Family and Relationships

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Why Women Need Friends and How to Keep Them

April 30, 2011
by Shannon Firth
Helen Keller once wrote, “Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.” Most women and countless scientific studies would agree. In difficult times and into old age, a good friend is precious indeed.

The Importance of Friendship

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In a popular YouTube video, best-selling author of “The Middle Place,” Kelly Corrigan, extols the capacity of women to draw strength from one another and transcend the most hopeless situations.

She recalls the span of her mother’s friendship with 12 friends who call themselves “the Pigeons,” two of whom have died. “On the pigeons go, like women do, limping one minute, carrying someone the next.”

Corrigan, a cancer survivor, looks forward to the struggles and triumphs she and her own friends will face. Smiling even as her voice breaks, Corrigan reminds women of their almost inherent reaction to crises. “We will call and say I heard the news," Corrigan says. "And whatever the news is, we will come running, usually with food.”

Corrigan isn’t alone in admiring women’s friendships with each other. Jeffrey Zaslow, father of three girls, spent years combing through diary entries, letters and interviews with 10 women from a small town in Iowa. His book, “The Girls from Ames,” chronicles their 40 years of friendship.

Writing for the site The Women on the Web, Zaslow says, “A host of studies show that having a close group of friends helps women sleep better, improve their immune systems, stave off dementia and actually live longer.”

He cited a study from Flinders University in Australia that shadowed 1,500 women for a 14-year period. The study’s most revealing find was that regardless of the strength of their familial relationships, women with more friends lived 22 percent longer than women with fewer friends.

Zaslow also noted the findings of a study from Stanford University where late-stage breast cancer patients who had a circle of confidants had a better chance for survival than others.

However, there is some sad news for friendships in this era. A 2006 study from Duke University and the University of Arizona showed that Americans have almost one-third fewer confidants than they did in the 1980s, and that “ties are more family based.” Another disheartening statistic was that there are now twice as many people who report not having any close friends to share their problems with.

Lynn Smith-Lovin, one of the authors of the report, told PhysOrg.com, “This change indicates something that’s not good for our society. Ties with a close network of people create a safety net.”

Another survey conducted by Onepoll.com and reported by the Daily Mail in London found that “the average Briton has only a trio of close friends, having lost touch with 36 people over the years.”

Perhaps an important question to ask is: How does one maintain a friendship?

Keeping Your Friends Close

Jenny Schroedel, a blogger for the faith-based Webzine, Boundless, wrote that she found the process of trying to make friends after a cross-country move as frustrating as dating. “The more desperately I tried to make friends, the lonelier I became.”

Curiously, it was her husband who introduced her to her future best friend, a woman he’d met on his college campus. She made the initial phone call and 10 years later they are still the closest of friends.

Schroedel’s advice for maintaining a friendship appears counterintuitive at first. She writes, “[L]ower your expectations.” Since having children, Schroedel doesn’t always have the time to carry on long phone calls, but her good friends understand dropped calls.

When our tunnel vision causes us to insist on standards of behavior from our friends, Schroedel writes, we often “miss the gift that is being offered.” She also reminds us that true friends “rejoice in the other.”

As Schroedel explains, “The more deeply we know another person’s secret hopes and anguishes—and the more we can identify with their struggles—the less inclined we are to envy them.”

Oprah and Gayle King exemplify this principle. And like Schroedel, their friendship started in an odd way. It began with a pair of panties.

Oprah recalls, “She was determined to drive 40 miles through a snowstorm to get to Chevy Chase, Maryland, where she lived with her mom, in order to have clean panties.” So Oprah invited her to stay over and told her she could borrow a pair of panties or buy a pair. The two women chatted the whole night and have talked every day since, with the exception of overseas vacations.

And celebrated Irish author Maeve Binchy, who wrote “Circle of Friends,” tells women it’s more important to be generous with their time and talent than their wallet.

Writing for Oprah.com, Binchy shares the story of two women, one who hates ironing and the other who loves it. “Every Monday at lunchtime they visit one house or the other. Mary irons eight shirts beautifully; Susie … cleans the intricate bits of Mary’s silver, making it gleam.” In Binchy’s view, it’s these small gestures that make a friendship real.

Are Same-Sex Friendships Different?

How do you separate a meaningful friendship from a superficial one? Studies comparing same-sex friendships contradict one another. Recently, the Leader-Post, a Canadian newspaper, reported that despite the established view of women as “more socially cooperative,” they can be hypercritical of their friends. A study at the Universite du Quebec at Montreal, Harvard University and Emmanuel College in Boston found that women were more likely than men to sever a friendship after a single offense.

Joyce Benenson, who led the study, told the Leader-Post, “[Women] think, ‘We care more about relationships, so we hold friends to higher standards,’” however she adds, “if we can’t care for somebody who screws up, that makes our position on friendship very precarious.”

Michael Kimmel, author of “Guyland,” tells the Leader-Post that although male friendships may endure longer than women’s, they may also be “a lot less intimate.”

Zaslow notes that men and women practice friendship in different ways. While women connect through sharing about their lives, men bond through “doing.” In his article for The Women on the Web, he borrows an analogy from sociologists, explaining, “Women’s friendships are ‘face to face’ while men’s friendships are ‘side by side.’”

Still, he says he “envies” the friendships women share. He writes, “I have come to see the benefits of articulating love in a friendship. Many women do that very well. They talk, share and touch each other.”

According to Zaslow, when two women’s friendship continues past age 40 they will likely be friends for life.
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