Our Friends, Ourselves

I'd lived in New York City for two years when it hit me: The love of my family and a view of the Chrysler Building weren't enough. I was happy to be continuing my career as a life coach, speaker, and author in a new town -- one I'd come to love almost as much as my native Kansas City. But despite these opportunities, something was still missing. I needed some friends. 

Back home, my life had been shored up by scores of casual friends and a coterie of close ones: the half-dozen remarkable women and one fabulous gay man who had seen me through widowhood and single parenthood, dating and remarriage, and the agony and ecstasy of writing for a living. In my new locale, I had a slew of "networking contacts" but only a couple of genuine friends. In an affirmation that was part prayer, part resolution, I told myself, "This time next year, I'll have a circle of friends like the one I left behind." 

A few days later, a mass e-mail came through announcing that peace discussion groups were forming in homes around the country. I clicked on the New York City link and wrote to a stranger: "What part of the city do you live in?" A woman named Linda replied. She lived across the street; I could look out my front window and see the light in hers. She was no longer hosting peace meetings, but we made a date for coffee. Now we're friends -- the count-on-and-confide-in kind. Whenever one of us tells someone, "We met through a miracle: a geographic coincidence with odds of 8 million to one," it makes me think that every friendship is a miracle, with odds beyond our comprehension. 

What's in It for Us
Research has long suggested that having friends benefits both sexes. One study found that men and women with the most friends (as compared with other study subjects) had a 60 percent reduced likelihood of dying over the course of nine years. But for women, who manage stress differently than men, the benefits of friendship extend even further. A landmark study conducted at UCLA in 2000 challenged "fight or flight" as the only stress response for both genders. Researchers Shelley E. Taylor, Ph.D., and Laura Cousino Klein, Ph.D., discovered that females had an additional reaction they labeled "tend and befriend" -- making friendship of paramount importance to women as they cope with stress. 

Taylor and Klein noted that when women are under stress, our bodies release the hormone oxytocin (the "mother-love hormone" that plays a role in childbirth and nursing), which encourages us to gather children close and band with other women for protection and support. Tending and befriending encourages the release of even more oxytocin, bringing about further calming. Men release oxytocin, too, but the additional testosterone they produce under stress decreases its effects. This may explain why, when things go wrong, your male companions may want to watch the game or take a walk by themselves (thus dealing with the emotion internally, "fleeing" to solitude), while you want to call everyone you know and "talk about it" from every possible angle. 

Whether due to their role in stress reduction or another factor yet to be discovered, friends do make us healthier. According to research from the Harvard Nurses' Health Study (a comprehensive research initiative that identified and studied risk factors for chronic disease in 122,000 women), having close friends actually contributes to better overall physical functioning. The researchers found that the absence of a close confidante is a health risk comparable in magnitude to smoking or a high body-mass index. 

Curiously, for a miracle, friendship doesn't get very high billing. The allure of romance gets celebrated in novels and songs, but when it comes down to it, our female friendships sustain us in deeper, lyric-defying ways. We can tell our good friends anything and not feel judged or in need of fixing. Our friends understand how it feels to live in a complex body that can make milk and a baby, and that cycles with the moon. Together we can conduct a conversation that shifts from kids to careers, from global warming to lipstick shades, all over a single pot of tea. 

Despite the persistent myth that friendship functions merely as an accessory in our lives, our relationships with other women are far from tangential. "We need to get together; we need our rituals," says Pam Grout, author of "Girlfriend Getaways: You Go Girl! And I'll Go, Too." "Girlfriends are mirrors into ourselves. Sure, sometimes we hang out with our women friends just for fun. But getting together also gives us a break from the daily grind so we can talk about big ideas and explore possibilities." 

Friendship can be important to men, of course, and contrary to the famous line in "When Harry Met Sally" ("No man can be friends with a woman he finds attractive"), men and women can sometimes be great friends and keep sex out of it. Still, the friends we hang on to from childhood, the ones we visit even if it requires a prop plane and a four-wheel-drive vehicle, the ones we call first when something goes slightly -- or tragically -- wrong, are almost invariably other females. "Women tend to self-disclose more with their women friends than they do with their male partners," say Jane Adams, Ph.D., author of "Boundary Issues: Using Boundary Intelligence to Get the Intimacy You Want and the Independence You Need in Life, Love, and Work." This level of trust elevates friendship to something more than just companionship: It creates a much-needed emotional outlet. In these types of friendships, we know we can come as we are, speak our minds, and bare our souls. 

Friendship, the Master Class
If some pill or potion could lessen our stress and lengthen our lives, we'd take the daily dose. Friends are this multipurpose remedy, and they'll also remember our birthdays and meet us at Starbucks. Unfortunately, the same daily demands that make our need for friends more acute also diminish our ability to spend time with them. When our lives include a partner and a job, young children and aging parents, a house and a yard, a car, pets, and the need for a little solitude, friendship seldom gets the ranking it deserves. 

It doesn't have to be this way, though. Once we stop seeing female friendships as a nice "extra" and start valuing them as a life-sustaining necessity, we make the mental shift needed to reprioritize this connection. The logistics of making time for friends, then, resolve themselves more intuitively. Jan Yager, Ph.D., author of "Friendshifts: The Power of Friendship and How It Shapes Our Lives," suggests starting simply, with the integration of friends into the demands we already have. "If you are really pressed for time but still want to maintain contact with your friends, try to combine what you have to do with getting together with a friend," she says. "Ask a friend to join you for your necessary shopping. Take an exercise class together. Meet over lunch during the workday if you do not have a minute to spare at night or on the weekends." 

Taking Yager's advice, I've come to see a lunch alone as a missed opportunity. I used to refuse invitations, saying, "Going out for lunch cuts my workday in half." Then I realized that it needs to be split, so I can come back at quarter to two with a new take on the day and fresh insights gleaned from a friend. Considering Yager's idea further, I now put trysts with friends -- even notes to myself like "Return Elizabeth's call" -- in my day planner along with professional commitments and dentist appointments. When they're on the list to check off, they won't go into the abyss of "when I get around to it." 

Another way to streamline friends into an already full schedule involves mixing them with family (why do we think they're like oil and water?). This way, we get quality time with both. I delight in the fact that sometimes my "setups" have resulted in extended friendships. When my self-contained husband, for example, got to know the husband of one of my friends, their mutual interest in music led to an unexpected result: their coauthoring of a book on how to play the harmonica. 

When we're trying to broaden our base of women friends, often being part of a "salon" gets us instant access to people we like -- and those we want to get to know better -- on a regular basis. A gathering like this can take place weekly or monthly and continue for a specified period of time or for as long as people keep showing up. We can study a book (or several), discuss a topic (or myriad ones), or midwife other women's dreams. These planned gatherings have historical precedent: Our great-grandmothers met for quilting and canning; our grandmothers sewed for the soldiers; and our mothers invented playgroups. Even if we're the first generation in our family to fit girlfriend time around business trips and product launches, we have a strong and lengthy tradition to build on. 

In addition to carving out time for the women in our lives, it can't hurt to hone friendship skills. Some women seem to come by these naturally -- my friend Leslie is a case in point. She has a knack for keeping in touch, leaving warm, friendly messages with the freeing caveat, "You don't need to call me back." She sends me links to Web sites she thinks I'd find helpful, and actual paper clippings in envelopes with stamps. Her budget can always stretch to accommodate thoughtful gifts for friends and mints for business associates. When an opportunity comes her way, she shares the largesse. She celebrates friends' successes as if they were her own, and I think that's the essence of it: If at some spiritual level we are indeed all connected, our friends' triumphs belong to us, too. 

This celebrating builds our friendship muscles. So does listening, keeping confidences, and going the extra mile, even when we're wearing heels. We improve on our friendship skills by being there: showing up for a friend's keynote occasions and knowing she'll be at ours -- usually in body, always in spirit. We strengthen them further when we reveal as much of ourselves as we comfortably can, and when we don't press a friend to share more than she's willing or able to at the time. We become a good friend by having good friends. We learn from one how unexpected and lovely it is to receive a thank-you note for the littlest thing, and from another the comfort of knowing there's at least one person on earth you can call in the middle of the night, as long as you don't make it a habit. 

In a culture that tends to regard growing old as a personal failing, the fact that friendship ages well can provide sweet consolation. "Actuarially speaking," says Adams, "we'll outlive men by many years. We'll need each other for physical caretaking, companionship, and validation that we still exist." I can see myself years from now as a lady of 80 or 90, inviting a friend out for a lunch that isn't too spicy or a walk that's not too long. Maybe we'll share family photos and talk about the small triumphs of our great-grandchildren. Or shop for hats. Or enjoy that silence that means more than words, knowing we're wise women with rich histories behind us, vast mystery before us, and in between the great good fortune of having a friend. 

7 Steps to Becoming a World-Class Friend
1. Make the First Move
Consider someone intriguing in your yoga class or book club as a potential friend. Invite her out for coffee and see how you fare one-on-one. Common interests make for a great start; shared values can oftentimes lead to a lifelong friendship. 

2. Appreciate Each Friend's Uniqueness
Friends are like dance partners: The moves differ a little with each one. Rita might listen at length as you work through a problem, but Julie will always be up for spontaneous fun. Your interactions with and approach to them will naturally vary. 

3. Have a Sense of Humor
A friend in need may be a friend indeed, but too much neediness and nonstop woe can be the death knell of a friendship. By all means, take serious matters seriously. But be sure your relationship overall brims with lightness, laughter, and good times. 

4. Stay Connected
Our mobile society can put miles, even oceans, between friends. Keep in touch with special people who are no longer geographically close. It may be only a telephone call once a month and an email every now and then, but if you're soul sisters, a few time zones shouldn't prevent you from staying close. 

5. Honor Boundaries
Personal boundaries dictate what we need from others and what we're able to give -- and they're highly individual. They determine the degree to which we'll share intimate information, and they define our tolerance for such faux pas as showing up late for lunch or not returning borrowed items. Be aware of the subtle cues that let you know where a friend's boundaries lie, and clearly state any boundary that is important to you, for example, "Please don't call me at work unless it's urgent." 

6. Beware "Acquaintance Addiction"
We meet people through work, partners, kids, organizations, and those "networkers" who always insist that we must get to know so-and-so. Email keeps us "in touch" with people we might not even recognize in person. If acquaintances are taking time from close and trusted friends, family, and your own needs, clean out your address book. 

7. Make Circles
Although the most celebrated friendships are between two people, certain groups -- the quartets in "Sex and the City" or "The Golden Girls," for example -- capture the imagination. You're blessed if you have a circle of friends who "hang together" and feel close. If another friend doesn't fit in, though, refrain from going for a square peg/round hole conversion. Circles come in all sizes, including a table for two.

Angela and Jennifer
Since meeting on a Glamour photo shoot 15 years ago (Angy was the model and Jen the makeup artist), these friends have shared their lives on many levels. Jen supports Angy's singing career and loves her children as if they were her own. Angy draws strength and inspiration from Jen's spiritual path, which includes Vinyasa yoga and metaphysical study. More sisters than friends (and kindred Jamaicans), they consider themselves "honored and blessed" to know one another. 

Sara and Elizabeth
Sara and Elizabeth first bonded on their way to a business engagement, sitting in rush-hour traffic on the Long lsland Expressway. Having recently moved to New York City from Rhode Island, Sara was seeking advice on all the best local neighborhoods. Elizabeth convinced her that Hoboken, New Jersey, was the place to be, and now the two commute to work together each morning -- and enjoy sharing afternoon tea-and-cookie breaks and impromptu dinners with their significant others. 

Robin, Kim, and Wendy
They met more than 10 years ago as competitors in a bike race and continued to race with, and against, each other as their friendship developed. The three have remained in touch through major life changes -- relocation, divorce, career ambitions -- ever since. They continue to encourage each other to take risks while pursuing their dreams. Today, as artists and art lovers, they value honesty, spontaneity, compassion, and physical hard work -- the cornerstones of their friendship. 

Michelle and Susanna
They were freshmen together in 1988 at Parsons School of Design and have since been roommates, coworkers, teaching colleagues, and good friends. Between their work and family responsibilities, Michelle and Susanna don't see each other as often as they'd like. But when they do meet for lunch, they find they're always "on the same page." The pursuits that first brought them together -- achieving difficult goals, eating great food, and finding larger New York City apartments -- remain relevant today.

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