Monday, June 10, 2013

Book Review: MWF Seeking BFF

I just finished reading this book:

(MWF Seeking BFF, by Rachel Bertsche)

and I have major logorrhea about it. You can't read this book and then just say "hmm, ok, moving on." No. You think about the author and whether you could be friends with her. You think about all the times you've moved to a new place and how you made friends there. You analyze the way she went about making friends and whether you have done/would do the same. And then you are compelled to talk about this stuff with whoever will listen. Guess what? That means you (and Jeremy, but he's already heard all this).

As you can tell from the title, this is one of those year-long "project" books where the author does something for a year and then gets a book deal for his/her troubles. In this case, the project is the author trying to make new friends in a new city (Chicago). This 28-year-old, newly married woman wants someone - a BFF - she can call or text (or someone who will call or text her) saying, "what are we doing today?" or "pedicures in 30 minutes." So she goes on 52 "girl-dates" (plus one gay man-date) over the period of a year, each one with someone new who could turn out to be that BFF she wants so badly.

On the face of it, this is a problem we can all identify with, which might explain why this book was so effortlessly easy to read. It's not as short as you might think and yet I found myself happily reading along through all 350 pages - after I got past the first 10 pages, that is. I almost put it down a few times at the very beginning. Because you see, this woman is very, very different from me. It can hardly be overstated how different she is from me. Before I sat down to write this post I promised myself I wouldn't bring up the e- or i-words but I CANNOT HELP MYSELF. Rachel Bertsche is an extrovert in the extreme (in my opinion). As an introvert, reading this book was like unto watching a train wreck, in slow motion. I was horrified, and yet I could not look away. Just reading about all the effort the author put into seeking out, meeting, socializing with, and then following up with complete strangers almost gave me hives. The cooking classes, the improv classes, the yoga classes, the twice-a-day meetups, the drinks, the dinners, the constantly driving across town, the neverending BRUNCHES. It exhausted me. It was like a glimpse into my own personal hell. I could not have handled her regime for long.



And yet. Even as I recoiled at all the social interaction (which to her was energizing, but which to me would be draining at that level), I understood her motivations. She seems like a really great person and I don't doubt her need for non-spousal interaction. She backs up most of her feelings with statistics about how we are x% happier when we have x close friends, or how interaction with x friends x times a year is necessary to maintain friendships, or how it's so dangerous to be best friends with your husband. Some of her opinions (and a few statistics) I had to just ignore because I disagree with them strongly, particularly when she talked about what a relationship with a husband should be like. Here are three passages from the book on this topic:

"There are, of course, plenty of people - male and female - who tout the idea that 'my spouse is my best friend and the only one I need.' It's one of those romantic notions that has been perpetuated by our mothers and grandmothers and every movie in the Meg Ryan canon. It's a myth that has probably been responsible for thousands of unhappy marriages. Imagine the sense of failure a woman must feel when she enters into this covenant, expecting to be rewarded with a whole new level of bestfriendship, only to realize that her husband will never be her Callie or Sara. It's enough to make her feel far lonelier than when she was alone."

Disagree.

"A husband can fill many vital roles - protector, provider, lover - but he can't be a BFF. Matt is my most intimate companion and the love of my life,. But I can't complain about my husband to my husband. That's what friends are for."

Disagree.

"Confiding in your spouse: good. Confiding in no one but your spouse: bad. What if something happens to your hubby? Or if he's the very person you want to vent about? Then who do you turn to?"

Disagree.

The book is filled with moments like this that underscore how different the author and I are, or at least how different we are regarding friends and husbands. And that's ok. It's her book, after all.

Which brings me to the element of life experience. Like I said, this book will make you think about every time you've moved to a new place and had to start from scratch. In the author's probable opinion, extrapolating from things she said in this book, what Jeremy and I did - got married and moved to Russia for a year, far away from all friends and family - was a horrible idea. Except, I actually think it was one of the most valuable, formative years of my life and certainly of our marriage. The author seems to mourn the fact that things are different between you and your BFFs after marriage. But I guess I've never seen that as something that is necessarily negative.

I think also of when we moved to Damascus, Syria. My circle of friends there - specifically of female, English-speaking friends, to be comparable to what this book is about - consisted of one (1) girl who was in Jeremy's program (hi, Hannah!). She was busy studying so it's not like we chatted all the time, but if I ever, ever did find myself chatting, it was pretty much with her. And who knows if we would have been friends in the wide-open free world? I think we probably would have - I was very lucky that the one girl in Jeremy's program was someone who was so easy to get along with and who had interesting things to say - but there was me and there was her and we made the best of it. I never felt like I was wilting for lack of female companionship. And I realize that maybe (ok, almost definitely) that makes ME the weird one, not the author.

The author's struggles with making friends with people in different life stages was another interesting point. She is married but childless, and at first she shied away from making friends with women who have children. I get that - it can be weird sometimes. In many ways, children are the great equalizer. When you have them, you can be friends with almost anyone else who does. When you don't, it can be more of a challenge. This is one area where I am glad to be Mormon. Because of the way our church works, I no longer bat an eye at being real, genuine friends with, say, a much-older mom of teenagers, or a retired woman old enough to be my grandma, or a young woman pregnant with her first child. Mormonism is a great equalizer, too.

Now, having said all this, I got to thinking about this post I wrote a few years ago about what it felt like to be a stranger in a strange town (Tucson, Arizona) as a new mother with a perpetually absent PhD husband. I quote myself:

"I don't make friends easily and at times it seemed like everyone but me [in Tucson] had a group they belonged to, or family across town. I was socially awkward and always pregnant or nursing and my husband was largely AWOL due to his doctoral studies and I knew that if we could just make it out of Tucson together, as a family, then things would be better...I have only recently been able to think about some of those dark days and realize that it wasn't all bad, not by a long shot...Despite my social awkwardness, after a year or two I ended up making very good friends (God bless Janae and her Friday morning games group) who I miss very much."

This is the closest I come to personally understanding what the author was going through when she moved to Chicago. And so those were the feelings I drew upon to try to sympathize with her year of rabid friend-pursuit. So I'm not trying to say I'm immune to the perils of having no friends, but I think it's safe to say that I am content with having much fewer friends than the author.

There's more I could say about this book, particularly how the Brafmans' research cited by the author goes a long way toward explaining why it's easier for expats to make friends with other expats, and Mormons to make friends with other Mormons (and when you're Mormon AND an expat, well...), but I think I've said enough.

In conclusion, while I found that I am very different from the author, I appreciated this glimpse into life as a normal (? - extroverted, anyway) person. It made me more understanding of people I meet here who seem to be reaching out for some connection to people in the community, and I am more likely to respond to those people now that I know more about what it feels like to feel lonely. Just don't expect me to go out for lunches and drinks and brunches six days a week, mmkay?

16 comments:

Shannon said...

I also am a closet introvert. I have to think fast when people invite me to brunches and lunches and teas and coffees and "just come and spend the entire freaking day"s. They're good on occasion, but I just can't take more than one or two a week . . . or a month.

My husband is definitely, thankfully my BFF.

I've also been unsure of whether I should feel guilty of having mostly Mormon friends. I notice that my kids (esp. my most introverted one) have an easier time making friends with other LDS kids than with non-LDS kids, although I honestly go out of my way to encourage friendships with non-LDS kids. Commonalities go a long way when you feel far from home.

Amanda Ball said...

I felt the same way when I read it- I'm all for having friends, but no way could I ever put that much effort into it... my head would explode. And AMEN to the Friday-morning games group. I've tried to get something similar going a few times so as to recreate the magic, and I don't know if the women are different, or if we're just at different stages of our life, but I can't get it off the ground.

I do agree with the author a little about how you can't be besties with your spouse. I would say that Tyler is the best friend that I have, but there is no way he can absorb all the words that I have a compulsive need to say in a day. He doesn't respond to a story the same way a BFF woman would making telling him things slightly less satisfying than if I was talking to a BFF, and I find that if I don't have an outlet for all that talking I need to do, we both go a little nuts.

AmandaStretch said...

We actually had a lesson in RS yesterday about friendship and visiting teaching. Just from what I gathered yesterday, our president is an extrovert who loves connections and time with lots of people. She finds the concept of just one BFF really bizarre and closed off. Luckily, I am BFFs with my husband and I totally side with you on this issue. I do have a girlfriend or two I can chat with frequently (we'd hang out if we lived in the same place), but I really enjoy the company of my husband and actually have to remind myself to branch outside our relationship sometimes. If I read this book, I imagine I'd have a very similar reaction.

Ariana said...

I am a MAJOR introvert...if it wasn't for being active in the LDS church and immediately getting called to serve with people upon moving to a new area, I'm pretty sure I'd never have any friends. I couldn't handle the friend dating process. Working with and serving with other people really seems to help me. I find people who I get along with really well, and we end up hanging out outside of Church functions, and having a blast.

Liz Johnson said...

Hmm, I think I am going to need to read this. Because while I looooove getting together with people, the thought of setting up all of that up and seeking it out sounds horrible to me, too.

I agree that my spouse is definitely my BFF, but I have also found a yearning for a female BFF over these past few years - somebody who really GETS me and who is available during the day for me to talk to (freaking jobs). And then I had a super awesome BFF, and then she moved to California. Bah.

Susanne said...

"This is one area where I am glad to be Mormon. Because of the way our church works, I no longer bat an eye at being real, genuine friends with, say, a much-older mom of teenagers, or a retired woman old enough to be my grandma, or a young woman pregnant with her first child. Mormonism is a great equalizer, too."

What does being Mormon have to do with this? Why would anyone bat an eye if you were friends with older/younger women if you weren't Mormon? Not sure what this means. Please explain.

Hannah said...

Hi, Bridget! I've thought many times over the years how lucky I was in Damascus. Between you and my classmates, I felt that I had a great small group of English-speaking friends over there.

This book definitely looks like one I'll need to read. Like you, I'm an introvert. I don't think I could put forth the same amount of effort into finding friends that the author of this book did, but I think I could appreciate reading about her experience.

This is actually an issue I've thought about quite a lot lately. My husband is definitely my best friend and we spend a lot of our free time together. However, we just spent the better part of nine months living apart. He had a one-year visiting assistant professor position in another state. We decided it was best that I stay with my more steady government job as a sort of safety net for us.

For a variety of reasons, I never developed a very wide circle of friends in our current area. Out of the few friends I do have in the area, some of them were dealing with life circumstances that did not leave them with a lot of free time for hanging out. So I was left pondering issues like whether I should have made a more aggressive effort to make friends when we first moved to the area, whether it was realistic for me to start making such an effort at that time, and whether there was just something in my personality that made it difficult for me to make a lot of friends. Although I'm pretty good at keeping myself entertained, the experience did leave me wanting a local BFF aside from my husband.

Bridget said...

It's not that *other* people would bat an eye, but that *I* might, like the author did in the same situation. In our congregations, we are thrown together in close, long-lasting service positions with all kinds of people. So I might end up spending a few hours a week with someone who is at a completely different life stage than me (again, using the words of the author), who I might never have approached on my own as a friend, but who I actually enjoy being around and get along with quite well. I'm sure this kind of thing happens to people in all kinds of contexts, but the one it happens to me the most is at church.

Crys said...

SO I can't tell from this review whether this is a book worth reading or not. Does it come off feeling like she went through all the trouble just so she could get a book deal...because there are a lot of books out there like that and I get annoyed with how contrived they feel. Does she mock the people she is meeting up with? Do you start to wonder after awhile if the reason it takes her so long to find a friend is because she is the Taylor Swift of girl friendships (It's not them, it's her)? I happen to be one of those people who loves the friendship of other women. I think it is partially because I have three sisters and partially because I just always liked to hear other woman talk, and came from a strongly matriarchal family. When I was a child I would often sit with my mother, grandmother, and aunts and listen to them chew the fat rather then play with the younger cousins. As a result some of my favorite woman are still my family. Unfortunately I don't live anywhere near them, but I talk to my sisters on a weekly basis, and the one who is a SAHM almost daily. I also get along quite well with the woman in the family I married into and my husband will often complain that when we go home to visit his mom and I will ditch him with the kids and run errands all day because we just think it is fun to talk and catch up :) Like many people here most of my early friendships were church based and while I appreciate have an instant friend base in more recently years I have found that only having friends from church became stifling for me...and so in the last two years since our move to residency I have made purposeful attempts to broaden my friend base. The first thing I did was join a woman's group in the largest church in my area. It is sort of a super church, one of those ones that serves 5,000 a weekend. It was exceptional difficult at first but as I continued to go I met up with more and more people. Now I have friends in the neighborhood, friends from the gym, friends from the kids school, friends from church, and friends from my ladies group. I enjoy having different perspectives. I enjoy feeling like I have a variety of activities to choose from. I enjoy feeling like every errand I run into someone I know. It makes this big town I moved to feel much, much smaller. And I ended up with a couple of BFFs along the way.

Bridget said...

Yes, Crys, there is definitely an eau de book deal hanging around this one and it bothered me at times. Like when she would complain to her husband about how hard it was to set up girl dates with brand-new people and he would encourage her by saying she made this goal to do it...and the cynic in me can't help but think, "no, you're getting a book deal out of this. You're not just doing it for the fun of it."

That said, I definitely think this book is worth reading even if I didn't looooove it.

breanne said...

I noticed that you didn't include single women in your list of women that you could be "real, genuine friends with" even though they might be in different life circumstances than you. We aren't all bad, I promise! :)

But seriously, I am wondering if that is because you don't have any single, never-married-with-no-children women in your branch, or if there is really that big of a difference between women who are married and those who are not. When I was living in Jordan and Jerusalem some of my closest friends were married with children (thanks Shannon and Joey!) but now that I am back in the States I have noticed that there seems to be a very real barrier between married women and single women, at least in the church. It seems to be exceptionally hard to bridge this gap (even when I'm not in a singles ward) because married women (and some of them have even said this to me) don't know what to talk about with single women because all they ever talk about is their children. Somehow since we single people can't commiserate about our own children's antics or illness, they seem to be unable to create real lasting friendships with us single people.

So I'm just wondering--as a married woman with children, do you feel that there is somewhat of a barrier between married and single women (at least in the church) because the "children as the great equalizer" isn't present? This is something I've been wondering for a long time and I would love to get other people's perspectives on it.

I know I haven't commented for a long time, but I've kept up on your blog and still love reading it!

Bridget said...

Oh no, that was completely unintentional! I guess I was using the author's mindset of thinking only of women with children. Tack on a "or a single woman" to the list of people I can be friends with at church and not bat an eye.

Yes, we have many, many single women (whether once- or never-married) in our ward. I guess I hadn't really thought of this issue much before. Maybe that's a good thing? I don't recall ever thinking, "but she's not married/doesn't have kids, so we can't be friends." Thinking of my friendships with older empty-nester women, as well, I don't recall that many of those conversations revolve around potty training, either.

So yes, children are the great equalizer, but personally, like I said, I think Mormonism can be a great equalizer, too. I'll keep my eyes open in the future to see if I observe any great divide, but off the top of my head I haven't noticed.

Lucia- insert creative nickname said...

This sounds interesting, I'll have to see if my library has a copy. I'm probably the sort of "extreme extrovert" you speak of, and I've long been convinced that my endorphin production is welded to the friendship part of my brain! I would easily consider my husband to be my favorite friend but I think I have at least a dozen women whom I also consider to be best friends (several live nowhere near me) so I can't really imagine the author's scenario of being completely devoid of meaningful friendships. However I must admit that I have equal parts of excitement and dread when it comes to those first 6 months of being in a new place because getting your bearings is often stressful, social bearings included!

breanne said...

Well great! I thought that for sure you must have single women in your ward--if you haven't ever thought about it, then I guess it really isn't an issue at all for you guys.

As for children being the great equalizer, I personally always want to "rent" out someone's children when I have to do something awkward or when I am in a social situation for the first time because if you have a child, there's always something to talk about, and you can always get out of awkward situations because it's time for the child's nap (or something!). Especially when I'm in the Middle East, I wish I had children to help make things less socially awkward.

Crys said...

It isn't all fun and games :). At the last department party we went to I had to pull our kids off the department chairs pool table and the other couple with kids left shortly after their oldest peed in the decorative waterfall. Sometimes it is better to still have a little ice. Being married to an md/phd I find that often when we run in his circles occupation and research are the main ice breakers. Having neither I often feel like a piriah at his gatherings.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

I couldn't even read this book. Someone I know is so extrovert I've had to pull back, and she may feel the need to avoid me too because I"m a dull and boring introvert [or calm, steady and contemplative in my book]. Talk about sensory overload though. It was exhausting and even depressing to be around her. I finally spoke up one day to halt something she just couldn't stop talking about (and talking and talking) and that was the cooling of the relationship. And the only reason we even had one was because she kind of sidled into a spontaneous activity I enjoy, and then took over by insisting on planning it a week ahead of time and, and, and . . .

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