by Women's Health Updated 9/21
We all have basic needs: food, shelter, love. Yes, love—and not just romantic love but love in general—the kind that comes from community, connection, and friends. In fact, teenage girls have long known what scientists are just figuring out: we can’t live without our girlfriends.
Girlfriends are your mainstay,” explains Nicole Thomas, a busy mom from Boulder, Colorado. “They’re with you through all of the phases of life.”
Ariane Hopman, a mom and blogger from Portland, Oregon, echoes this sentiment: “Female friendship is so important. When women create these bonds and lift each other up instead of cutting each other down, we’re unstoppable.”
There is a sort of magic, a mystery, and a mythology to female friendship, but the bottom line is we need each other.
This need—really a longing—isn’t just in your imagination. It’s in your biology. In fact, the data continue to pile up, showing that friendship profoundly affects our health. It can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and boost immunity. 1 The Harvard Nurses’ Health Study found that women who had a wide circle of friends were more likely to lead joyful lives and less likely to develop physical impairments as they aged.2 In fact, the researchers concluded that not having close friends or confidants was as detrimental to health as smoking or obesity.
Friends are so important that they may even help extend our lives.3 Unfortunately, the reverse is also true: social isolation may be one of the biggest risk factors for mortality, according to researchers from Brigham Young University. 4 They performed a meta-analysis of 148 studies and found that people with healthy social relationships were 50 percent more likely to survive than those without. The researchers concluded that social isolation is as damaging as being an alcoholic, smoking 15 cigarettes per day, or never exercising. What’s more, they found that social isolation was twice as dangerous as obesity. Long story short? Friendship feeds the body as well as the soul.
The Biology of Befriending
Our need to bond is more than mere impulse—it appears to be hardwired into our brains. We need only look at our stress response to understand. The results of a study at the University of California, Los Angeles highlighted the different ways in which women and men experience stress.5 When women are under stress, their brains release a hormone called oxytocin, which encourages them to bond and experience a response the researchers named “tend and befriend.” In contrast, male brains under stress will release more cortisol and adrenaline, which results in the fight-or-flight response.
In other words, some of the generalizations we make about men and women may actually be true. When faced with a problem, women want to talk and be heard, whereas men want to solve it. The fact is, we are biologically wired to need our female friends.
Yes, it feels good to tend and befriend— but it’s more than that. Our friendships are fundamental to the way we navigate life. It’s not just about shopping and girls’ night and cocktails— though all of that is fun—it’s about learning how to move through life; how to navigate change; how to communicate; how to give and receive; how to be a woman, a mother, a partner, a daughter; how to—just about everything. There is no instruction manual for life, so we figure it out as we go along, often with the help of our girlfriends.
“People need to be able to give and learn and develop listening and communication skills, and we develop a lot of those skills through our friendships,” explains Alyson Daniel, LMSW, a wilderness therapist with the SUWS Wilderness Program in Idaho. “Lack of female friendships can result in poor self-esteem, poor self-image, poor selfworth, and poor social skills. Really, it’s women who support you in life. And remember: it’s not just what we get from friendship but what we give.”
So, what do we give and receive when it comes to friendship? There are a lot of things, but a few major themes stand out. Women who rave about the value of their friendships usually mention a sense of safety, authenticity, nonjudgment, listening, and reliability. Put simply: we are just there for one another, no matter what.
Our female friends play countless roles in our lives, and they are often the constant in the steady flow of change that is life. They see us through varying chapters—school, career transitions, singlehood, marriage, pregnancy, motherhood, divorce, the deaths of our parents, and so much more.
It’s that journey of shared experiences that makes our female friendships necessary, actually vital, in our lives.
“What we as women do for each other is we help see each other,” explains Jennie Gershater Lopez, MA, LMT, a somatic therapist from Longmont, Colorado. “It is essential to be seen through our lives and through our life story; otherwise, we become seen through our small story. Women who see and remind me of the bigger story support me to remember the fullness of who I am.”
Gershater Lopez says that this is part of the critical role that women play for one another—one that men cannot play. “Women just get each other in a nonverbal way, so it can be very effortless,” she says. “There is an innate way in which we know how to tend to each other and nurture each other. So often we’re looking for that from our masculine partner, and it’s not possible. It’s actually destructive to seek it there.”
Gershater Lopez facilitates and participates in women’s groups designed to foster intimate connections among women (see sidebar “Women’s Group”). The groups provide an opportunity for women to share their stories, to see and be seen. She says the group process is actually a return to our ancient roots, as women have been coming together in shared experiences for centuries, whether around a fire, in a knitting circle, in the kitchen, or in the fields.
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The group process has served to deepen her friendships. “It has begun to inform my friendships in a different way,” she says. “Every interaction now has more depth because I really give it my full attention.”
Your Story, My Story
So often, if we take the time to look, we will see ourselves in the stories of one another. “I feel like there is so much that goes on to undermine friendships between women,” Ariane says. “There are so many forces against us, but there shouldn’t be because as women we have so much to gain from each other.”
Friendships may ebb and flow. We may lose some friends and make new ones. Different friends meet different needs and serve us in different life stages. Our friends may change, but our need for friendship and connection never does.
Build Your Friendship Muscles
Forming healthy friendships is a life skill that we can develop and hone over time. “I work with adolescent girls who have behavioral and emotional problems,” says Alyson Daniel, LMSW, a wilderness therapist with the SUWS Wilderness Program in Idaho. “We notice that a lot of them come into the program with very unhealthy friendships.”
So, Daniel spends a lot of time helping these girls build community and develop healthy friendships. Some of the skills she teaches her clients are ones in which we could all use a refresher course. She recommends taking stock of your friendships and assessing whether they serve you. Here are some qualities to look for in friends:
- Effective communication
- A willingness to grow
- An investment in the friendship
Of course, the best way to attract friends with these qualities is to embody them yourself. “Listen to your friends—really listen. That’s what makes a friendship,” Daniel insists. She says it is important that we all feel validated and heard.
It may take a little practice to build your friendship muscles, but it’s worth the effort. “Participating in a community and in positive activities with other people is essential to our growth,” Daniel says.
Jennie Gershater Lopez, MA, LMT, a somatic therapist from Longmont, Colorado, both facilitates and participates in women’s groups based on The Way of Council, which is a group process and practice of speaking and listening from the heart that results in a deep level of communication and connection.
“I feel like there has been kind of a media surge in the external pressures of what it means to be a woman, so in some ways it has been like cultural amnesia of us forgetting how to actually be in women’s circles together,” Gershater Lopez says. “We’ve forgotten how to be together, so we slip into a cultural pattern of just hanging out.”
The women’s groups, however, create a more intentional way of connecting— the women each get time to speak and listen from the heart and to witness one another’s stories. “In just a few hours, we drop into the core of who we really are,” Gershater Lopez says.
The women hold a safe space for one another and witness each other at the threshold of life’s events—pregnancy, separation, illness, death, and more. “One thing that we do together is we really hold the bigger story of each other.”
Gershater Lopez insists that these types of gatherings are available to all women everywhere—if they have the longing and the intention to create them. It doesn’t have to happen in a structured format, but it does need to happen. “This is not something new or foreign. It’s what we’re meant to do,” she says. “We all have medicine for each other.”
This could mean coming together as a group of women to make meals or preserve food or plant each other’s gardens or breastfeed. The vehicle for the gathering doesn’t matter so much as the intention and the shared experience. It all starts with a simple question: How can we support each other on this journey of life?
- Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Gouin JP, Hantsoo LV. Close relationships, inflammation, and health. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. 2010;35(1):33-38.
- Michael YL, Colditz GA, Coakley E, Kawachi I. Health behaviors, social networks, and healthy aging: cross-sectional evidence from the Nurses’ Health Study. Quality of Life Research. 1999;8(8):711-722.
- Giles LC, Glonek GF, Luszcz MA, Andrews GR. Effect of social networks on 10 year survival in very old Australians: the Australian longitudinal study of aging. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 2005;59(7):574-579.
- Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB. Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS Medicine. 2010;7(7): e1000316. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316.
- Taylor SE, Klein LC, Lewis BP, et al. Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review. 2000;107(3):411-429.