I’m reading this book called Joe Cinque’s Consolation, which tells the true story of a real life trial of two women – Anu Singh, who injected her boyfriend Joe Cinque with heroin and watched him die, and Mandhavi Rao, Anu’s best friend who might have assisted her in the process. The story is complicated, of course, by mental illness and dependence and all kinds of other things, and you should read the book by Helen Garner if you get the chance. But what I want to talk about is Garner’s spot-on assessment of Singh and Rao’s relationship, one that she calls a “symbiotic power arrangement,” because I think we’ve all had one of these at one time or another (even if it didn’t lead to murder).
As Garner explains it, symbiotic power friendships are:
Perhaps they are most flagrant in adolescence: one girl is wild, bossy, selfish, flaring with hormones, cracklingw ith sexual thrill and careless of risk, but still dependent on the ballast provided by her companion, who is prim and cautious, not yet at the mercy of her body, one foot still planted in the self-containment of girlhood. They need each other. The well-meaning “supportive” one trails along in the wake of her narcissistic friend, half aware that she is being used — as a cover against parental suspicions, a second fiddle, a handmaid, a foil. But she also feeds off the wrecker’s high-voltage energy.
This kind of thing is illustrated in the relationship between say, Rayanne Graff and Angela Chase in “My So-Called Life,” where one girl’s wildness is mediated by the other’s sense of responsibility. The girls in “Heavenly Creatures” are also a good example. Or “Me Without You.” There’s so many examples: both identities are in some ways defined by what they’re not — by how the other person in the friendship plays against them.
And these friendships aren’t simply discarded in adulthood.
The tendency to form such partnerships doesn’t end with youth. Every woman I have asked about this knew immediately what I meant and could provide examples. Many a woman has shifted, as different stages of her life brought forth different needs, from one role to the other in the double act … It would be hard to say, at its height, whose power is the greater.
The symbiotic power relationship is as much about self-definition (am I wild, unfettered and free or am I responsible, reliable and wise?) as it is about understanding yourself in a friendship pairing. And it’s a powerful tool, at that.
What Garner doesn’t mention, is just how volatile these relationships and unions can be, as the responsible party grows tired of her more narcissistic pal. It can be exhausting, after all, to continually have to play foil for such a boisterous, self-sabotaging type. In the best of cases, you and your symbiotic relationship partner grow out of those roles at similar times — and you can establish a friendship on a different, more mature basis. That’s what happened with one particularly hard-partying charismatic friend and I. We just grew up — and out — of the molds we’d put each other in. But often, friendships don’t survive those kind of changes.
Have you experienced one of these kind of symbiotic power relationships? What role did you play?