The Year of Girlfriends

Late afternoon on New Year’s Day, my Twitter feed started to light up with mentions of my Twitter handle. While I haven’t signed on to the site much recently, I have notifications set to alert me when I am mentioned or receive a direct message. My friend, Molly, had tweeted: “Declaring #2013 as the year of the girlfriends. 🙂 I may not survive my 30s without them…True words.” When she didn’t get an immediate response to this tweet, Molly tweeted again, calling on several of us to join her for #theyearofthegirlfriend. Nothing would satisfy her until we had all responded that we were “in”. I may not always like being called out publicly, but I have to say I didn’t mind it for this pledge of friendship in the new year.

And what a group of women to be included among! Molly named only four or five of us, but there are more than that in our merry band of women friends. We range in age from mid-twenties to early 50s (that’s me, by far the oldest); we’re all over the map with regard to political leanings, social standing, marital status, and spiritual beliefs. What we have in common would be difficult for a stranger to parse, but seems to make sense to us. First and foremost, we were in the same place at the same time for a brief moment. This proximity cannot be underestimated as an initial catalyst, after all, even in a digital age we crave closeness on both the physical and emotional levels. But proximity alone doesn’t begin to explain what has kept us interested in developing and deepening our friendships with one another. That is about seeking out, from among those physically near, those whose inner selves call to our own best selves. My closest women friends, whether connected with this group or not, allow me to be who I am and love me in spite of my flaws. However, they also know I have a vision of a better me I’m striving to reach. So they nurture her, too, and help her bloom into being.

I don’t think Molly was exaggerating her claim that she might not survive her 30s without her girlfriends. In fact, I think she might have been understating things a bit. Recently, there has been a tendency to focus on women as “frenemies” and “mean girls”, to the detriment of real women and their meaningful relationships with one another. However, research apparently tells a different story. One study, a  comprehensive study of women’s health, resulted in surprising findings – we’ve all heard about the “fight or flight” response to stress; women, however, may have a stress response better characterized as “tend and befriend”. (Text of the original study can be read here. However, an easier to read article summarizing the findings can be found here.) The study suggests that this “tend and befriend” response is triggered by the release of oxytocin, which is further enhanced by the presence of estrogen. The result is a powerful calming effect on stress not experienced by men. According to the study’s authors, this response may even explain why women outlive men. Other studies consistently show that having close women friends helps women sleep better, improves their immune systems, staves off dementia and, ultimately, helps women live longer. One study (Flinders University, Australia) found that women with more friends lived 22 percent longer than women with fewer friends. Even if these reports were exaggerated or from flawed research (I just searched and found them on the internet, after all!), they still point to a powerful truth – women need their girlfriends. It may even be a matter of life or death!

While I find it interesting that there are biological factors which affect and/or are impacted by women’s friendships, it is much more important to me that my friends impact my emotional and psychological well-being in positive ways – and that my friendship, love and concern have that same positive impact on them. I can only speak for myself when I say that my friends are sometimes the only motivating factor for getting me through the day. It isn’t that I spend every day baring my soul, my deepest thoughts and feelings to them. Or that they always have excellent advice. Rather, it is the acceptance and lack of judgment, the sensitivity to nuance of mood, the willingness to hold me up with their strength or to sometimes give me a kick in the pants that makes my girlfriends so important to me. My girlfriends can be fierce when necessary, but they’re never mean. And while we may occasionally hurt one another’s feelings, it is always unintentionally done – never purposeful “frenemy fire”.

So here’s to making 2013 “The Year of the Girlfriends”. To all my girls out there, near and far, old and young – be well, be happy, and be proud of your tending and befriending ways. The life you save may be your own, but you’ll likely lengthen – and enrich – a few other lives along the way!

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