I've been thinking a lot about friendship lately. After living 27 years in Wisconsin, one year in Germany, and a whole bunch of summers in Austria, I've called Texas home for the last 11 years. Between all of the those places, I'm happy to say that I've made a lot of friends. Which, for me, is a very good thing, as I've always been very needy for female acceptance, companionship, and friendship. I like women. I like hearing about other women's life experiences and feeling that intimate kinship between us that I have never felt very strongly with male friends.
Lately, a few things have been rocking my friendship world, and last week, I found myself a bit unsettled about it all. After mulling things over, I've come to a few interesting conclusions that I thought I'd share with you.
Within a span of a month's time, a dear childhood friend of mine committed suicide and a nasty argument broke out between some cherished friends of mine from high school. In relationship to the female friends in my life I feel closest to, I felt like I was on an emotional roller coaster. And for me, a roller coaster is not a good thing. They not only make my head pound but eventually lead to some serious projectile vomiting. I just can't stomach them. So, I've been feeling a little stressed out lately with what's been going on with the girls.
I'm sure you all know the emotions one goes through when a friend commits suicide: the grief, the guilt (why hadn't I been a better friend to her over the years?), the loss, the desire to nurture the friends I have now even more and not to take them for granted.
When an argument breaks out among close friends, we often times want to fix it, get things back to the way they were before the argument, even if we know in our heart that it is out of our hands. And when it happens in the aftermath of a suicide, one really wants to try to convince our friends who are quarreling to think about what really matters in this life.
In any case, between these challenges to my psyche this past month, I have had this overwhelming desire to nurture my current friendships - to communicate more with my friends and get together with them more often.
Apparently, my feelings are quite normal as a female. After doing a little research on female friendships, I was quite surprised with my findings. We females handle stress by cultivating our relationships with other women. That may seem rather obvious but check this out... Scientists used to believe that we humans were all pretty consistent in our response to stress. Fight or flight, right? We've all heard of it. Well, as it turns out, that is true for males and not so much for females. Scientific research on stress responses was traditionally done by male scientists on male research subjects. In recent years, we women have done our own research and been our own subjects. The results: women react to stress quite differently than males with with what's referred to as a "tend and befriend" response. In her book The Tending Instinct (Times Books 2002), UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor describes this phenomenon. Women are genetically hard-wired for friendship. When we get stressed out, the hormone oxytocin is released into our system, the same hormone released immediately after giving birth to a baby which helps promote cuddling and bonding between mother and infant. Scientists now believe that this hormone may be instrumental in the way that we women tend to circle the wagons with our female friends and loved ones - not male - in times of stress.
Not only that, but women who form strong friendships tend to live longer, healthy lives. Good friends to turn to for support in times of need means lower stress levels, and lower stress levels mean better health in a wide variety of ways, from lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels to overall heart health. In June 2001, the renowned Harvard Medical School's Nurses' Health Study declared women's friendships play an important role in enhancing our health and quality of life going even further to say that not having at least one good confidante is as detrimental to a woman's health as being overweight or a heavy smoker.
So, I challenge all of you to work even harder to be a good friend to the women around you. Lord knows, it's not always easy. The truth is, female friendships can be high maintenance. But in the end, our female relationships are good for us all, mentally and physically. Perhaps if we could all learn to listen a little better, trust a little more, and stop keeping score with each other, we'd all live happier, healthier, and longer lives.