Marsha and Melinda befriended one another at their first job. They were both 22, just starting their careers, unattached and new in town. Marsha had moved from San Diego to Irvine for her entry-level position as a marketing assistant; Melinda had relocated from Pasadena.
They quickly discovered that they had a lot in common--they shared a similar sense of humor, they had similar tastes in men, they had similar family backgrounds and past experiences.
"It was almost eerie to find someone so much like me," Marsha recalls. "We took turns complaining about our domineering-yet-lovable moms. We both had jerky, philandering boyfriends in college. We liked and disliked the same movies, the same clothes, the same colors, the same food."
Neither woman felt at home yet in Orange County--their old friends, relatives and familiar haunts were a long freeway drive away. So they bonded together, like tourists in a foreign land. "We spent every weekend exploring our new surroundings," Marsha says.
Not surprisingly, the pair soon became best friends. A few months later they combined their resources and rented an apartment much nicer than either could afford alone. They car-pooled to and from the office, until each went on to another workplace a year later.
For the next six years, Marsha and Melinda were as inseparable as teen-age sweethearts. They saw the world together--Europe, Hawaii, Mexico, New York. They faithfully reserved at least one weekend night for each other.
Sure, there were dates--plenty of them. "But nothing serious," Marsha says. "We always egged each other on--'he's cute, go for him'--but secretly, I think, we both lived in fear that the other person would get a boyfriend."
Finally, after six years of constant companionship, it happened. A man came between them.
Melinda had a few dates with a nice guy. "I thought, 'Eh, she'll blow him off; he's not her type,' " Marsha says. Then Melinda had a few more dates with the nice guy and started speaking fondly of him. "I panicked," Marsha says. "I hate to admit it, but I hoped for the worst. I hoped he'd dump her so that things could go back to the way they were before."
But instead, Melinda's romance just kept getting stronger. She quit saving a weekend night for Marsha. She quit accompanying Marsha to parties, where the two women once played off one another in flirting with men. She quit going on vacations with Marsha.
Eventually, Melinda announced that she was moving in with her boyfriend. A few months later, the couple became engaged.
"My entire life was upended," Marsha confesses. "I'd never realized how totally dependent I was on Melinda. I couldn't even feel happy for her, I was so jealous. It was as if she had divorced me.
"To make matters worse, the fact that Melinda could just up and commit to someone made me feel that something was wrong with me. For years I could think, 'Well, it's not so weird that I haven't fallen in love; neither has Melinda, and she's not weird.' "
Jealousy, says Newport Beach psychotherapist Pat Allen, is a normal feeling. "But when it manifests itself in negative behavior, it becomes unhealthy," she notes.
"Negative behavior" can include dwelling on your own loneliness rather than celebrating your friend's triumph. "Healthy friends will rejoice in each other's success," Allen explains. "But if they're clinging together in a 'we can do together what we cannot do separately' bond, one of the partners will lose her ammo when her friend leaves her for a man. Not only has she lost her friend, she's lost her social vehicle."
Women more often than men tend to react enviously toward other people's relationships--an ancient remnant of the pre-lib attitude that women derive their status from their husbands. "Men are more competitive about material things--job titles, power, prestige," Allen says.
Whether at the workplace or in relationships, both sexes rate their progress against their peers. "There's a thing called the social clock, which we all use to monitor what we are supposed to accomplish by 25, by 30, by 35, by 40 and so on," says Bob Stohr, Allen's assistant and an intern therapist. "There's a lot of social pressure dictating when you're supposed to be married, especially for women, because they have to deal with the biological issues of childbearing."
As in Marsha's case, jealousy can erupt when a person negatively compares herself--and then fears that her friend's achievement underscores her shortcomings. "She might think, 'How dare my friend do what I'm afraid to do. How dare she be intimate and allow herself to be vulnerable. I'm not ready for that,' " Stohr says. "It's like putting the spotlight on her deficit."
Stohr points out that because people are marrying later, they are more apt to form close same-sex friendships in the meantime. "These days, we are putting a lot of energy into friendships until we find an intimate relationship," he says. "I call that kind of friend 'the surrogate lover.'