Men's and Women's friendships

Do men and women differ in how they define friendships?

Posted Nov 02, 2008

I delivered a lecture on men's and women's friendships at a conference of social work educators in Philadelphia this weekend. I combined responses from interviews with 386 men and 122 women who are in Buddy System: Understanding male friendships and reported the following:

1. 92% felt same sex friendships were important to them

2. 62% felt they had enough friends while the rest were unsure (15%) or felt they did not (23%) - this finding alone is enough to put it front and center on a clinician's radar.

3. What are the five most frequently mentioned definitions of friendship? In order they are: Being understood, trusting, being able to depend on somebody, doing things together, and finding commonalities - if you want to help a client get friends, talk to him or her about how friendship is defined and see if those qualities are on display.

4. Friendships help people by: providing encouragement and support and being there for the other person, listening and talking, giving advice, providing companionship, loaning money, and buoying spirits - if you want to convince clients as to how they can help their friends, ask him or her to consider what goes into a friendship.

5. How are they maintained? - The men and women responded that friends communicate, do things together, stay in contact, reach out, and give emotional support. If your client is losing friends, explain that friendships take work and include the above actions.

6. Are there differences between how men and women answered these questions? Women put more value on being understood than do men (though 57% of the men said it was important); men are slightly more apt to say that friendships are defined by trust and doing things together. Women are more apt to say they are helped by friends giving support than are men and men are more apt to receive advice from their same-sex friends than are women. Friendships are more apt to be maintained by women by staying in contact than are men and men are more apt to reply that they reach out to friends to maintain friendships.

While differences do appear, they are only suggestive considering the great variation that exists in individual definitions of and experiences with friendships. Yet so mental health practitioners, having normative information on how a non-clinical sample defines friendships can be helpful in establishing a road map to friendships for our clients (and ourselves).