Do you have children?”

She shook her head. “No.”

Suddenly, my tongue tied itself into a Gordian knot. What do I say now? I managed to continue the conversation—I think I asked about her job—but my mind just couldn’t figure out how to talk to her. She was Korean, didn’t speak English fluently, didn’t have a husband or child. We seemed to have little in common.

Later, I kicked myself.

  •  Why didn’t I ask about her hobbies?
  • Or how her workouts were going?
  • Or any one of the thousands of other topics available for discussion?

Ideas for conversation floated around in the atmosphere, just out of my reach, and at that moment, I seemed to have a better chance of flying in the clouds than making small talk. Pathetic.

I realized I had become a baby-brained, overly mommy-ized version of myself. The old, pre-motherhood Laura might’ve had difficulties, too; at the time, I didn’t have much experience with non-native English speakers. But this Laura taught English as a second language and had Korean students, so the language barrier wasn’t the root of the problem. I understood her accent.

The problem was that I didn’t have any friends who were different from me. I had let myself become consumed with motherhood and marriage until I couldn’t remember my prior life.  I wanted my friends to look like me, think like me, act like me, and have lives like mine.

Notice a common denominator here? Me.

It’s natural to gravitate toward those who are like us, and we need those people.

But limiting our friendships—intentionally or not—to this circle is not good. It’s like being in a support group; I need to know that there are others who struggle with child discipline, their body image or hectic schedules. But I can’t make my support group be the only source of friendships. I’ll never grow that way.

Q4U: Have you ever stepped out of your comfort zone to make a friend who is “different” from you? What would you say to those (like me) who hesitate to do this?

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6 thoughts on “Why do I need friends who aren’t like me?

  1. It’s hard to make friends with people who have little or nothing in common with you. I mean, you can talk to them, sure, but at some point the conversation flags, just like you said.

    Stop. Rewind.

    Do they REALLY have nothing in common with you? THIS is where you step out of your comfort zone, because the world isn’t THAT big – everybody has something in common. The trick is finding out what, and not giving up when you wade through a lot of un-common things you have… ; )

    Also, why does it matter if you don’t have things in common? As long as it isn’t a difference so fundamental that it REALLY offends you, all it does is make conversations more interesting. You have children and they don’t? Tell them a story about something your kids did and ask how they, as a non-parental type, would have reacted. If talking about your children makes them uncomfortable, well, pick a different topic. We’re writers. We LIVE to find weird and wonderful topics.

    As to being offended by something… if that’s your first reaction, you should definately stop and think. Is it really that fundamental? Can you reason it out? Maybe talking to an ‘opponent’ on a topic will help both of you find out what you truly think?

    And on that note, I’ll stop talking…sorry went on for a bit long…

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    1. “Everybody has something in common.” That’s a great thought, Tessa. After all, we are ALL humans, we all face struggles and have joys and heartaches, so it shouldn’t be difficult to find something to talk about!

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      1. Exactly! It’s not so much a question of whether you have anything in common – because you do – but rather a question of whether you’re willing to recongnize it.

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  2. Great blog! I agree completely. Even with things that are fundamental, it is important to talk to people, be open to people, and build relationships with people who do not believe all of the same things. They may not be your closest confidants, but the idea that we should spend all of our time only with those believing exactly as we do is problematic. And as one of those women who is not married and has no children by an age when many, if not most, of my peers are mothers, I appreciate your effort to get out of the mommy bubble and value others for who and where they are! If we all thought about our circle of friends and our willingness to reach out to people in the way you have described, it would benefit all of us.

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    1. Ashley- Part of why I thought to write this post was my memories of being the “non-mommy” in certain groups, and how I often felt left out. Now I’m a mama and I worry about becoming too “mommy-minded”! Ironic.

      You are right: it’s important to talk to people who don’t share even our fundamental, basic views. It can’t hurt to just listen to someone else’s viewpoint! And being a good listener usually makes the other person more willing to listen to my words.

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