On the Importance of Female Friendships

“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
– C.S. Lewis

I recently watched a TED Talk  with  role model and icon Jane Fonda. During her talk she described her close friendship with Lily Tomlin and the importance of her female friends; “I don’t know what I would do without my women friends,” she said. “They make me stronger, smarter, braver.”

Having relationships with people of the opposite sex is awesome and some of my favourite people in the world are guys. However, personally, I don’t think there is anything better than two females having an awesome relationship.

Several studies seem to corroborate this. One landmark study by Laura Klein and Shelley Taylor on the relationship between friendships and stress discovered that women react to stress differently than men (nothing new here, true). This difference is mostly due to the different proportions of hormones that are released into the bloodstream. So when men and women are stressed, the hormones cortisol and epinephrine are released together, which raise a person’s blood pressure and blood sugar level. Enter oxytocin; its main purpose is to counter the production of cortisol and epinephrine and produces a feeling of calm, reduces fear and counters some of the negative effects of stress. In this whole scenario, men release much smaller amounts of oxytocin than women, leaving them to feel more acutely the effects of the flight-or-fight response. Men tend to respond to stress by escaping from the situation, fighting back or bottling up their emotions.

So why is this important? In their study, Taylor argues that women, on the contrary, are genetically hard-wired for friendship in large part due to the oxytocin released into their bloodstream, combined of course, with the female reproductive hormones. So when life becomes challenging, women seek out friendships with other women as a means of regulating stress levels. An example of a common female stress response is to “tend and befriend”. That is, when women become stressed, their inclination is to nurture those around them and reach out to others.

Another study from Harvard Medical School showed that the more friends women have, the less likely they are to develop physical impairments as they age, and the more likely they are to lead a satisfied life. The study also showed that not having friends or confidants is as harmful to your health as smoking cigarettes or being overweight.

As Roxane Gay so eloquently puts it, the time has come to “abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic or competitive. This myth is like heels and purses- pretty, but designed to SLOW women down”.

Here are four important tips that I learned from Roxanne’s great manifesto that will help you rethink your female friendship:

1. Chill out with the criticism

Think twice before tearing other women down, because even though they aren’t your friends, they are women and this is also important. I’ve also been there. I’ve applied shocking cruelty to other women in the past- mostly in my younger years, but still. It’s not an excuse. Everyone has their own struggles they’re dealing with. Remember that no one’s perfect and everyone gets caught up in emotions from time to time. But it doesn’t mean they’re the enemy. She is not the enemy.

It’s time to face the music. Women already have to put up with enough name calling, professional harassment, slut shaming, victim blaming bullshit, etc. Stop falling for it!

2. Declared allegiance: Stick to each other

I’ve heard this one plenty of times. I remember myself saying it quite often way back when. “I’m mostly friends with guys”. I remember taking a great deal of pride in the fact that most of my friends were guys. And, for a while, it did make sense. I thought women were annoying, bitchy, competitive and mostly toxic. Guys were just simpler. Nowadays, my female friends outnumber the guys about 5 to 1. And this is a rough estimate. I love being friends with women. I love how hilarious some of them are. Women are BOSS. If you’re not friends with women as a rule, just try out and see how you feel.

3. Co-operation

If you happen to be in the same field as some of your friends you can collaborate or help each other. Remember, your friends are awesome. Also remember that it was men who invented nepotism and practically live but it. So it’s definitely ok for women to do it too. I usually have a policy of only suggesting women for jobs that involve writing, teaching, or appearing on TV or radio. Why apologize for this- the last people who need help getting media attention are white men, and I’m assuming my guys friends understand this.

I guess the silver lining for patriarchy is that these women will always be paid less for their contributions so…ehm. Tis’ an imperfect situation. But the point is still, to help other women out. Even if you don’t know them very well. Even if you’re not exactly sure whether you actually like them. Help. Other. Women.

4. On Flirting

What I am about to write is of extreme importance. Do not, flirt, have sex, or engage in emotional affairs’ with your friends’ significant others. This shouldn’t need to be said, but it NEEDS to be said. That significant other is an asshole, and you do definitely do not want to be involved with an asshole who happens to be used goods. IF you do want to be with an asshole, get a new, fresh asshole of your very own. They are walking the earth in abundance.

It can be easy to forget that friendships are also relationships and that they require just as much effort. We’ve all been in a situation when you’re trying to make something work with someone. But because you’re the only one making the effort, it feels like the relationship is free fallin’. Goes without saying that we’re all busy and can never dedicate all our time to our friends but a quick call or a text can be incredibly important for keeping things alive.

Last observations…

Try to move toward having a number of “best friends” as well as friends who are more peripheral but who still count. Remember that each friend contributes something unique in the way of wisdom, support and fun times. When we depend on one person to meet all of our needs, that person can’t help but disappoint us.

It is important to acknowledge that friendship will, at times, evoke feelings of anger, envy, competition, and the entire range of emotions that make us human. For example, if you’re not in touch with the fact that your friend is suddenly getting lots of money and recognition for her work, you risk acting out by ignoring devaluing her work. (disclaimer: it doesn’t mean you can’t keep your feelings to yourself, when appropriate).

Some women have acquired the notion that their worth not only comes from the positive sexual evaluation of others but that it comes at the expense of other women. Don’t be that woman. Don’t be the woman who flirts with her friend’s boyfriend because it makes you feel good to think that, if you really wanted it, you could have him or her. You are being an enemy to other women. See points 2 and 4 above.

I can’t help but wonder that what may feel like a challenge to our friendships in the moment- working versus non-working, kids versus no kids, patiently listening vs speaking up- is almost always temporary. If we stick to each other’s side through it all, eventually the challenges fall away. Let’s all strive to be better friends and make more of an effort with one another. To really foster the important relationships and friendships in our lives. Because let’s face it, friendships really do make life a whole lot sweeter 🙂

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