You Gotta Have Girlfriends; A Post-50 Posse Is Good For Your Health

We live better, longer, healthier and happier lives when we are linked with other women in a circle of trust.
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The best thing a man can do for his health is to be married to a woman. One of the best things a woman can do for her health is to nurture her relationships with her girlfriends, especially as we get older. The longer we live, the more important our friends become. We call them our "chosen family" and in times of need they are the most likely to be at the door, on the phone, or in the waiting room. In other words, the post-50 version of "an apple a day" is "nurture your friendships."

You know who your girlfriends are. I call them a "circle of trust," and as we move past 50 we count on them more than ever. The reasons we trust them and love them just keep multiplying.

•They are fun to be with. So much so, that they are often our first choice to celebrate important milestones with -- like a 50th birthday or a new job.
•They root for us and they put up with us.
•They stand up for us and they stand by us.
•They listen sympathetically when we need to vent.
•They know when we are hurt or angry and how to patch things up.
•They make us laugh, and keep us sane.

My girlfriends were in my mind -- and in my heart -- as I was writing You Gotta Have Girlfriends: A Post-50 Posse Is Good For Your Health. I thought about the ways I love each of them and how each came into my life.

My childhood friend: I have several friends from high school and one in particular who went to grade school with me too. Back then we thought we had twin families, there were so many parallels. We lost touch for 30 or so years, but when we found each other again it was, as I have heard from countless other reconnected friends, "as if we had never been apart." (One put it this way, "When you don't see a real friend for a long time, it isn't that you have dropped a stitch; you just put the knitting down.") When my mother was dying in the house I grew up in, so was hers. Talk about empathy.

My no-bullshit friend: She is brave and forthright and knows everything about lots of things. Since we met in college, I have counted on her to bring me down from my flights of sentimentality and effusiveness; those excesses aren't honest and true, and we both know it. In those circumstances I think of myself as "Cleopatra Queen of Denial" and she is my reality check.

My new friend: We have only become close over the past year or two, but we have a lot of history in common. We grew up near each other, got married a few weeks apart in the same year, and even look alike. I think of her as me-like, but the other day when I was criticizing a mutual friend who had screwed up our plans, and said something like, "she isn't organized, the way you and I are," she replied, "you maybe; not me..." At that moment I realized that there is a lot more to learn about each other. I also realized that that's what is lovely about a new friendship.

My unconditional love friend: In her eyes I can do no wrong. She is warm and trusting and embracing and I can tell her my most horrible truths. I still remember when my kids were young, I confessed to her that I was afraid of them -- of losing control of them or of upsetting them. Her don't-do-that-to-yourself look made that a life-changing moment.

My post-50 posse: We are five former colleagues who have been having dinner together once a month for over 20 years. We like to try new places, which is a good thing, since I am not sure we would be welcome back to a restaurant after a visit. We generally sit there for three or four hours, order an assortment of appetizers, laugh uproariously -- and pay with five credit cards!

Each brings her own kind of support, encouragement, empathy and humor to the table. We tease each other about the very traits we cherish. There is the Do-Gooder; the Fierce One; the Peacemaker; the Pragmatic Midwesterner and me ("the Terminally Modest One," according to the Fierce One, whom I consulted). Collectively we are more than the sum of our parts.

The thing about all of these different women is that I feel safe with each of them, and they all make me laugh! (I recently abandoned a promising new friendship because we just didn't find the same things funny. There was clearly no future there.) We are our best selves together and our most vulnerable selves too.

Girlfriends are also, it turns out, the keepers of each other's physical well-being. While researching You Gotta Have Girlfriends I found new studies of all kinds that showed how having girlfriends in your life reduces stress, enhances pleasure and even strengthens the immune system.

The book is a celebration and reaffirmation of what women in tribal villages and coffee shops, quilting bees and book clubs and on the frontlines of feminism have known instinctively: We live better, longer, healthier and happier lives when we are linked with other women in a circle of trust.

I hope you will think about your circle of trust and honor them publicly -- by sharing your feelings and stories on Facebook and Twitter (using hashtag #GottaHaveGirlfriends) -- and privately by contacting each one and telling her why she matters so much to you.

Suzanne Braun Levine was the first editor of Ms. Magazine and the first woman editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the author of numerous books, including Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood.

"You Gotta Have Girlfriends"

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