The power of female friendships

Real life best friends Amy Poehler and Tina Fey.

Real life best friends Amy Poehler and Tina Fey.

It may sound trivial, soft, a bit like ‘women’s business’ but friendship is vital to health, well-being and happiness.

 I’m not saying men don’t have friends. Of course they do.  Yet, men in positions of power and influence; those with status and wealth find it’s often lonely at the top.  That’s not my conclusion but that of a man.  Psychologist, researcher and suicide investigator Thomas Joiner is in Australia to talk about his book ‘Lonely at the Top’.  In it he argues these men are coddled, spoilt and privileged, yet very vulnerable because they get to fifty and find themselves lonely, isolated and unhappy because they don’t have a supportive network of friends.

Professor Joiner says men often let go of friendships once they’re not served up to them in a structure such as school, university or sporting team.  They simply don’t invest the time friendships need to cultivate.

I see this anecdotally all around me.  My mother is in her seventies and still has a gang that has been close since before I was born. I love dropping in when they are having a long lunch or answering the phone there to “hi it’s me”.  After forty years, names, context and pretext are no longer necessary.  These women put Band-Aids on my scabby knees, danced at my wedding and now swim with my children in my parents’ pool. I absolutely adore them.


In contrast I see my father, admittedly a shy and more solitary man, more isolated in terms of friendship. His focus in life was on his work and we kids – this left little room for mates.  At my Uncle’s recent funeral my heart swelled when one of his sailing buddies spoke about the midday opening of the esky and the quiet camaraderie on board.  It was deeply comforting to know he had such buddies.  It’s all too rare.

I understand how this happens. I see my own partner focus so hard on work and on his family he rarely sees his friends.   He good-naturedly grumbles when I set out for another girls’ dinner or a weekend away with my women.  He knows how much these friendships sustain me, that I’ll return stronger, happier, appreciative and laughed out. I urge him to try and do the same.  But after a 45-hour week, he mostly wants to spend any spare time with his family.

 I don’t think women are born better at friendship. 

My 7 year old son has a gang that is broader and less intense than his sister, but probably more accepting, affectionate and loving.  I melt when I watch him hug a mate in passionate joy or walk arm in arm through the playground.  I once heard him and his favourite friend begin to argue about both wanting to marry the same girl.  My son was so desperately keen to not fight he suggested ‘we could take it in turns, I marry her for a year and then you’.

There’s no doubt my daughter’s friendships are more fraught and occasionally destructive.  Her gang is close and, at times, possessive.  I can see the rehearsal for the defining friendship of teenage hood.  Perhaps the most intense relationship of a woman’s life is with her teenage best friend.

Much popular culture focuses on the negative side of female friendship. The cliqueiness, ostracism and bullying of the ‘mean girls’.  But the enduring memory I have of high school friendship is the safety, security and affection.  One of the most brilliant aspects of the TV version of Puberty Blues was its portrayal of the beautiful, powerful and transformative friendship of Debbie and Sue.  It was nothing less than a deep and profound love story. Their support for each other gave them the strength to get out of the panel vans, stand up for Frieda, break the code and leave the gang. 

The scene where they frolic in the waves while laughing at being called ‘sluts’ was as wonderful as the scene where Thelma and Louise blow up the truck of the ‘beaver’-leering tongue curling, penis pointing truckie.  

It also reminded me of the opening scene of TV series Girls where Hannah and Marnie are twined around each other in bed like lovers.

I remember feeling so close to a friend that it felt she was almost a part of me.  We’d hang out in hysterics for hours; sharing paddle pops, choreographing dances, swapping clothes and navigating the rocky path to selfhood together.

Yet, like first love affirs, the friendship of teenager girls is rarely sustainable. The relationship of the real Sue and Debbie; Puberty Blues’ authors Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey ended acrimoniously. Gabrielle told me teenage girls are not fully formed; their edges are blurred.  Hence, when they bond they almost become one being.  As girls grow up and become a woman they have to split – to divide and become a unique being.

The friendships women make post-school are perhaps less intense and transformative, but just as important.  This is the time we meet sisters of spirit and mind.   Some of the women I met when I started as an ABC cadet are still my closest friends today.  Our friendships were initially hugely fun but became profound.  They still sustain, nurture and give me great strength.

There’s no doubt, friendships are pulled and slightly unravelled by marriage.  Since we had children, we’ve moved to different areas and are too busy to see each other nearly enough.  Yet, I love their children with a passionate joy. Earlier this year I cried when told that a baby I’d once cradled was now school captain.

I expect the third stage of female friendship to take place when my kids are grown up and my work life less demanding.  I hope to be like my mum; setting off to have lunch, see movies and travel the world with my mates.  I see a great tenderness in these friendships; as well as acceptance and love.

I, like most women, expect friendships to go beyond the limits of age, career, marriages, divorce and geography.  We women expect a lot from our friendships but we get a lot back in return.  Because friendship is good for us.  Professor Joiner says it’s as much an indicator of health as smoking.  A 2006 study of nearly 3000 nurses with breast cancer found that women without close friends were four times as likely to die from the disease as women with mates. Having a spouse wasn’t associated with survival.  Women live longer than men and while friendships are of course not the entire reason, they are undoubtedly good for our health.

Studies have shown Americans’ circle of confidants has shrunk dramatically over the last twenty years. I wonder if Australia follows the same trend.  As we women work harder to achieve equality in the workplace and in the economy, lets not lose what many men did on the way to the top.