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In the days before my wedding, a very wise friend told me something I really needed to hear: "I didn't marry Dougie for him to be my best friend. I already had a best friend!" I was relieved beyond belief, for I too had a best buddy -- Judy, whom I'd known since we were 3-year-olds -- and I'd been worrying about how such a close friendship could coexist with a marriage. The answer is: wonderfully.
Many women will tell you that they need female friends for all the things their husbands either can't or don't want to do -- engage in marathon chat fests, commiserate over petty injustices, work through the knotty problem of whether to buy that canvas tote or the faux crocodile clutch. We can wonder whether it's nature or nurture, but women feel the need to examine their lives under a microscope more than men do. It's not that men don't want to share our lives -- they just aren't riveted by the same degree of detail that we are. If you've ever found yourself on one of those online map sites, you know that you can choose either the "zoom in" or the "zoom out" function. Well, my husband -- a great human being -- is "zoom out" all the way; he's simply a big-picture kind of guy. If it weren't for Judy, he'd have to suffer through a close-up version of every blessing and catastrophe, triumph and defeat of my days. To say he's grateful to skip 98 percent of this is an understatement. And to say he's the only one to benefit is to miss the heart of it.
In fact, researchers have found that most women say that having a girlfriend to lean on has helped them, and it has actually improved their marriages. In a survey of women in their 20s through 40s at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 90 percent said they routinely talked about their relationship problems with a close gal pal, and 75 percent of the married subjects said they sometimes discussed marital problems with their friends before bringing them up with their spouses. "Women often work out strategies for dealing with marital problems -- such as pointing out each other's husband's good points -- which eases their anger and helps them avoid confrontations with their spouses," says sociologist Stacey Oliker, PhD, who conducted the study. "These women also said their friends' empathy helped them cope better with what was unsatisfying in their marriages."
One reason wives turn to girlfriends is that men tend to deal with problems differently than women. Whereas women often get relief simply from talking, men seem compelled to find a solution as quickly as possible, then move on. "If you tell your husband you're having difficulty with your mother, he'll want to fix it," says Sandy Sheehy, relationship specialist and author of Connecting: The Enduring Power of Female Friendship (Morrow, 2000). "He'll give you advice, and if you don't take it, he'll get really annoyed." Of course, to some degree that behavior is understandable: He has to live with your problems, and your friends don't. But a girlfriend's way of dealing may have a bigger payoff, says Sheehy. "A girlfriend will sympathize and say, 'I understand; I go through the same thing with my mom,' and let you work things out on your own."
But female friendships do more than soothe our souls; they actually improve our health. Psychologist Shelley Taylor, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, who conducted a wide-ranging survey of stress studies in 2000, theorizes that women have a natural tendency to "tend and befriend" when they or their friends are in trouble -- the opposite of the "fight or flight" response that is more typical of men. This reaction, she explains, involves the release of the hormone oxytocin, which has a calming effect and lowers stress levels. Tending and befriending and experiencing less stress may also partly explain why women consistently outlive men. Take the ongoing Harvard Nurses' Health Study, which has found that the more friends a woman has, the less likely she is to develop physical impairments as she ages.
Intuitively, women understand the power of friendship; that's why we gravitate toward each other in offices or churches, at school meetings or the park; we connect and exchange information that ranges from the frivolous (where to get the best manicure) to the serious (which hospital is best). Men simply don't require as much social interaction as we do. "In addition, they don't want to talk much about their inner life and don't want to share their emotions," says Dr. Oliker. And since they don't need as much nurturing as women, they may react with puzzlement -- or irritation -- when we try to get it from them. Or they may perceive us as being excessively needy. In fact, says Dr. Oliker, the women in her study reported that their husbands were actually relieved by the fact that their wives looked to girlfriends for support.
A case in point is Jeanne Severin-Hansen of Huntington Station, New York, whose husband, Niels, sank into a funk when his career took an unexpected downturn. "Niels had been employed for 30 years by the postal service as an overhaul specialist," Severin-Hansen says. "Then when he turned 45, they outsourced his job, and he ended up filling mail sacks on the graveyard shift." Niels was offered early retirement, but if he stuck it out for 10 more years he'd get a much better pension deal. "He was determined to retire early even though we were under a lot of financial strain, but I was against it," says Severin-Hansen. "I had a job at an insurance company, but we were paying tuition and living expenses for our daughter, Peggy, who was attending the School of American Ballet, in New York City. It was a rough time."
That's when Severin-Hansen made a lunch date with a close girlfriend. "She let me vent big time," Severin-Hansen recalls. "But after a while my friend got me to understand how demeaned and angry Niels was feeling. Then she suggested that I write down what the financial implications of taking early retirement as opposed to hanging in there for 10 more years would be. The idea was to present the facts to Niels in a nonemotional way." Severin-Hansen did exactly that -- for one thing, she was able to show that their budget would not cover both the mortgage and monthly utility bills -- and Niels saw the light.
"He conceded that 10 years wouldn't be so bad if it meant we'd be so much better off as a family in the long run," Severin-Hansen says. "That's what I had been saying all along, but my girlfriend helped me get the message across calmly." Since Niels retired at 55, Peggy has become a principal dancer with the Carolina Ballet in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the family has all moved there as well. "Niels is his old self again -- only better," says Severin-Hansen. "Thank goodness I had my girlfriend as a sounding board and advisor back when our lives were a mess!"
All the sustenance our girlfriends provide, however, shouldn't diminish how much we need to be able to rely on our spouses. "Women who always end up going to their female friends may not really address issues with their husbands," says New York City-based psychotherapist Amy Joelson. "But that's a problem, because it's important that we still try to achieve intimacy with them. We can't just say, 'Oh, he's a man, he won't understand.' In fact, if husbands could understand why their wives need or want to talk in such detail, it would create a greater sense of intimacy."
Perhaps it's the very differences between our husbands and our girlfriends that make each a necessary part of life. Sarah Hanrahan Apple, an art-history teacher and mother of two in Highland Park, Illinois, relies on her female friends when she needs to let off steam or "hyperventilate," as she calls it. "Even though part of me can't understand why my husband won't analyze this or that, the other part realizes that Bryan is the even keel in my life," she says. "When you're dealing with serious problems, it's great to vent emotions with friends, but it's also absolutely necessary to have a cool head around, someone who can think things through calmly. The solution for me isn't for Bryan to be more like my girlfriends; the best thing is to have both in my life."