Happy Galentines Day!

Why women shouldn't put their friendships last.

Posted Feb 13, 2019

February 13 is Galentine's Day, an unofficial holiday in which women celebrate other women, especially their female friends. According to Wikipedia, the term “Galentines Day” can be traced back to a 2010 episode of the sitcom Parks and Recreation. Although the origins of the day may not seem especially auspicious, there is a lot of good science supporting the importance of female friendships.

As early as kindergarten, girls’ closest friends tend to be girls, and boys tend to be friends with other boys. This trend gets stronger until about age 12 or 13. In the teenage years, other-sex friends and romantic partners become more common. Still, through adulthood women’s closest (non-romantic) friendships tend to be with other women. Why is this? What is so special about these friendships?

In a paper that Steven Asher of Duke University and I wrote in Child Development Perspectives, we tackled this topic. As early as elementary school, girls’ friendships have unique strengths. Girls who are friends share more personal information and express more caring, concern, and affection for one another than do boys. Compared to boys, girls also report that their friends help them more. Our research suggests that this is especially true in terms of talking about problems and providing emotional support. This is not to say that boys’ friendships don’t have strengths too. For example, in our paper we describe boys’ friendships as offering especially high levels of fun, adventure, and humor.

Throughout the lifespan, females and males maintain these strengths in their friendships. In addition, as adults men benefit from females’ supportive interpersonal style. This is one of the reasons why widows are thought to fare better than widowers. Whereas widows are supported by networks of female friends, widowers often have lost their main or sole source of social support.

Getting back to Galentine’s Day, though, there is one developmental period in which women are less likely to benefit from their female friendships. In childhood and through their early 20s, girls and women spend a lot of time with female friends. Older adulthood also can be something of a “golden age” for female friendships. This is partially because women tend to outlive men, leaving women’s social networks largely populated by other women. However, the mid-life years in between can be a long dry spell in terms of women’s time with close friends.

From their late 20s until their late 40s or early 50s, women are notoriously busy. You can’t open a webpage or magazine without seeing an article about how women can balance family and work, be more efficient with their tasks, or manage the stress of “doing it all.” Women tend to put their families and work first during these years, and US Census Data show that men have more leisure time than women. On the rare occasion that these women do decide to take some time for themselves, what are the chances that their friend will be available too? Getting together seems to get more and more challenging during this time period, and many women give up trying. 

Galentine's Day is a good reminder that women should not put their friendships last. In fact, recent research by Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford found that women who get together with their girlfriends at least two times a week experience less anxiety and even better physical health than other women. This may be in part because women find friends especially helpful for talking through problems and offering support, which is particularly important during these busy years. Building on the research regarding boys’ friendships, many women do find male partners especially fun to hang out with and enjoy the activities that they do together. However, they find women friends valuable sources of support, encouragement, and validation, like they have since childhood.

Life is demanding, especially for women with children at home and work piling up around them. In order to nourish and rejuvenate themselves during these years, women should encourage one another to make time for friendships. On this Galentine’s Day and every day, friendships deserve not only a special place in women’s hearts but also a regular spot in their calendars.

References

Rose, A. J., & Asher, S. R. (2017). The social tasks of friendship: Do girls and boys excel in different tasks? Child Development Perspectives, 11, 3-8.