Do Women Need Girlfriends?

There's nothing that makes you feel more warm and fuzzy than a girlfriend who will do anything for you. Girlfriends offer consolation and advice on subjects ranging from straightening frizzy hair to dealing with family, falling in love to finding a career, managing weight to boosting self-esteem and so on ad infinitum. Inside jokes, secret languages, romantic comedies, fashion, home decorating, makeup, stain removal, relationship recovery -- it's all more fun with girlfriends.

So why did I have so much trouble when my weekly radio host asked me to talk about girlfriends? I usually write a blog post for us to use as a cheat sheet on air. But the more I worked on it, the more conflicted I felt. A lot of the "sugar and spice" stuff I was reading online about girlfriends was contrary to my own mixed experiences with women. I was having enough trouble getting a handle on my piece when I talked to my sister on the phone. "Why is it that women can't keep secrets?" she asked, letting forth a tirade along the lines of, "Every time I consider confiding in a girlfriend I ask myself, do I really want her husband, sister, friend, and everyone else in her life to know?" Our conversation turned to the dark side of female friendship.

My personal experience and research agreed that women can be and often are harsh towards each other. It starts young. While teenage boys take out their aggression with fists, teenage girls have developed a culture of judgment so globally pronounced that social anthropologists are circling the wagons trying to figure out ways to put a lid on the venom so that future women can grow up and play nicer with others. Women are more likely than men to judge, gossip, form cliques, and otherwise turn on each other. In the workplace women can intentionally derail and block career each other's advancement. Female office bullies target other women 71 percent of the time while men are more balanced, bullying men and women equally. And women sleep with friends' boyfriends and husbands.

No one likes to be unpopular, including me, and I'm aware that the subject of girlfriends is sacrosanct. Trying to weave in the bad with the good turned my blog into such mud that late at night I emailed my host asking her to play a rerun.

That night I dreamt about my dead grandma. In the morning I thought about when her husband died. I was 21. My grandma was still youthful and pretty. "Are you going to get married again, Grandma?" I asked her. "NO!" Her vehemence was startling enough to spark my curiosity, and for the next few years, I observed her and her widowed friends. They were not making the least effort to date. Instead, they contently jabbered away on the phone in Polish, traded coupons, had lunch and shopped. Now, decades later we have research that explains why these women didn't rush out to find new mates. They were getting what they needed from other women.

Studies suggest that girlfriends are a healthier alternative to being married to a man. After the delirious mind fuzz of the proposal, engagement, shower, and wedding wears off, men are apparently the primary beneficiaries of marriage. While marriage attracts less inhibited men in general, it also inhibits antisocial behaviors in men, ultimately improving the quality of their lives. Married men live longer. In fact, men over 50 who find themselves single face a much higher mortality rate.

There are not as many benefits in marriage for women. Just having a man around creates seven hours of extra work a week. Women pack on pounds when married. A bad marriage is a risk factor for heart disease in women. And women take longer to recover emotionally when a relationship falls apart.

Alternatively, women thrive with women friends. Spending time with a BFF tamps down the "fight-or-flight" stress hormones and helps a woman's body create serotonin, which is the feel good brain neurotransmitter that keeps depression at bay and mood even. Women who have intimate relationships with other women live 22 percent longer than women who don't have friends. Women with strong social networks are more likely to survive breast cancer.

My own experience with women friends has been checkered. In my lifetime there have been those who betrayed and undermined me, and there have been women who have taken bullets for me. Like my grandma, I've matured enough to understand the value of friendships with women. I have learned that having real friends takes effort. And here are a few other things I've learned along the way:

Say goodbye to toxic friendships. Pathological relationships can negatively affect your health. We all get that. But sorting through friends is not like cleaning out your sock drawer. Cutting ties with a toxic girlfriend is fraught with pitfalls, in particular denying your friend's toxicity, and at the same time remembering (or manufacturing) good memories of the friendship. Friendship is a present moment kind of thing. If it doesn't serve you now, it doesn't matter how nice it once was (or you thought it was). If associating with a girlfriend makes you feel bad, cut off the relationship and move on.

Make new and nurture old friendships: Make regular contact with existing friends to keep those fires burning. Make a list of other women to reconnect with who you may have not seen in years. Email, text and call each one to make dates for lunch, dinner, hiking, volunteering, shopping and activities where you can bond. Be aware and scan the horizon to make new girlfriends in life situations. You never know when and where you'll meet someone new. Finally, if you're single, join an online dating service and make men friends who can fill in when girlfriends aren't available.

Help women professionally: Women need to get over the fear of helping other women of all ages and life stages. In particular, women need to help younger women. If you're not in your twenties, think back to what that was like. A little bit of help from an older woman can change the course of a woman's life for the better. Like Madeline Albright said, "There's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women."

Cut your friends some slack: Everyone is busy and life is absurdly demanding. Your old and new friends will likely have conflicting schedules with yours. Keep trying and be persistent. Texting is a great way of keeping in touch till everyone's schedules match up.

Forgive: I've burned some bridges with girlfriends. Some I've mended and others I remain hopeful. Likewise girlfriends have burned bridges with me. If the infraction is forgivable (the woman isn't toxic), why not forgive and move forward with the friendship?

I want my friendships to be solid and meaningful and am willing to put in the effort. Because you know those long chats with girlfriends about which TJ Maxx carries the best athletic wear, the science of buying jeans (an eternally fascinating and important subject), financial planning, and of course, men? Research has turned up what we already know: Girlfriends are as important for health and longevity as regular cardiac exercise.