Is there something special about female friendships? I wondered. I had just watched the movie Veere di wedding with a friend. In the movie, four women who have been friends since school, smoke, drink, banter and bare it all as they come together for a wedding. We have had Hollywood movies like Sex and the City, Steel Magnolias or Mama Mia but our desi movies usually portray the female friend or saheli as a minor character who is a foil to the heroine’s beauty or a mouthpiece for her romantic fantasies. If you overlook the  carefully styled clothes and get past some of the carelessly  contrived scenes, Veere di wedding  is, at its heart , a celebration of  friendship between women.  The friends don’t judge, they give honest feedback to each other’s face. A friend  will hold your hair as you puke away a hangover and   hold your hand as you run away from  your own wedding. Friends can lead you astray but they will also bring you back on track. Watching the film brought back memories and evoked some musings about the pattern of female friendships.

Friendships formed during childhood are incidental. Friends are companions to play with, the meetings orchestrated by parents or facilitated by proximity.  During   teenage years, they become more intentional. As a teenager, I was once a part of a group of four friends. We watched movies on the VCR at each other’s homes, swooned over George Michael together, complained about the teachers and for a brief phase we styled ourselves after the Pink Ladies in Grease, thinking that we were the coolest girls in school. For my sixteen year old daughter, her girl- friends are the most important people in the world. They make school enjoyable and after school hours entertaining.  Girl friends provide a refuge from demanding parents, a respite from grueling academics and a repository for secrets about boys and bra sizes. This pattern usually continues through college and the ‘singleton’ days.

Then  comes the big change. The romantic  partner who replaces all other relationships. While girl-friends stay with you through bad breakups and bungled dates, marriage somehow seems to signal the end of an era. Some friendships do make it through but now you want to couples to hang out with, couples you both can get along with. This is where friendships fray, those bright sparkly relationships lose their sheen and the spouse supplants the female companion. Interesting research shows that men actually become more dependent on their wives  for their emotional needs after marriage and women get sucked into managing the needs of their new families. In our society, a women must sacrifice for her family and the first thing to be sacrificed at the altar of marriage is her friendship.

Then children bring some of it back. If your girl friends are going through or have just emerged from childbirth, they become a fount of advice and wisdom. Or you form new friendships during visits to the gynecologist and exchange notes on natural birth and Lamaze classes. Then the little one takes over your life and if you can afford the occasional escape, you catch up with your friends for a quick coffee and spend that time  moaning about lack of sleep, silence and sex. If your friends are also in the same state, they will add their own flavor to the conversation or disown you as a boring baby obsessed new Mom.

Young mothers tend to form friendships with other young mothers.  This is usually spurred by convenience or necessity as you arrange play dates, hang out at the neighboring park while keeping a watchful eye on the kids or ferry them from one class to another. If you are lucky and like each other, these friendships can last for many years as you and the children grow into the relationships. If you are very lucky, then the spouses will also get along well and you all become ‘family friends’ who do everything together as a group.

After the children have left the nest, female friendships  become a source of comfort and companionship. This is the time in your life when friends provide the greatest emotional support and help each other cope with disease or the  death of loved ones. My mother who lives alone after the death of my father finds great solace and succor with her  women friends. They go for concerts together, amble along for evening walks, catch up for potluck lunches and keep a check on each other’s health. The friends make it easier to get through what could become a lonely tedious day.

Studies at Stanford and UCLA show that these relationships with other women help to release oxytocin and serotonin that  allow for better health and well- being. Under stress, many women have a ‘tend and befriend’ reaction which allows them to gather together for comfort and security. The Nurses Health Study at Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women have, the less likely they are to develop physical impairments as they aged. The research concluded that not having close friends or confidants was as detrimental to your health as smoking or obesity.

One of the reasons for this is the fact that the foundation of strong female friendships is honest emotional exchange. Ask any teenage girl what she and her friends are doing. You will probably be told ‘Nothing’ or ‘Hanging out’.  Boys will actually be doing something- kicking a ball, watching movies or gaming. Psychologists have found that female friendships are face-to-face-based on conversations and those of men are shoulder to shoulder- based on activities. Meaningful conversations and open sharing create strong bonds between women that helps them to overcome challenges. Female friendships offer not only fun and entertainment but also act as a buffer against  a hostile world. This is a high return, low risk means of promoting our mental and emotional well- being and we need to mindfully invest in nurturing them.

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