A male friend recently asked me why I didn’t include men’s stories at Friendship Dialogues. When I decided to launch a website about the value of friendship and how to cope when those relationships ended I knew that I wanted the site to be for women and about women. I understood that there were women whose best friend was a man, but the stories I was interested in were those told by women about their closest female friends. I could have included stories from men about their men friends too. But I knew that women’s friendships were based on connection and a need to communicate, to be heard and to listen. To hear your feelings echoed back to you. And that was what I wanted to focus on.
I read books on the subject to see what the experts had to say about women’s relationships. In The Healing Connection: How Women Form Relationships in Therapy and in Life, psychiatric professor Jean Baker Miller and Harvard Medical School psychiatric lecturer Irene Pierce Stiver, both seen as pioneers in the psychology of women, said, “An inner sense of connection to others is the central organizing feature of women’s development…Women’s sense of self and of worth is most often grounded in the ability to make and maintain relationships.”
The give and take that occurs when women discuss their feelings leads them to something called “mutual empathy” and helps women express their feelings more fully. Miller and Stiver said, “Mutual empathy is the great unsung human gift. Out of it flows mutual empowerment.” As women connect they help each other act and change, which is essential for psychological development. Women come to know themselves, each other, and the world around them through the exchanges they have with each other.
Women are big talkers. For many of us it’s our sport. And we are often likely to open our hearts to our best girlfriends, revealing our deepest thoughts and feelings that we share with no one else. Men talk too, but it’s generally about what they are doing – often sports – and less about how they feel. According to Shelly E. Taylor in The Tending Instinct: Women, Men, and the Biology of Our Relationships, for women to form vital bonds with each other they need some “glue.” Conversation, she explained, is that glue for human beings and while talking is not unique to women it may play an especially important role for women in building and maintaining relationships. Women are more “collectively oriented,” she said, while men are more “individualistic.”
From my own experiences I understood that men were less likely to talk about their feelings with women and with other men. Jane E. Brody, in an article in The New York Times entitled “The Challenges of Male Friendships,” said, “Consciously or otherwise, many men believe that talking about personal matters with other men is not manly.” And I have found that when women talk to men about their problems, men are more likely to try and fix the problem rather than just listening and letting the woman vent. Perhaps that is changing and millennial males are more likely to be emotional with their male friends than baby boomer males are. I hope so.
I would certainly like to see men be more communicative with other men since that could provide them with all the powerful emotional and health benefits women get from sisterhood. A change like that could also spread into men’s relationships with women, which would strengthen those connections. Then, instead of trying to fix a woman’s problem, a man might be content to listen, sympathize, ask questions and encourage her to do what’s in her heart.