Last weekend I had the amazing gift of two sets of girlfriends come for a visit. Like every summer, I’m out of town renting a cabin in the mountains with my husband Thom to escape the desert heat near our home. While we always enjoy handfuls of guests during our summer retreats, this was the first year in over 20 where I’ve enjoyed so much female company—and it certainly felt like something special. Maybe it’s my age or maybe it’s my own awareness, but having good female friends is a simple, SMART and rewarding aspect to any happy life.
As you may remember, I’ve written about the value of having lots of friends before, regardless of our age. Solid friendships not only make us healthier and live longer, they also help to make us more creative and successful in the world. Dr. George E. Vaillant spent over 40 years studying 268 Harvard graduates to find out what adds up to a “good” life and in the end said, “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” But even though that’s important to remember, there is something special about girlfriends that deserve to be noted.
What you may not know is that much of the time studies that seek out causes for success, happiness or good health are predominately done on male subjects. Just like with Dr. Vaillant, the implication is that by knowing what adds up to a good life for men, we equally know what makes for a good life for all human beings. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
Then back in the early 2000s, a group of research psychologists happened to question the flight-or-fight physiological response to stress previously considered the norm for all men and women since 1932. Dr. Shelley Taylor, PhD., along with five other colleagues challenged the model and proposed instead that women have an additional method of dealing with high stress. They called it “tend-and-befriend.” This new model says that women often cope with stress with a more cerebral perspective that is tempered by social circumstances.
It seems, because woman throughout history have been the primary caregivers for children and the infirmed, rather than “fleeing” at the first sign of stress or provocation, they instead “tend” to those in their care and gather together to protect and nurture themselves. In fact, there appears to be a physiological response in women that inhibits flight. This response is the release of the hormone oxytocin in the brain along with other hormones that help to reduce fearfulness and enhance relaxation, which mediates a fight-or-flight response.
Beyond that, the study confirmed that when females are stressed they prefer being with others, especially other females. Males do not seem to have that need. In fact, women seem to create, maintain and utilize social groups to help them manage stressful conditions. Overall, the study revealed that in all types of stressful situations, including health-related concerns, relationship problems and work-related conflicts, women are more likely than men to seek out and use other women for social support.
But in spite of the fact that tending and befriending comes naturally to most women, I’ve learned through the years that girlfriends are never a one-size-fits all arrangement. With that in mind, here are a couple of realities about girlfriends that I think are helpful to remember:
1) Nearly all friendships are cyclical. I’ve been fortunate to have a couple of my close friends, one in particular, that has been a friend since high school. However, even though we’ve always been friends, years went by when we seldom saw each other or spoke on the phone. Fortunately, right now we are able to spend time together on a regular basis. If we’d let our friendship die out completely during those down times, I would have missed our current closeness. Being flexible in friendship is helpful.
2) Conflicts or disappointments don’t have to end the friendship. Just like everyone reading this post, I’m sure we’ve all had friends cause disappoint and sometimes hurt. Ultimately, we get to decide if an action (or inaction) is cause to end the friendship completely. While no one should be a doormat for another, learning to forgive and forget is often a sign of a good friend.
3) Some friends will leave and you will never know why. Years ago I was very close to a women I considered a bestie. We spent hours talking, laughing and doing things together. While I knew we had our differences, they never seemed to matter. Then suddenly she stopped calling. Nothing had happened, nothing was different. It was just over. While I spent a lot of time (years actually) trying to figure out what went wrong, that lost friendship remains a mystery. Learning to let go is important.
4) Quality is more important than quantity. I like having lots of friends. I also know that different people fulfill different needs. Yet, an important study done by Melikash Demir and Lesley A Weitekam in 2006 uncovered three important distinctions about friendships. They showed that:
- “Best” friends made people significantly happier than just having “friends;”
- “Best” friends make people happier than even have several “close” friends; and
- The two most important qualities of good friends are companionship (good friends like doing things with you) and self-validation (a good friend reassures you that you are a good and worthy individual.)
5) Good friendships take time, effort and intention. I’m constantly amazed at how easy it is for weeks to go by without hearing from some of my friends. I’m as guilty as any of them when I get wrapped up in what I’m doing and forget that friends need care as much as anything in my life. Let’s never forget that anything that we deem important deserves our time, effort and intention if we want it to flourish. Deciding that our friendships are important and then following through is critical.
As some of you know my marriage is one of the happiest I know, and I consider my husband Thom to be my very best friend. But last weekend while spending time with my girlfriends, I was reminded that we as women offer something different to each other when it comes to friendship. Maybe it was the tending and befriending chemicals that kicked in, but after talking for hours about every subject imaginable, I just felt happy, content and complete. I think one way to explain it is that with Thom as my best friend and partner, we stand side by side and face the world together no matter what. With my girlfriends, it felt more like standing in a circle and holding hands. Maybe it is SMART to be sure and include both experiences in every one of our lives.