The Secret to a Better Marriage

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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."


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