Be girly, live longer
August 12, 2004
The Telegraph, London
Men have often been mystified by women's close friendships. Now there's a scientific explanation, reports Lisa Reich.
"I really don't know what I'd do without you. What would I do without you? What?" asked my friend, Bethan, at 3.24am as she stood sobbing on my doorstep. And because she is one of the people I love most in the world, I let her leak tears and make-up and goodness knows what else on to my silk-clad shoulder. I wouldn't let anyone else do this. Not even me.
To comfort Bethan, who had been betrayed by a two-timing husband, I murmured wise-sounding words that came from I don't know where. The kind of sane things one never thinks to say to oneself, but which are readily available whenever there's a friend in need.
Marlene Dietrich said: "It's the ones you can call up at 4am that matter."
For friendships really are good for your health - and that's not because this is something women "just know". It's now a matter of science. "There's no doubt that friends are helping us live longer," says Dr Laura Cousino Klein, a professor of bio-behavioural health at Pennsylvania State University and co-author of a study of women's friendship.
Male partnerships - Batman and Robin, Holmes and Watson - do serious things like rid the world of evil and make gigantic scientific discoveries. Women, meanwhile, take soft-focus road trips, talk exhaustively about men over chardonnay and get mushy over giant bars of chocolate and hug a lot.
"Historically, the concerns of women wanting to talk about relationships and emotions were dismissed," says the best-selling author Marian Keyes. "Just because these things are important to women, men have made it their business to laugh at them or roll their eyes and say something like 'You girls!' in that indulgent way of theirs.
"It's that whole thing of 'women gossip, men talk', isn't it? And so you grow up thinking friendships are great, but aren't that important - or second-rate, somehow. I wish women were more proud of being women - of being emotional, girly, of having lots and lots of feelings to discuss and dissect, instead of thinking we're being silly to air them."
Researchers such as Klein and her colleague Shelley Taylor found that while men will react single-handedly to a stressful situation, women's priority seems to be to seek out other females. When they engage in this "tending or befriending" - a term coined by Klein and Taylor - a chemical called oxytocin is released, which counters stress and has a calming effect.
"This calming response does not occur in men because testosterone, which men produce in high levels when they're under stress, seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin," says Klein. "Oestrogen seems to enhance it. There was this joke in the lab that when the women who worked there were stressed, they came in, cleaned the lab, had coffee, and bonded. When the men were stressed, they holed up somewhere on their own. I commented one day to Shelley Taylor that nearly 90 per cent of the stress research is on males. I showed her the data from my lab, and the two of us knew instantly that we were on to something."
Klein and Taylor found that not having close friends could be as bad for your health as an unhealthy lifestyle - smoking, drinking and eating too much saturated fat. They also looked at how women fared after experiencing personal tragedies. They discovered that those with strong friendships were more likely to get through the ordeal without experiencing any physical side-effects.
It's a bit sad, then, that the first thing to fall by the wayside as we go about our busy lives is, so often, our friendships. "We're so geared to think we should be more like men in the pursuit of good jobs, good money and having a man by the time we're 30, that we forget to be girly and nourish the bit of us that needs friends," says Keyes.
Anne Campbell, a psychologist and author of A Mind of Her Own, says that this doesn't mean that "men's friendships are any less significant" than women's.
"It's not that female friendships are better or worse - they are just different. Women tend to have fewer but more intimate friends than men. They disclose more personal information to them. Men are more judicious about disclosing information that makes them vulnerable," she says.
Men might scoff at some female friendships, but they recognise their power, too, and are, says Campbell, more likely to confide in female friends than men. In a relationship, for example, the man will tend to turn to his partner for emotional support, while the woman will almost always turn to her friends.
"Although research suggests that men disclose more when they talk to women than when they talk to other men, it seems that disclosure is not something that men look for in a friendship," says Campbell. "They are quite happy with the status quo in general. They like the cut-and-thrust of banter and jokey one-upmanship most of the time. But when they have serious personal problems that make them vulnerable, they are more likely to discuss them with a woman than a man."
"Female friendships have always been special," says Claire Bayliss, acting editor of British New Woman magazine. "But I think female friendship groups have become like a second, or extended, family for many women.
"Perhaps men find our ability to talk openly about emotions and relationships a little intimidating. Or maybe they're just worried that we're talking about them. Which, let's face it, we just might be."
The Telegraph, London