I have five best friends. My husband, my sister, and three women--college friends--I've known for about 20 years. One of those three women, Nina, moved away from Chicagoland last month. Her husband landed a gig in Silicon Valley, so they packed up their kids, their lives and went west.
If God allowed us to pick our family members, Nina would be in mine.
When we were roommates after college, we'd host weekend food parties and cook late into the night, dissecting the nuances of our dysfunctional families. My heart was badly bruised after I broke up with a man I'd dated several years, and Nina offered the best talk therapy. While I lived on the East Coast, we'd organize mini-retreats with another friend, to foodie destinations like Napa Valley and Manhattan. I was in her wedding, and she was in mine. And we both had our first babies within months of each other.
Since motherhood, we've not been able to get together as often as we once did. Our phone chats are shorter, punctuated by toddler babble and infant yelps. Yet we've not once been out of touch. Not for 20 years. I can't remember ever feeling judged by her, like I have to choose my words carefully. She consistently loves and accepts flawed old me.
Female Friendships: To Your Health
Nowadays such a high-quality, lasting friendship is a rare find, according to some. Gordon MacDonald, chancellor of Denver Seminary, said recently on Moody Radio's Midday Connection, "Life is not friendly to deep relationships today because of its busyness and its scatteredness."
MacDonald and his wife Gail were on the show discussing the character and quality of relationships, particularly women's friendships with other women, and men's friendships with other men. Women and men are designed for community with friends of the same sex, according to the MacDonalds.
"Too many studies are being done now about women friendships, which tell us that we do our health damage if we do not have close friends," Gail explained.
A 2000 UCLA study on friendship among women found that brain chemicals cause women to make and maintain friendships with other women as a way of responding to stress. According to Gale Berkowitz's review of the study, Dr. Laura Cousin Klein, one of the authors of the study, said when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of a woman's stress responses, it buffers the fight-or-flight mechanism, and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women.
"Study after study has found that social ties reduce our risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol. There's no doubt, says Dr. Klein, that friends are helping us live longer," Berkowitz writes. Harvard Medical School's Nurses' Health Study has found that the more friends women have, the less likely they are to develop physical impairments as they get older, she notes.
And according to Prevention, there's evidence that intimate friendships improve mood and quash stress:"English researcher Tirril Harris studied the effect of having a confidante on 86 depressed women. After a year of regular meetings with 'befrienders' who were assigned to them, 65 percent of the women recovered from their depression, compared with only 40 percent of those who'd been assigned to a waiting list. The positive effects of friendship were comparable to those of antidepressants or cognitive therapy."
A Matter of Trust
Despite the benefits, Gail MacDonald says women avoid deep relationships with one another. "Women are very afraid of each other. They're afraid that somebody is going to betray them. They're afraid to entrust too much of themselves to women, because they know that sometimes not-so-good things happen between women. So you're always a little on edge."
Dr. Saundra J. Taulbee, a doctor of mental health and pastor based in Orange County, Calif., agrees with MacDonald. In the 25 years of her mental-health practice, Taulbee has heard from female patients who say they don't know how to maintain friendships. Much of this inability, she says, stems from a woman's relationship with her mother. If it's unhealthy, she won't be able to move beyond superficial ties with other women.
Women also use their busy schedules as excuses for avoiding intimacy, Taulbee says. "Very few women are able to, I have found, be who they are in the presence of [another woman]," she explains.
Dr. Jan Yager, a sociologist and friendship coach at the Life Management Center in Stamford, Ct., sees things a little differently. "Some women, because they have unresolved issues from childhood and are in need of therapy, can be incapable of forming positive friendships until they get their act together emotionally. But that's the exception rather than the rule," Yager explains.
Though experts differ on the notion of whether women fear deep friendships with each other, most agree that such relationships are possible. They require transparency and an investment of your time, experts say.
Gail MacDonald says you must be willing to be a friend, not just make a friend. Investing yourself and the time it takes to build trust--the bedrock of intimacy--can be a tall order in our culture, which values instant results.
But I'm proof that it's an investment worth making. My closest female friends keep me laughing, cry with me, bring me joy. As C.S. Lewis said in The Four Loves, they give value to my survival.
“A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.” ¯ Elbert Hubbard
•"Friendships," Midday Connection on Moody Radio Chicago, June 7, 2012
•"10 Qualities Among Friendships," Gordon MacDonald
•"UCLA Study On Friendship Among Women: An alternative to fight or flight," Gale Berkowitz, 2002
•"Gal Pals: How to stay close despite stress, marriage and financial upheaval," Prevention, December 2011