The Value of Friendships Among Women

Posted: Apr 12, 2007 2:10 PM

So that explains it.

I recently returned from a four-day trip to warm sandy beaches with nine _ yes, nine _ women friends I've known since high school. Not to be too specific, but that means almost 30 years. (FYI, making sure my kids were well-cared for in my absence essentially took a NASA-produced spreadsheet featuring family and good friends, but that's another story.)

Anyway, this is a gang of gals who stood by each other during the defeats, and always celebrated with each other the victories, of life. This group contains many of the women I consider my own personal "lifesavers." And we've known each other so long, there's no walking on eggshells. When it comes to these friends, anyone who can't laugh heartily at the world, while laughing most of all at oneself, need not apply.

So back to "that explains it." Thinking about these women, it's no surprise to me that I recently came across studies that show when it comes to women and stress, friendships apparently hold the key to how we manage it. Moreover, those friendships benefit us more than male friendships benefit guys.

According to a UCLA study on women and friendship, as reported in Chronic Neuroimmune Diseases by Gale Berkowitz, when we women are stressed, we experience a surge of oxytocin, the "bonding" hormone. It's the same hormone secreted when we are connecting with our babies. This hormone encourages us to "tend and befriend," which produces more oxytocin, a cycle that ultimately has a calming effect on us. Interestingly, this effect does not occur in men, who are more likely to have a hormonal "fight or flight" response to stress.

At the same time, the famous Nurses' Health Study from Harvard Medical School "found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life," reported Berkowitz. In fact, she said, for women, "not having close friends or confidants" has been found to be a significant health hazard, up there with smoking or being overweight.

University of Illinois-Chicago researchers also have found that "strong social support networks help prevent depression in women, but didn't have a significant effect in men," Dr. Joseph Flaherty, study researcher and dean of the medical school, explained to me.

This is not to say that somehow women do it "better" (or that male friendships aren't important for men). I, for one, am sick of the "men bad/women good" view of the world our culture seems to have adopted. But we women do, apparently, do it differently. And I find it's not the "cavemen" that have to be educated on that score. Often, it's the Sisterhood.

An older and wiser friend, a feminist in many respects, once pointed out to me that, historically, women had great strong friendships with each other that supplied much of their emotional sustenance. If their husbands couldn't always meet their emotional needs, their network of friends typically could, and that worked. It "worked" because that understanding respected what science is now confirming: men and women are built differently. Talk about stating the obvious.

Her belief was that feminists have done women a disservice by convincing us that men should be like us, and if the guys can't emote and connect like we can, then, gosh darn it, they are stunted fools. Her point was that way too many modern relationships have failed because women fruitlessly demanded that their guys be like _ or worse, "replace" _ their women friends.

She's right. Sisters, pay attention.

And husbands, listen up: Apparently one of the best things you can do for your wife is to help her not get so busy that her friendships get pushed to the backburner. If you give her encouragement to build those friendships, or even just more help so she has time for them, you'll be building up her physical and mental health _ along with your own marriage. That connection really has benefits for you!