When most hear the relatively new phrase in sociological circles “prolonged adolescence,” images come to mind of twentysomething men in their favorite college hoodies gathered around the Playstation with a stripe of tomato sauce on their faces from the day-old meat lover’s pizza left on the counter. The picture is complete with fear of commitment, loud burping, living in the parents’ basement and piles of dirty dishes in the no-longer-visible sink.
But do young ladies experience their own version of prolonged adolescence in today’s me-driven culture? It seems that women’s prime symptom of prolonged adolescence is glimpsed in their friendships with other young women.
Perhaps in their search for faithful, committed relationships, young women are using their female friends as replacement “spouses.” In their fear of losing another relationship, young women are clutching on to their female friends as tightly as a little child holds a plastic trinket. In their determination to not let go, they simultaneously are unable to open their hands to receive new friendships. When these new friendships include the possibility of a romantic relationship with a young man, the result is often Mr. Committed walking away wondering why the girl he pursued won’t open to receive his gift of self.
It’s not that young women aren’t generous, loving or eager to give. In fact, their close female friendships can be full of giving, sharing and generosity. But they become so focused on the security blanket of their female friends – who can’t “break up” with them – that they often become unconsciously closed to others.
All of the compliments, presents, affirmations, backrubs and chats in the world offered within the fearful hoarding of prolonged adolescent female friendships ironically become me-focused instead of other-focused, turning generosity on its head.
For men, prolonged adolescence involves a security blanket of maintaining the activities, locations and friends of the past. The comfort zone of women takes the form of close, and even closed-in, friendships with one another.
Could this fear of loss of commitment turned overly committed friendship syndrome arise from the prolificacy of divorced families of origin? Could our fears, concerns and desire to safeguard relationships come from our lack of examples of faithfulness?
There is also a fear of vulnerability. Rather than expose a desire for love, women take what they have and hoard, hold and suffocate in a frenzied panic not to lose what they have. Rather than open themselves to the possibility of hurt, disappointment or rejection, young women create a sense of commitment, possession and independence that unsuspectingly can counter their desires for love. While they create walls to protect the love and friendships they have, they are consequently building an impenetrable fortress through which the new love and relationships they desire can barely hope to pass.
Just as the prolonged adolescence of young men results in an inability to foster good relationships, female prolonged adolescent friendships affect women’s ability to love rightly. Not only is there a lack of vulnerability, but young women who unconsciously treat their female friends as their make-do “spouses” are unconsciously emasculating their future husbands.
Rather than appreciate Mr. Right as the man he is, they question his inability to determine who is the right match for Susie, why Peter’s text message seemed abrupt and which bridal gown is the best style for a particular celebrity. When he can’t behave as her best friend does, then what is wrong with him, they wonder. In reality, Mr. Right has been given the impossible standard of being like his girlfriend’s female friends. Taylor Swift’s Saturday Night Live skit last year illustrated this reality.
Giggles over crushes, whispers over guys’ “cuteness” and games of “who likes who” seem to lend themselves more to one’s future pre-teen daughter than to friends in their third decade of life. Certainly this can’t be any more attractive to men than their stereotypical piles of dirty dishes are to women.
All of this is not to deny the gift of female friendships. Young women are right to cultivate friendships with one another. There are innumerable ways in which same-sex female friendships can assist each party in growing in holiness and growing in an identity rooted in Christ. The beginning to a true friendship rooted in Christ is the realization of its presence as a gift to be received and appreciated, and not as an object to be grasped and hoarded.
Perhaps when young men chuck their 24-hour video game marathons to admit to their need for something more, and young women widen their circle of friendships to admit they are longing to give and receive a total and faithful gift of self, we can begin to implement the challenge of John Paul II:
“The skill in giving and receiving which is typical of love is exhibited by the man whose attitude to a woman is informed by total affirmation of her value as a person, and equally by the woman whose attitude to a man is informed by affirmation of his value as a person. This skill creates the specific climate of betrothed love – the climate of surrender of the innermost self" ("Love and Responsibility," 129).
*** This article originally appeared on TOB.CatholicExchange.com. Since the site no longer exists, I am re-posting many of my old articles on my blog.