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Exploring the Differences Between Male and Female Friendships

Men might be more transactional than women, but what else?

Key points

  • Female friendships thrive on intimacy and emotional connection. Women want to feel emotionally connected and supported. 
  • The intimate, face-to-face relationships between women have a lot to do with oxytocin, the bonding or "love potion" hormone.
  • Friendships between males are often more transactional. Men tend to value friendships that are more shared activity-based.

When I was out at dinner with my husband, he told me that our mutual friends of 20 years had decided to end their marriage. I wanted to know details: the why, the when, the where.

But he didn't have these details, and when I pressed for answers, he said his friend brought it up briefly with a group of close guy friends, then moved on to a different subject. Not many questions were asked; not many details were given.

If I was with a group of my girlfriends, and this topic was discussed, we would talk about the juicy details: the why, the when, the how, and the now what.

This specific example paints the perfect picture of the differences between men and women in terms of friendships.

The recipe for a female friendship

Female friendships thrive on intimacy and emotional connection. We, as females, want to talk about feelings, want to experience physical touch, want direct and dependent face-to-face contact. We want to feel emotionally connected and supported.

The research behind the importance of female friendships is strong. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, women with early-stage breast cancer were four times more likely to die from it if they didn't have very many female friends. Conversely, women with early-stage breast cancer with a larger group of female friends have a higher survival rate, regardless of the physical distance between these female friends. As women, we rely on each other to give advice, be a shoulder to cry on, be an emotional support system, hold and protect secrets, boost self-esteem, and lend a listening ear. Our girl tribes are strong, and as a result, a solid and healthy female friendship is something that every woman can benefit from.

The intimate, face-to-face relationships between women have a lot to do with oxytocin, the bonding or "love potion" hormone that is released from the posterior pituitary during childbirth and nursing. Studies have shown that when women are stressed out, they do not just resort to the "fight-or-flight" response but also release oxytocin, which allows women to nurture and "tend and befriend." It is believed that oxytocin is the reason why women have a natural "motherly instinct," and as a result, female friendships are based on emotional intimacy and connection.

"Women have a larger behavioral repertoire than just fight or flight; it seems that when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress responses in a woman, it buffers the fight or flight response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women instead. When she actually engages in this tending or befriending, studies suggest that more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect."

The recipe for a male friendship

Friendships between males tend to be more transactional. Men tend to value friendships that are more shared activity-based (playing basketball, poker, or golf, or watching a football game) rather than the intimate, face-to-face relationships that women have.

Men do not feel the desire or need to discuss every intimate detail and change in their life with a male friend. They also do not feel the need to constantly stay in touch, as men can go for long periods—months or even years—without having contact with a male friend, but still consider that person a close friend.

In contrast, if a woman does not keep in regular, close contact with one of her girlfriends, she most likely will assume the friendship has grown apart or her friend is no longer interested in having a friendship with her, potentially even assuming the friendship has ended. Although male friendships tend to be more transactional and less intimate than female friendships, male friendships are generally less fragile than female friendships. Men tend not to wear their emotions on their sleeve, not to question the motives of others, and not to feel pressure to disclose personal details and intimate secrets to maintain their friendship with another male. On the contrary, females bond through secret sharing and emotional intimacy, which can potentially create volatility in a friendship, especially if this sharing is one-sided.

While men may not share their deepest and most secret feelings with their close male friends, research shows they are more apt to share them with a wife, girlfriend, sister, or other platonic female friends.

Friendships are meaningful, regardless of gender

Humans are social creatures, regardless of whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, and therefore we crave to be around others. Friendships help us create a community with like-minded individuals. A healthy friendship can teach us about joy, empathy, trust, honesty, integrity, communication, and many other key characteristics that we need to evolve in all aspects of society. Healthy friendships are known to decrease rates of dementia and obesity and increase longevity.

The impacts we feel when we don’t feel connected through friendship

When we don’t feel connected, we can feel lonely and isolated, which can stir up many negative feelings that may lead us down the road to depression and anxiety. Isolation can negatively affect our self-esteem, leaving us feeling inept or not good enough. As a result, we may not feel worthy of being in a friendship, and we may hinder meeting new friends.

We may even turn to alcohol and drugs to numb our feelings of loneliness. When we begin to feel lonely but do not have healthy coping skills to sit and deal with feelings of loneliness, we can quickly board a train going to deep, dark places. Sometimes feeling lonely is inevitable, but it is how we learn to overcome these times, and these healthy coping skills come with positive self-esteem, gratitude, and happiness.

Why are friendships hard to establish and harvest as adults?

Making friends as an adult is hard. We are no longer kids on the playground, and we no longer have high school and college to give us a wide selection of peers to befriend. Most adults meet new friends through work, but what if you work remotely, especially in this day and age?

Friendships are difficult to start as an adult for many reasons:

  • We don’t have a community to help us find friends within our peer group, and therefore it is harder to meet people in general without having a playground or a college campus.
  • As adults, we most likely have already established our likes and dislikes. We know what we want and what we don’t want. We most likely have experienced some rejection and trauma, and as a result, we are picky. We want to make friends with people we mesh with, and we want to make sure we trust these people. As a result, adults can be wary of making new friends, because they don’t want to enter into a potentially toxic situation.
  • We are busy, and trying to establish a new friendship takes a great deal of time, commitment, and effort.
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