The Psychology of Friendship for Females

My female clients talk about many things in therapy. Of course, romantic relationships are a big one. Work, children, their families are often topics of discussion. But one of the most common topics is friendships. Women talk about their friendships constantly, if they have friends, they talk about the quality of those relationships.

If they've lost friends they talk about missing them.

And often, they talking about lacking friends. The need for friendships preoccupy us from an early age and become a source of craving throughout our life. 

Many years ago I was on a date and was telling my date about the great idea to have a for female friendships. For most of the conversation, he looked at me in a feigning interest kind of way, and when I was done with what I thought was a brilliant pitch for a business he just looked at me as if I was out of my mind. 

A girl sitting by herself a table next to us leaned over and said to me, that's one of the best ideas I've ever heard. Of course, they now have an app for that -Bumble BFF.

It's interesting to me that although female friends are so important to us, most of us don't really learn how to be a good friend or how to find a good friend. We learn the basics like play nice, but most of us aren't taught much more than that. 

Female friendships can be a source of guidance and mentorship. The reassurance of our self-worth. Compassion and nurturance. Stability and safety during times of stress and turmoil. Friendship is a buffer against anxiety and depression. It makes us more resilient. Yet for so many of us, we never fully realize the possibilities of female friendships.

They can also be a source of great wounding and trauma. We look to them for a sense of belonging, validation. As teenagers, wives, and parents we look to them to determine if we are doing things right, if we are okay and acceptable as women. 

Friendships take time, and if you want to reap the benefits of them, you need to take the risk and invest the energy. Like all intimate relationships, this can be scary. 

If we have a history of being emotionally injured in our immediate family or by friends early on, it can be challenging to move forward and take risks in friendships. We might choose friends poorly and have low expectations for what friendships can hold. Or, we might wall ourselves off and have no expectations that our friendships be rewarding at all. We may have them, but keep them superficial. In the most extreme cases, we might withdraw completely from the possibility of friendships. Unlike when we do this with romantic partners, we aren't as likely to be challenged by others if we choose this option. Deep down though, everyone wants friends. 

Recently I've been talking to my teenage girls about the psychology of choosing good friends and being a good friend. I've always talked to them about choosing good romantic partners. This has been an interesting experiment. I've found that initially many of them aren't choosing based on anything, really it's only about if someone looks their way. Later, though, they are able to discriminate and learn that if someone, betrays them, or someone else, or acts in a way that is harmful to another friend, these are not good qualities. Similarly, they can start to think about what makes them a good friend. 

I've had some of these same conversations with my adult clients. Many adults who suffer from depression and anxiety can experience a dramatic fluctuation in symptoms based on interactions with friends. I've had clients who have one good coffee date, phone call, or email from a friend and it seems like their depression symptoms are alleviated. We know that social support is a big resilience factor for people. Similarly, a friend being insensitive or hurtful can cause a plunge in your mood. 

It isn't ever too late to make new friends and to wean out the toxic ones. As adults, we often believe that its too hard or too late to start working on making good friends. It's simply not true. Sometimes if you look around in your network you will discover people you already know who you enjoy spending time with but never really invested in. You can start to mine those relationships and see what you discover. You can find new friendships by joining groups like BFF taking a wine or cooking class, joining a meet up group, or a skill pop class.

Just like romantic relationships, friendships can be a place where old patterns from childhood play out. If you come from an abusive background, you may need help setting boundaries with people who are not healthy for you and drawing healthy friends into your life. 

The Psychology of Friendships: Healthy Friendships

Good friends

  • Are compassionate
  • Make time for you
  • Work on communication with you
  • Will make mistakes but are willing to say they are sorry
  • Do not criticize or judge you
  • Listen to you
  • Make you feel good when you spend time with them

Good friends don't

  • Manipulate you
  • Isolate you from others
  • Order you around
  • Try to make you feel guilty
  • Judge you
  • Criticize you
  • Put you down 
  • Make you feel worse when you are around them

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