Friendship for Grown-Ups

Bonding with others can be easy when you're a kid, a teenager, or a young adult (remember those late nights in the college dorm?) But it can be harder once you've grown up. Why? And what should you do?

Of Oscars, Orangutans & Oxytocin, Friendship Tales

From humans to fruit bats, you gotta have girlfriends

"A Night at the Oscars" suburban bonding ritual
I had a wonderful time last night at a "Night at the Oscars" party hosted by a creative neighbor. The scene was set with flowers in plastic red and white striped popcorn boxes, signs outside saying "limo parking," champagne cocktails with bitters and a twist of lemon, and vintage record-shaped wineglass markers. There were even Oscar Bingo sheets with check boxes based on outfits worn, length of acceptance speeches, and who won. Drinks and great appetizers aside, the pleasure of the evening was not in watching this year's relatively toned down Oscars, but in the emotional venting, gossiping about celebrities, and sharing of funny stories about (working) motherhood in suburbia. And, all across the nation, groups of women were doing the same thing. Research studies tell us that across different species, females seek out and maintain same-sex friendships. And for good reason - these relationships have been shown to improve health and stress-resistance.

It has been known for years that female primates, dolphins, elephants, and some carnivores show evidence of friendships. They may cuddle together for warmth, look for food together, seek out each other's company consistently, or groom each other. Orangutans, for example, live separately by gender and males and females only get together during mating season. However, a recent research study suggests the phenomenon of female friendship may occur even in animals with tiny brains. In a study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers, led by Gerald Kerch from the University of Groningen, studied female wild Bechstein's bats for a 5-year period. The female bats roosted together, groomed each other, and appeared to share information and make group decisions about where to roost. Even after months of hibernation, they were able to recognize previous companions. Social changes occurred as well, in that colonies would merge and split; a phenomenon known as fission-fusion. In young girls, we often see this pattern of "frenemies" and changing alliances. This research blows out of the water the theory that female friendship-seeking is unique to large-brained mammals, such as humans, and rooted in exclusively high-order cortical activity. It appears to be a function, at least partially, of more basic needs.

Orangutans choose to live separately by gender
The need to be comforted and soothed by a nurturing figure has been clearly shown in Harry Harlow's famous (or infamous) studies of rhesus monkey infants separated from their mothers at birth. Those fed by a dummy "mother" made of wire showed emotional/behavioral problems. However, when the wire monkey was covered with a soft cloth, the baby monkeys were protected from these effects. The soft touch of the cloth evidently met the monkeys' need for warm and comforting touch. Female friends of all species may also exchange vital information about child-rearing, health, food and shelter, be this a home in prestigious Marin county or a space amid the roof beams for a bat to hang. First-time moms often band together in playgroups when their babies are young, sharing resources and information and developing lifelong family bonds. Even the internet is rife with mommy bloggers telling each other how to be thrifty, cook delicious, economical meals, entertain children and celebrate special occasions.

Female bats hanging out together
Shelley Taylor, Ph.D. and her colleagues at UCLA synthesized a large body of research in different species to suggest that such affiliative behaviors among females might be a response to stress and were likely mediated by the hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin is released in both stressful and bonding situations, such as breastfeeding. Although both men and women release oxytocin, its action seems to be enhanced by the female hormone estrogen but dampened by testosterone. Taylor and colleagues called the oxytocin-mediated stress response "tend and befriend" and suggested it led to affiliating with other females and nurturing the young when under acute stress, such as the threat of a predator. While "fight or flight" responses comprising increased blood pressure and adrenaline (epinephrine) have been identified as the classic stress response, these researchers arguethat it wouldn't be adaptive to just take off if you had kids to protect. However, bringing in the troops of girlfriends to the fight is an effective way to scare off or overpower the predator. They cited research showing that primate females who habitually groomed each other would also attack a male monkey that behaved aggressively to one of the grooming gang.

In humans, female friendships have been associated with blood pressure reductions, better coping with illness, and enhanced recovery from bereavement. In addition to the protective and information-sharing aspects of these relationships, they may act as a source of validation and reassurance or a vehicle for confiding. Research has shown that men are more likely to talk about activities or focus on solving problems, whereas women talk more about emotions. It is not surprising, then, that both men and women prefer to confide in a woman, given the choice, according to research. While men confide mainly in their female spouses, females tend to confide in a broad network of other women, resulting in relational resources they can draw on if their spouse is on a different wavelength or absent. While marriage has health benefits for men, its benefits for women are less clear-cut, perhaps because women can draw on close, confiding relationships with friends as well.

Gender differences in human friendships may, however, be socially, rather than biologically determined. From a young age, boys are taught to be tough and shake things off, whereas little girls are more likely to be listened to and comforted by adults. Many biological arguments focus on mothers with young children, which may not explain friendships among single, childless, or career-focused women. While science has not yet unravelled all the mysteries of women's friendships, the Beatles seem to have gotten it right when they sang "I get by with a little help from my friends," at least as far as women are concerned.

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Friendship for Grown-Ups