Relationship Friendship — 13 June 2010
The preciousness of friendships between women

Women have always known how rewarding their friendships with their women friends were and thus braved the challenges these connections sometimes created. Recent scientific data has not only clarified the unique nature of women friendships but also expounded upon the health and longevity benefits they provide.

It is common for young girls to form close attachments to their girlfriends. Dr. Lawrence Cohen, author of “Best friends, Worst Enemies,” describes their playful intimacy. “Preschool girls often seem in perfect harmony, creating imaginary worlds and games. Big conflicts do occur — but there’s flexibility and real beauty in their exchanges. I think when girls get older they often look back and miss that complete connection they once had.”

For preschool girls their “best friend” is their first love with whom they bond for security, fun and play. They may have some conflicts, but often stay committed to their special union. As girls mature they may become challenged to include other girls and sometimes trade their best friend. During adolescence, when interest in boys is awakened, girls may become competitors and their bond may weaken.

Later in life, once women establish their families, their need for the sisterly support of other women increases. Women love to talk, share their lives and experiences, seek and provide emotional support, give and receive validation from their women friends in a different way than they may garner these from their male partners. For many women recreating the “best friend” status with another female is a stabilizing and emotionally rewarding state. Yet, several good friends provide even a wider base of support.

In “ Biobehavioral Responses to Stress in Females” researchers Shelley Taylor and Laura Klein of the University of California, Los Angeles, found that in addition to the fight-or-flight response to stress, women opt for what they termed “tend and befriend” style. “Tending involves nurturant activities designed to protect the self and offspring that promote safety and reduce distress; befriending is the creation and maintenance of social networks that may aid in this process.”

These researchers summarize the health and survival benefits of the “tend and befriend” style. “A large social-support literature documents that ‘‘befriending’’ leads to substantial mental and physical health benefits in times of stress. Social isolation is tied to a significantly enhanced risk of mortality, whereas social support is tied to a broad array of beneficial health outcomes, including reduced risk of mortality.” “Positive physical contact in the form of touching, hugging, cuddling, and the like is known to release oxytocin which, in turn, has anti-stress properties.”

Women share the same expressive and supportive language that affirms their worth. They know how to listen with empathy, soothe each other and provide the nurturing help that heals the pain and restores the soul. Being with a good friend is therapeutic.

The intense emotional investments female friends have in each other may also become a source of occasional disappointments. Women may feel hurt if or when they are not fully supported. When the intense need to be affirmed and loved gets frustrated, conflicts may arise. Wise women repair their rifts and restore their bond.

• Select your women friends carefully. Consider these connections as precious and irreplaceable in any other context.
• Foster a friendship with several women to benefit from the uniqueness of each of their contributions.
• Regard your friendships with women as essential – not optional.
• Consider your time with female friends as a crucial part of your self-care and your health regiment.
• Regard your friendships as life commitments. Do not abandon a friend due to a conflict. Resolve misunderstandings quickly and resume your connection.
• Be authentic with your female friends: open, honest, present, curious, accepting, understanding and affirming.
• Consider yourself blessed to have the support and love of your women friends. And remember – only wonderful people have great friends.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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