The therapist drew a cross on the whiteboard.
“This quadrant represents all the individual things you do by yourself, and next to it represents your personal connections with your community,” she explained, gesturing to the upper left of the diagram. “Below shows the connection you have one-on-one with your partner, and over here are your activities in the community, as a couple.”
“Okay,” I thought. “Why is she showing me this?”
“Our goal is to have development in all four quadrants,” she continued.
The key words were “personal” and “community.” I had the other boxes on the chart checked off. But, as we talked further, it was clear I did not have this personal community she spoke of. And by that phrase, she meant “friends.”
I felt a little indignant. First of all, I did have friends. Hundreds of them on Facebook, to be exact. Plus, I'm shy, and I've always reserved the right to act that way. Also, did she know that real adult life bears no resemblance to an episode of Parks and Recreation? My pals from high school and college had all moved away or disappeared into the mist of new husbands and families. I did not have enough spare energy to reassemble an A-team of loving sidekicks.
It became clear, however, that now was the time to try.
Along the way, I've learned how much wisdom there was packed into that little diagram. Especially for women, it's always the right time to find and nurture your tribe. Because we need each other.
In fact, it turns out that down at the level of our hearts and blood and bones, women are uniquely keyed for friendship.
Built for bonding
You've probably heard of “fight or flight.” That's the theory that when faced with a threat, the human body unconsciously prepares to either flee from it or destroy it. Women, though, have an additional significant behavior pattern in times of trouble: “Tend and befriend.” In a 2000 study, UCLA researchers coined this phrase and tied it to the rush of oxytocin the brain produces when we encounter stressful situations. Oxytocin is also popularly known as the love or bonding hormone—the same chemical cocktail that helps moms bond with their newborns.
The result: in a crisis, women turn to their girlfriends to give and receive support. They focus on protecting their kids, and each other—the “tend” part of the equation. The more dire the circumstances, the deeper their networks grow. Studies show that this profoundly different feature in women's social relationships occurs across multiple different cultures.
This tendency has even been studied in different species. Researchers have found that male rats are stressed by crowded conditions; meanwhile, females get calmer when more of their comrades are around them. Not that I wish to compare myself in any way to a rodent.
Peris Kibera, of Westlake, Ohio, experienced “tend and befriend” first hand when she became a single mother after a divorce. With no family nearby, she confronted the task of forging a path for herself and her child, now almost six-years-old. But she wasn't alone: she'd made a friend.
“Teresa Hooper is one of the loveliest girlfriends I'm blessed with,” she said. “She's provided me all sorts of support and is one of the biggest cheerleaders for me and my son. From attending his Taekwondo class to gifting me her jewelry. She's everything a woman could ever ask for in a friend . . . I've gotten to know more of her family members and have even become close with one of her step-daughters! More than a girlfriend, she's a great role model to me.”
Peris and Teresa discovered each other as next door neighbors and created a supportive bond that nurtures and enriches them both. This is the genius of female friendship: it's a survival strategy that is born in the heart.
A friend in need
In the richest friendships between women, there is an intimacy that differs from, and in some ways surpasses, that of other relationships. The English word “confidant” ultimately derives from the Latin verb fidere, which means “to trust.” To have a confidant is to trust another person with your hardest truths, at moments of your greatest vulnerability; to trust that she'll rejoice in your victories and that she won't trample your spirit when it's broken, frightened, or ashamed.
Why does turning to a girlfriend at these moments feel so different from turning to my husband or my sister? Aristotle said having a friend is like having “a second self.” Perhaps in the best of friends, we can sense that their heartbeats match our own, that they are women who share our sense of humor, what we value, and how we struggle. Then, a connection can form that's unmuddled by the drama of romantic tension or the baggage of family history. We can trust these women the way we trust ourselves.
In 2019, there's no greater example of the powerful role trust plays in women's friendships than the #MeToo movement. Often, a victim of sexual violence first shares her experience not with her parents or siblings or even her therapist, but with her girlfriends.
Adele Chapline Smith, executive director of Dinah's Voice, a survivor-focused organization tackling sexual violence issues on college campuses, knows this dynamic firsthand.
“I think there's a much greater fear of rejection when it comes to families,” she says. “We don't want to come forward to them only for our own flesh and blood to think we're lying or making it up.”
Research bears this out, too. In one particularly dramatic study published in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior, Dr. Bonnie Fisher of the University of Cincinnati along with her co-authors found that college women who disclosed their experiences of sexual assault told friends more than 87 percent of the time. In contrast, only 10 percent told a family member. Between 2 and 4 percent disclosed what happened to the police or campus authorities, and 1 percent told a counselor.
The dismaying possibility is that if a woman doesn't have supportive girlfriends she can talk to about what happened, her journey through survivorship may be extraordinarily lonely.
“Friendship can be a definite catalyst for healing,” Smith says. “When you know you aren't alone, when you know there are people in your corner who won't judge you, just love and support you, then the process becomes a little less scary, whether it's talking to a doctor about medication or finding a therapist or joining a support group.
“Even if your support network doesn't personally have experience with assault, they have experience with you—they can be someone for you to lean on during the darkest of moments.”
Because friends are on the front lines of this devastating struggle, many organizations have embraced peer-to-peer or bystander training to help students keep their friends safe and support survivors if they come forward to them.
“I'm not sure where I would be today without the friendships that guided me along the way,” adds Smith. “But I don't think I'd be where I am now.”
Identifying true friends
There's the matter of making friends, and then there's the matter of keeping the good ones. It's a key issue because the frenemy—that phenomenon that launched a thousand passive-aggressive Facebook posts—can actually harm your health.
To keep things official, most scientists refer to these as “ambivalent relationships.” This person in your life isn't mean—to your face. She drifts between supportive and undermining. Your relationship seems to be based mostly on competition, and the jealous vibes are plenty green. You notice that when she says “I'm so happy for you,” her face turns the color of everyone's favorite Muppet frog.
In one study published in 2003, scholar Julianne Holt-Lunstad found that research subjects actually experienced higher blood pressure when dealing with frenemies than with people they straightforwardly didn't like. After all, an unkind coworker or annoying classmate can be avoided; their disapproval can be chalked up to not being able to please the whole world. But an ambivalent relationship isn't easily discarded or discounted, and since you never know whether to expect the behavior of an ally or a foe, it can cause more stress than that of a plain old adversary.
Saddest of all is that frenemies are often friendships that take a turn. They are relationships gradually poisoned by resentment and envy and topped with a layer of conflict avoidance. It's the last stage in the life cycle of a friendship, you aren't really good for each other anymore, but you're too sad and angry to admit it.
How to avoid the uniquely life-draining experience of losing a friend to frenemy-ship? Assertiveness could be the cure. Our culture trains women that it is not “nice” to be honest when other people bother us or hurt us. But are back-handed compliments or hate-following someone on Instagram any “nicer”? Bitterness is the seemingly inevitable result of stuffing down serious friendship friction. Rather than trying to be “nice,” I've decided I'm better served by pursuing kindness. And the very core of kindness is sharing your true heart with the people you care about.
If I start sensing a rivalry with a friend, I could tell her I love her and I don't want a contest. If I feel myself “going Kermit” I could counter that temptation with sincerity about my envious feelings, owning them at the same time I share them. Taking responsibility for how you perceive things is one way to make it less scary to be assertive and actually bring a conflict out into the open, where a group effort can be made to neutralize it.
All this calls for lots of maturity, perhaps more than I currently have in the tank. But since frenemies can wreak so much havoc, whether on health or happiness, these are skills worth practicing.
The care and feeding of friendship
About those hundreds of Facebook friends: it's not that they don't count. Not exactly.
In her book, You're the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women's Friendships, Georgetown professor of linguistics, Deborah Tannen, addresses how women's social interactions on Facebook do replicate, in many ways, the rhythm of in-person friendship: telling jokes, sharing photos, or making plans. But she also describes how social media has allowed us to experience both “more, and less” communication with our friends. One woman Tannen spoke to, Karen, explains that digital communication is “a bit like Christmas letters. It can keep friends informed of major developments in your life, but it doesn't allow for exploring and sharing the feelings and nuances that go with those major developments. Or the recounting of day-to-day details that make up a life, certainly not regularly, day after day.”
To get the most out of the health and well-being boost that friendship offers, we need face time, not FaceTime. In fact, researchers have found that the more time we spend being “social” on social media, the more isolated we feel.
So how did I take my therapist's advice and find friends I could hang out with in real life?
There's no lack of advice out there. The original in the genre, How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, was clearly written for an audience of men, and unpleasantly positions friendship as an exercise in capitalism. Today, most material is aimed at women and focuses on making authentic connections more naturally. There are friendship coaches (for real!) and seminars. Plus I, (like millions of others) have an underused login on Meetup.com.
However, for lack of any other sound strategy, I simply started telling people I was looking. This was less hideously awkward than it sounds, even for a self-conscious introvert like myself. It turns out that the conundrum of finding real community is common enough, that people are fairly tolerant when you say you need help finding like-minded new friends.
In my case, an acquaintance from Toledo took the time to help me solve my problem. She introduced me to a woman closer to home who not only befriended me but brought me into her own wider circle of awesome allies. To say that this Lady Friend Matchmaker transformed my world would be an understatement. I didn't know what I was missing as I orbited tightly around my husband and family like a particularly pasty moon. I've thanked her, of course, but I've always felt I should do more. How to properly express gratitude for lighting the way to a place I can belong? There's no way.
Perhaps that's one of the greatest contributions we can each make to form a culture that's more lovely than coarse: to cultivate the gift of being able to bring women together. Even though I don't think that's my main calling, I want to make room for it within my personal mission. I want to keep an eye out for women who are lost and lonely and be courageous enough to connect them with women who will know how to welcome them in.
I used to rely on myself, or on my significant other, or even on the kindness of strangers à la Tennessee Williams. I've learned that's not enough: I'm never happier as a person, or especially as a woman than when I can rely on the life-changing love of friends.
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