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More Than Girl Talk

Friendships between women can play an essential role in their health.

A sign hanging above my desk reads: A good friend forgives your defects. A loving friend doesn’t see any.

My high school best friend gave me that sign decades ago. The message is still true. Real friends see your faults and love you anyway. A friend can make the bad times bearable and the good times even better.

“Friendships between women can be a place of refuge from loneliness and indifference, a place where we can know we matter as we are,” says Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., author of Kitchen Table Wisdom (Riverhead Books, $16). “Such friendships can bless the life in us and strengthen us to deal with whatever we must face elsewhere.”

Science Says So

Keep Friendships Growing

Your true friends don’t require intense, time-consuming care and attention. Nevertheless, even the strongest friendships require some maintenance. Often with good friends, conversations pick up right where you leftoff at your last meeting, even if it was months or years ago. Here are some ideas for easy and sincere ways to keep your friendships growing.

E-mail and phone. You can keep in touch, even with just a line or two in an e-mail. Don’t send her any of those “spammy” chain e-mails though. She’s busy too! Or you can text each other. Or use Facebook. Or, just as in the good old days, chat on the phone.

Host an annual event. Every holiday season, I host a cookie & ornament exchange party. It might be the only time all year I see some of my treasured pals.

Birthdays. These handy little calendar holders remind you to make time with that special friend. Coordinating schedules can be tough, so don’t worry if your birthday celebration
isn’t on the exact day.

Popcorn and pals. There’s always a good love story playing at the movies.Many husbands don’t want to go to a “chick flick,” so there is no better excuse to plan a girls’ night out.

Lattes and Mochas. Occasionally, plan an extra early start to your day and have a cup of coffee with your friend. Mornings are a great time to catch up — before schedules, soccer practice andmusic lessons get in the way.

Long-distance Friendships. My best friend is a three-hour drive away, so it takes planning for us to get together. If you have a friendwithin a few hours driving distance, you can plan
a weekend getaway. You can meet in between your homes or take turns going from her place to yours. These escapes can really boost your
spirit and save your sanity.

Friendships between women can play an essential role in the health and well-being of women. According to a UCLA study published in the Psychological Review, time spent on girl talk with your friends can actually counteract life stresses that most of us experience on a daily basis. Laura Cousino Klein, PhD, an author of the study, observes that when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress responses in a woman, it encourages her to tend children and gather with other women.

When a woman engages in this “tending or befriending,” more oxytocin is released, further countering stress and producing a calming effect. This calming response does not occur in men, says Klein, because testosterone, which men produce in higher levels when they are under stress, seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin. Estrogen seems to enhance it.

Girlfriends Are Good Health

The fact that women respond to stress differently than men has significant health implications. The “tend and befriend” response might explain why women consistently outlive men. Numerous studies have indicated that social ties reduce the risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol.

In one study, those who had the most friends during a 9-year period cut their risk of death by more than 60 percent. The results were so significant, the researchers concluded, that not having close friends or confidants was as detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight.

Fitting in Friends

If friendship is so good for us, why is it so hard to find time for our friends? Every time we get overly busy, the first thing we do is let go of friendships with other women, says Ruthellen Josselson, PhD, co-author of Best Friends: The Pleasures and Perils of Girls and Women’s Friendships (Three Rivers Press, $19). “We push them right to the back burner. That’s really a mistake because women are such a source of strength to each other. We nurture one another,” says Dr. Josselson.

Jan Yager, PhD, author of Friendshifts: The Power of Friendship and How It Shapes Our Lives (Hannacroix Creek Books, $22.95), offers a different perspective: “If a woman realized friendship is going to make her a better mother, a better wife, a more fulfilled and happier woman, then she may feel more justified in making friendship the priority it should be.”

So, meet with your gal pals for an afternoon matinee. Enjoy conversation while you’re both having a pedicure and follow it up with an ice cream cone at a nearby shop. Don’t feel guilty. You’ll come back to your family refreshed and focused. And, by the way, the laundry, dusting and dirty dishes won’t miss you a bit.

Claire Yezbak Fadden is a freelance writer.

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