More and more studies are uncovering clues about the science behind female bonding and how the drive to seek out and maintain close friendships is an innate skill. On an evolutionary level, some believe it may even be linked to survival.
Your boss came down really hard on you for missing a deadline. Your teen is struggling in school and you don’t know how to help. Your husband or boyfriend did that thing again that drives you crazy. And you’ve talked to him about it again and again.
At the end of a rough day, or when in need of advice and support, women rely on their friends. After sharing a cup of coffee or glass of wine – or even just talking over the phone – females feel calmer, more assured and less overwhelmed.
More studies are uncovering clues about the science behind female bonding and how the drive to seek out and maintain close friendships may be an innate skill. On an evolutionary level, some believe the bonding may be linked to survival.
“It’s a quickly evolving research area and a new frontier giving us answers to things we observed but didn’t have the science to back up,” said Dr. Barbara Green, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Hingham, Mass.
“Science is giving us a rudimentary but beginning explanation for differences between men and women and how culturally that is expressed.”
Most daily gabfests don’t focus on life-or-death issues, but they do have an important calming effect.
Earlier this summer, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when women feel emotionally close to a girlfriend, their bodies release certain hormones that make them feel happier and more relaxed.
Hormones such as estrogen get a bad rap for contributing to those monthly emotional roller- coaster rides. In this case, researchers focused on two others: progesterone and oxytocin.
Researchers measured progesterone levels as a marker for the body’s release of oxytocin, a hormone that can only be measured through spinal fluid or brain scans.
Sometimes called the “love hormone” or the “cuddle chemical,” oxytocin also plays a role in relationships with men and is released when a woman is nursing.
The study involved 160 college students who were assigned to random partners and either asked to perform tasks that would elicit an emotional response or a task designed to be emotionally neutral. After 20 minutes, those who participated in the emotionally close task had higher progesterone levels; the others’ hormone levels remained the same or decreased.
The study’s findings contribute to the debate over whether the hormones driving female bonding play a key role in helping women look after one another.
Psychologists often talk about the male instinct of “fight or flight.” Women, they say, “tend and befriend.”
“When women are under stress, they seek out social interactions with others to work out their stressful feelings, by tending and befriending,” said Catherine Caldwell-Harris, an associate professor of psychology at Boston University.
But she pointed out that experts don’t always agree on whether these responses are instinctual or developmental.
In the 1970s, psychologist Eleanor Maccoby suggested that boys and girls are trained how to socialize from an early age.
“Boys play in large groups, which evolved into team sports,” Caldwell- Harris said, explaining Maccoby’s theory. “Girls are more often in pairs. These small differences in childhood can become magnified as adults.”
Experts agree on one thing: Women should not deny themselves time with friends.
“We as women should allow ourselves to embrace it,” Green said. “It is part of what our neuroscience core drives us to do. It’s a good, healthy, obviously adaptive way in which we take care of ourselves.”
Patriot Ledger writer Nancy Reardon can be reached at email@example.com.