Gal Pals

Prevention Magazine . June, 2006
How to stay close despite stress, marriage, and financial upheaval

Recently, my husband, Gordon, and I were hanging out with friends around our dining room table. We ate, laughed, and shared our hopes and dreams. Sipping the wine of trust (and a good Zinfandel, as well), we helped each other get perspective on some of life’s inevitable difficulties. I remember my physical sense of happiness, the ease in my body—a healing feeling, like an internal hug. And it’s more than a fleeting feeling. As a scientist, I’m aware that reveling in loving friendship is one of the most powerful things we can do to sustain our physical and emotional health.

Evidence suggests that intimate friendships help banish stress and improve mood. English researcher Tirril Harris studied the effect of having a confidante on 86 depressed women. After a year of regular meetings with “befrienders” who were assigned to them, 65% of the women recovered from their depression, compared with only 40% of those who’d been assigned to a waiting list. The positive effects of friendship were comparable to those of antidepressants or cognitive therapy.

When women get stressed, our instinct is often to find a friend and talk things through. Both touch and talk release the hormone oxytocin (yes, it’s the same stuff that initiates labor in pregnant women and then the flow of milk). Oxytocin is profoundly calming—a powerful balm for body and mind. No wonder we feel better after talking to a friend. The ongoing Nurses Health Study conducted at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston reported that the more friends a woman has, the less likely she is to develop physical impairments with age.

However, the demands of modern life make sustaining friendships difficult. Here are four of the most common reasons friendships lapse and some tried-and-true suggestions for overcoming them.

I’m Too Busy

Although friendship reduces stress, you may feel too stressed by time pressures to nurture relationships. This catch-22 often comes up for the young career women who attend my seminars. I gave Ellen, a hard-driving junior executive, a simple prescription for relieving her tension headaches. Instead of “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning,” we settled on “Connect with two friends weekly and call me in 6 months.” She soon found her headaches improving—and that made her more productive, not less.

They’ll Take Advantage

If you worry about being drained by other people’s needs, set realistic boundaries. Work at home? Tell friends to call after 5 pm. Does your pal Jen keep hitting you up for loans? Tell her that she can borrow money only when she’s paid back the last one—or not at all. If she’s a real friend, she will appreciate your candor because enabling bad habits is not a friendly thing to do. And if your friend Cindy’s neediness is starting to overwhelm you, be kind but honest. Say something like: “I love you, but I’m taking on your stress, and that’s no good for either one of us. Until you feel stronger, let’s just check in with each other once a week” (or whatever interval is reasonable).

It may help to know that as long as giving doesn’t drain you, it not only helps you feel good but also can help you live longer. A 5-year study of older adults, carried out by the Institute for Social Research, found that providing emotional support for family, friends, neighbors, and spouses significantly reduced the risk of death. With any luck, I should live forever.

My Friend Is Unavailable

When your best friend—the one you’ve talked to every night for years—falls in love, your relationship inevitably changes. She’s now sitting on the sofa, staring into her beloved’s eyes, instead of talking on the phone with you. Maybe you’re happy for her, but you miss her and feel left out.

Decide together on times when you can connect, and cherish them. After the hormones of infatuation wear off, your friend will have more time for you again, but your connection will continue to evolve in response to the other people in your lives. That’s not the end of a friendship, just a new phase. You need similar flexibility when a friend moves away, which means more phone or e-mail communication and less face-to-face time.

We’re at Different Places in Life

We often make friends when we’re drawn together by common interests. But over time, your pursuits may change and circumstances shift. Sometimes that means the friendship will fade away—there’s no rule that it has to last forever. Other times, your bond may strengthen as you grow in different directions. You’re single. She gets married and has a baby. So much for those after-work tête-à-têtes at the coffee bar. But if you’re willing, you can help with the baby and become a member of the new family. A healthy friendship can accommodate every phase of life and many different relationships. And remember: The baby will get older, and you’ll have time alone with your friend like in the old days.

Friendships are special graces because they teach us about love—what it is and, just as important, what it isn’t. Even when change separates us from friends who were once close to us, they remain forever as teachers of the heart.

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