We love our friends. But they could be even more important to us than we thought…
We meet for a cup of tea and a gossip. We share our problems over a glass of wine. We laugh together, cry together and plan our lives together.
Whether it’s just one or a handful, we all have female friends we rely on.
But did you know that our friends are vital for our wellbeing?
Over the years, studies have uncovered the many health benefits of friendships, from reducing stress to sharpening our minds and preventing loneliness.
People who have strong friendships are less likely to die prematurely than those who are isolated.
So perhaps it’s no wonder that, in a recent survey by luxury spa chain Champneys, over half of women polled said they preferred their female friends to their partner. And a whopping 72 per cent said they couldn’t cope without their female friends’ support.
But exactly what is it that makes our female friends so important to us?
Psychologist Dr Angela Carter says: ‘Friends are a huge part of our identity. You can have several identities — the you at work, you as the mother, you as the wife or partner — but friends reinforce our sense of who we are.’
Some women really need a close-knit group of female friends, and Dr Carter says it’s all down to a ‘need for affiliation’, which means our need for a sense of being with others.
She says: ‘You might have a high need for affiliation and really want your female friendship group to reinforce that. Generally, women really care what other women think about them.’
So it’s likely women dress not for men, but other women.
According to the survey, more than half of women prefer spending time with their female friends to their partner. But what do female friends give us that our partner or families cannot?
‘Family relationships are important,’ Dr Carter says, ‘but you can test things out with your female friends that you can’t always with your partner or family. Women’s friendship groups are supportive places where you, hopefully, feel you can talk confidentially about things you wouldn’t or couldn’t talk about with your partner, hoping it will stay within the confines of the group.’
She adds: ‘We also tend to seek out the friends who give us what we want at that moment in time. So when you’re young you probably seek out lots of female friends because you want a crowd to go out with.
‘When you’re older you might seek out those female friends who knew you before you married or had children, to reinforce the identity of who you were before you had a family.
‘If you’re going through a divorce you’re likely to want to seek out similar women who are in your position, or who are getting back into dating.’
Another reason women often seek out other women is simply the way we communicate.
Dr Carter says: ‘Women and men communicate differently, both in the way they speak and their inferences. Many women feel that other women understand them better than men, and we often assume women are better listeners. Women also often prefer the company of women because they feel they aren’t being judged.’
Female friendships are important for wellbeing. But what happens if a friendship falls apart or if one friend moves away or withdraws?
Dr Carter says it can be as painful as a romantic break-up and the sense of loss cannot be overstated.
‘It can be very painful when you fall out with a friend,’ she says, ‘and there can be a lot of grieving to go through.’
And what if your friend needs you less than you need them?
Dr Carter says you need to discuss it.
‘You need to negotiate the framework of your friendship,’ she says. ‘If, for example, a friend has moved away but you used to see them all the time, negotiate how often you want to talk. If she is withdrawing or responding with a single line text, ask yourself: Does she feel the same as me?’
Dr Carter says you also need to ask whether your female friend is replaceable.
She says: ‘If someone has physically moved away or seems to be withdrawing, ask yourself if you can replace them. Is this person a shopping partner, or a person you love chatting to who simply can’t be replaced? If you can’t replace them, then you need to negotiate how to stay in touch.
‘Sometimes if there isn’t a way back you need to seek out the ingredients of that female friendship elsewhere.’
Edited by Julie Cook