The Girlfriend Instinct - The Value of Female Friendships

The Desire to 'Tend and Befriend' Is Part of Our DNA

I met my girlfriend Dana in college, and in the years since then our friendship has grown exponentially. Nine years ago, Dana told me that she had breast cancer. She's a survivor. In that timeframe, my marathon walking buddy Allison found out she had appendicidal cancer. She too is a survivor.

With two very close girlfriends in the same situation—one that was certainly new to all of us—I found myself asking: How as a girlfriend do I handle this? What do I do to support them? Where do I look for answers?

This is not an article about cancer. It is an article about the incredible life-force underlining the word 'girlfriend.'

Girlfriend Support

I remember the moment I heard about Allison's cancer. I didn't want to talk with my husband, even though he is a great man and a caring friend of Allison's as well. I wanted to talk with my female friends. I wanted their advice, their hugs, their sincere listening while I asked ‘why?' Seeking advice, sharing concern, providing support and love, I wanted to be around the women who understood how I felt and who, I hoped, would help me be a better friend to my friends going through one of life's scariest situations.

So, why are girlfriends so important? I dug in and studied my own need for female community and what pulled me toward my friendships as a primary support system in a time a great stress. I was especially curious to find out why couldn't I fill this need with my husband or through the wisdom of books, advisors or other communities? Was it just me?

Turns out it wasn't.

Relationship Research

A little research led me to a captivating book that spelled out the answers to me. The Tending Instinct, by Shelley E. Taylor, unlocks some of the mysteries of "women, men, and the biology of our relationships." The big 'ah-ha!' I discovered in its pages is that this need for community with other women is biological; it is part of our DNA. Taylor's book consolidated a variety of studies covering cultural factors, decades of research, anecdotal references—even the biological ties to the girlfriend concept in the animal kingdom. An unending stream of fascinating facts helped define why we as women are more social, more community focused, collaborative, less competitive and, above all, why we need our girlfriends.

Consider these findings:

  • Longevity - Married men live longer than single men, yet women who marry have the same life expectancy as those who don't. However, women with strong female social ties (girlfriends) live longer than those without them.
  • Stress - For decades, stress tests focused solely on male participants, believing that all humans would respond in the same manner. When these same stress tests were finally conducted on females it was discovered that women don't have the same, classic 'fight or flight' response to stress that men do. According to the research presented in The Tending Instinct, women under stress have the need to 'tend and befriend.' We want to tend to our young and be with our friends. Time with our friends actually reduces our stress levels.
  • More Stress - A study conducted by the UCLA School of Medicine found that when we're with our girlfriends, our bodies emit the "feel good" hormone oxytocin, helping us reduce everyday stress. By prioritizing our female friendships and spending time with these friends, we take advantage of a very simple, natural way to reduce our stress.
  • Even More Stress - Prairie voles, a monogamous rodent, have a similar response to stress. When a male vole is put in a stressful situation, he runs to his female partner. Female voles, when stressed, immediately run to the females they were raised with.
  • Self-Esteem - A recent study by Dove indicated that 70% of women feel prettier because of their relationships with female friends. It's no surprise that our self-esteem is highly influenced by our girlfriends; this is important to understand for girls as well as women.
  • The Health Factor - Women without strong social ties risk health issues equivalent to being overweight or a smoker—it's that serious.

Friendships Waning

With all I've discovered that is good about female friendships, I was disappointed to come across a national survey from 2006 that found a sharp decline in friendships. Research co-author Lynn Smith-Lovin, a sociologist at Duke University said, "From a social point of view, it means you've got more people isolated." When we're isolated, we don't have each other to help us through tough situations like hurricanes or fires, financial struggles or relationship changes, sadness or cancer. Without communities of women, we often miss opportunities to be involved in our cities, to learn from each other, to empathize with other women and to share the benefits of laughter and a heart-felt hug.

As women, we sometimes need to be reminded what being a girlfriend means. Too often it takes an illness or loss to hit us with reality, realization, and appreciation of friendship. That reminder can also be as simple as a caring card, a hug or an e-mailed photo. Once in a while we simply need to take the time to think about our friends, stop and live in the moment, and if at all possible, celebrate that moment.

Hear some bad news? Call a girlfriend. Have something great to celebrate? Share that celebration with a friend. Want to feel prettier, be less stressed, be healthier and happier? Spend some time with your BFFs. Like the scary, life-changing diagnoses of my dear girlfriends, recognize your own need for friendships and fill that need with time and memories together.

Life is better together—with your girlfriends.

NOTE: Research for this article primarily attributed to The Tending Instinct by Shelley E. Taylor. Additional information was received form Kappa Delta, NWFD facts, and the Dove Beauty study.