Why Women’s Friendships Outlast Most Marriages

This guest blog entry is by Victoria Costello, author of Child & Adolescent Psychology | Alpha/Penguin, Jul 2011 and A Lethal Inheritance | Prometheus Books, Jan 2012. For more information, please visit http://www.alehtalinheritance.com.

Please note that the opinions presented in the article are that of the author and not necessarily the opinions of RHN. RHN chooses to publish articles and share individual sites to evoke discussion and show all options, ideas and beliefs.

Generally speaking, you can leave two women in a busy doctor’s waiting room and by the time they’re called for their appointments, they know each other’s life story and have traded phone numbers. That’s female bonding at work. On the other hand, when two women are competing for a man or vying for resources for their children, things can get quite nasty. That’s female competition.

Both are instinctual responses, based on body chemistry and evolution. Our culture would like us to believe that women compete with each other more than they bond. But now that fewer than half of all U.S. households are occupied by married couples, we may have reached a tipping point that shifts reality and perception towards the value of female bonding over competition. Think about it…if your girlfriends are going to be there long after your next relationship ends, isn’t it high time we gave those friendships their due?

Let me fess up to my personal stake in this. My relationship of nearly three years with a man I thought I might be with forever (or at least a lot longer than this) recently crashed and burned. The details of why we broke up aren’t important, not in comparison to what happened next. In the aftermath of this sad split, my female friends rallied around me…took me to lunch, invited me to stay with them, talked on the phone for hours, dutifully called him a jerk, gently questioned why I was with him in the first place, and above all listened until I was okay again. With this fresh reminder of the power of female friendship, I’ve taken a step back to look at the relative importance we give to the friends and spouses in our lives–and the forces at work that lead us to view each class of relationships in the ways we do.

I”m going to start with a side trip into the science of female friendships, which is a lot more interesting and relevant to all this an you might think. It turns out there are biochemical reasons for women’s ability to support each other through thick and thin (and why men are challenged in the empathy department).

Most women, far more than men, mirror other people and their emotions exceptionally well. Because of estrogen and a greater default level of oxytocin, the hormonal “superglue” that makes two people want to bond, women feel more in their bodies than men do, from their emotions and physical sensations of pain, pleasure, and everything in between. Women also feel and respond with anguish when faced with another person’s pain to a much larger degree than men. If you were to turn the lights on in a movie theater during a particularly violent scene, chances are a large number of the women would be covering their eyes.

A woman sitting with another person immediately begins to mirror that person, matching and simulating his or her breathing rhythm, muscle tension, and brain circuits. She is able to monitor infinitesimal changes in that person’s expression, and search her emotional memory for cues and clues to what he’s feeling. The reason for this is that women’s brains have many more neuron cells (in both hemispheres) devoted to body sensations and emotional processing. As a result, they’re better at anticipating, judging, and integrating emotional reactions, both positive and negative. They read things like someone’s pause in speech, the tightness of someone’s mouth, or a low flat vocal tone as essential clues to another person’s state of mind and needs. The same clues go right by most men.

Evolution also shapes female friendships. These enhanced female traits of emotional perception are the vestiges of prehistoric woman’s need to be nimble enough to discern friends from foes and get the children out of harm’s way as fast as possible. If her safety was threatened, she did not usually stand and fight, as a man of her time (and now) more likely would. She needed the support of other women to watch and protect their group from external dangers-animal, human, or otherwise.

In addition to women’s greater ability to perceive and mirror emotions in others by using visual cues, females have a more a perceptive sense of smell than males, which depends again on their higher estrogen. This heightened sense of smell is thought to be the cause of the syncing of women’s menstrual cycles, which happens in a group of women through their inhalation of the menstrual pheromones given off when they perspire. This is why the periods of female students living together in dormitories become synchronized. Sheiks and kings who kept harems quickly discovered this fact. According to legend, they also learned to separate them into smaller units so as to avoid the arrival of the less pleasant symptoms of PMS en masse.

As to why women would want to be having their periods at the same time, nobody knows. Perhaps to make sure there are no irritatingly cheerful roomates around at the wrong time of the month…just a guess.

Not All “Nicey Nicey” But More Connected than Ever

This isn’t to say that women always get along with other women.  A woman’s tendency to feel threatened by another woman, like a man when confronted by a competitor of his own sex, also has ancient roots. A modern woman’s fight (not flight) response can still be activated when “her man” becomes the prey of another woman. Evolutionary psychologists speculate that, on an unconscious primal level, such competition threatens a woman’s source of food and protection.

How this plays out today with women making their own money and marriage (at least demographically) on the decline (or happening later) is a tantalizing question. I’m venturing a guess that women’s bonding instincts with each other are winning out over their equally instinctual tendency to compete for a man. That, in the face of the instability of male-female relationships and the decline of marriage there is a perception and reality of greater importance on the female networks in our lives.

Or am I just still in the funk of my recent break up?

What do you think?


Victoria Costello | science writer
www.victoriacostello.com | victoria@victoriacostello.com

Child & Adolescent Psychology | Alpha/Penguin, Jul 2011

A Lethal Inheritance | Prometheus Books, Jan 2012

Elana Clark-Faler
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