From an early age, Nicole Zangara knew she wanted to help people.
"I was always that girl who was like, 'let's talk about our feelings,'" she says.
It make sense, then, that she would follow in her mother's footsteps, becoming a licensed clinical social worker with a focus in helping women in their relationships -- particularly the interpersonal connections of female-only friendships. She wrote a book to that effect, Surviving Female Friendships: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, ($12.95 available from Changing Hands Bookstore and other sellers) a mix of anecdotes and advice that was released in 2012.
"I was at that age where I was looking at friendships changing a lot and thinking, 'what the hell is going on?' I learned to put a voice to that [with the book]," she says. "I wanted to put a voice to something that a lot of women don't talk about."
She's taken her advice beyond bookshelves as well, hosting frequent workshops at the Fresh Start Women's Resource Center in Phoenix.
"What it ends up doing is it brings these women together, and we have a discussion about their friendship struggles, currently and in the past," she says. "I think so many women are craving this support and validation."
The 30-year-old author and social worker, who now lives in Scottsdale, called New Times recently to talk about why friendships get more difficult as we get older, how to make them last, and how to know when to let go.
As kids, people are bonded over simple things: liking the same toys for example. It's no secret that making new friends is harder as one gets older. What advice do you have for adults looking to make new friends? When we're in school you go to school every day and see your friends, or when you're in college you have a plethora of people around you. The older we get -- for me I moved around a lot -- it gets harder to meet people. There are [services like] meetup.com and a lot of times there are events in your area at a local community center or [through] groups on Facebook. I'm not religious, but I always tell people to try a temple or a church as a great way to meet people. It's kind of searching for stuff and finding out what's around in your area and just going. I always tell people, "just go." Even if it sucks, go again -- because you end up meeting different people.
It's kind of like dating, almost. Yeah! I compare dating to making friends in the book. I mean, how similar: You're putting yourself out there. As we get older we have less time and less patience. For me, the best way I've met friends is through friends.
What was the longest female friendship you've had, personally? What made it work? This is a friend from graduate school who I've been friends with for eight years. We don't live in the same state [anymore], she's actually somewhere else. It's this idea that we're always checking in -- we have our weekly phone calls, even through distance and our busy schedules we always make time. It says so much about the friendship when [you consider] there are people here [in Arizona] I don't talk to or see that much.
So making time is the most important thing people need to do to make something work long-term? Yeah, I mean, I have friends where they moved or I've moved and we kind of talk about "ok, I still want to keep in touch," but it stops or fades. Again, it's like dating: I'm not going to put a lot of effort into this if you're not going to. Life's priorities change.
What strengthens or weakens relationships between women? I think jealousy, obviously, tends to weaken it. When women get in a really bad spot and their friends get amazing news or something happens for them being jealous or having competition (they're engaged, we're still single; they're having their third baby, we're having trouble getting pregnant), I think that can be really tough and knowing the difference between being happy for your friends and not letting it get in between the friendship.
Putting in the time and effort, whether you're there or with an e-mail or a phone call. I always tell people to reach out, even if it is a text message saying, "hey, wishing you a good day." I don't mean this corny long, "I miss you, I love you" message or something like that, but this idea of thinking about you. A lot of times we don't acknowledge or treat our friends with the same decency we would with a romantic partner, for example.
You mention technology, and a lot of times it seems like because we're so connected the relationships we have are so superficial. It sounds like you're advocating for using that technology to strengthen these relationships. Why don't more people look at it that way? I do think that technology can be helpful, but I don't think it's what you solely should be relying on. Somebody was telling me that she was talking to a friend, mentioning they should hang out because it had been a while. The friend was like, "well, don't you read my blog? My Facebook posts? Don't you know what's going on in my life, because I post about it?" There's a difference between being connected versus reading about everything that you're doing. That's not how it works. On one hand, yes, technology is great for that kind of stuff, but it shouldn't be the sole way to connect you.
Letting go of a friend can feel like a break-up. What's the best way to handle that process and ditch someone who is toxic in your life? I think it's really hard. There's no perfect way to do it. To me, it depends on the history between you. So if it's a long-standing relationship and you feel like it's run it's course, I think mature adults would sit down and talk about it, but if you really feel like she's not hearing you or it's not going to go anywhere, you can give time and space to not talk -- taking a little break and maybe coming back together at a different point in time. If you've shared your frustrations and feelings and she's not hearing you, maybe it's time to re-evaluate the friendship. Maybe she's not your best buddy, but she's somewhere in your friendship line-up.
To me, there's no right or wrong way to do it. I think a lot of people just stop talking to the person thinking they'll go away, not realizing that's not really fair -- especially if it's a long friendship. I don't feel like anybody really has that conversation. Because you're right: with a romantic partner you're going to have that break-up conversation, but a lot of times you don't have it with your friends. Because it is awkward, you know?
I like that, "the relationship line-up." Speaking of that, do you think one should advocate for a few close, deep friendships over a large amount of acquaintances? It's so funny you say that, because I think everyone's so different. I really do believe though, and this is me making a major generalization, as we get older we do want quality, not quantity. I know personally I'd rather have two or three best friends and be satisfied with that than 10 people that I barely talk to, but some people are different. I find the more people I talk to who are older and have jobs and partners and more responsibilities have their close friends and are good. I think people would rather have those truer connections than that acquaintance-type feeling.
How are female friendship different than male friendships, or even male-female? Women share an emotional connection whereas men are more action-driven. Men and women's brains are different, it takes women longer to explain something because they remember a lot of details whereas men are more concise -- again, that's a bit of a generalization. But I think women have an emotional intensity so friendships are going to take time to share more, ask more questions, whereas men probably won't be doing that. Not that they don't care, it's just maybe not their priority.
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In terms of men-women relationships, I find a lot of times that women tend to say, "oh, I just don't do well with female friendships. I have a lot of male friendships." And I kind of always question that, because I come to find out that they've just been hurt a lot and tend to avoid female friendships and seek out men out of fear of getting hurt because it's "drama-free" or "chaos-free."
What is the most common "myth" regarding friendships among women that your book debunks? Oh, there are so many! One is that female friendships will last forever. Some friendships can last a long time, but life events such as moving for school/job, busy schedules, marriage/kids, as well as the fact that sometimes we outgrow our friends, can all impact our friendships. Many of our friendships will ebb and flow as we transition through life, so it's how we deal with these transitions, and try and stay connected to our friendships. It also doesn't help with shows such as Sex & the City, which don't exactly realistically portray female friendships.
[There's this idea] that if you're friends with someone you should always be in contact or be seeing them -- but I have so many friends, even here in Arizona, that I don't see or we don't talk every day, but I know they'll always be there for me instead of this idea that we always have to be connected, which is different than reaching out.