3/25/2024 | By Terri L. Jones

Though female friendships may evolve over a lifetime, they are valuable for older women as well as for girls and teens. Seniors Guide writer Terri L. Jones looks at some of the research behind the realities and benefits of women’s mutual relationships.

Last week, I had a long phone conversation with a girlfriend I’ve known for 30-plus years, and I’m looking forward to a call with another old friend tomorrow. I’m fortunate to still be connected to a handful of friends whom I’ve known for decades, despite living in different states now and rarely seeing each other face-to-face anymore.

But I’m equally lucky (perhaps even more so) to have found a new “squad” in the town where I moved about three years ago – women who enjoy walking, books, music and good food as well as chatting at length about everything and nothing at all.

As close as sisters (or closer!)

From the beginning of time, females from all species have gathered in pairs and groups to socialize as well as support and protect one another. It’s innate.

Of course, girls – and then the women they become – tend to bond with other females with whom they share interests and values, but more importantly, with those who listen raptly to their stories, help them get through that illness, divorce, or reno project, and love them for not only their strengths but also their weaknesses. Sure, there are the “mean girls,” who are jealous and bullying and put other women down, but most of the female gender rallies around each other in an unofficial sisterhood. And that synergy just grows stronger as we get older.

When I look back at the early days of one of my oldest friendships, I recall the moment when I knew the two of us had moved past casual, barhopping pals toward the pinnacle of female friendship: BFFs! It was when my friend asked me to go on a weeklong trip with her. That offer convinced me that my feelings of fondness and fascination were reciprocated. (At the time, I thought this must be what a marriage proposal feels like.)

She and I settled into a friendship that’s endured for 33 years, through her breaking off an engagement, my dating incessantly (including her brother), several moves on her part, one on mine, both of us getting married, and lots of laughs, tears and heart-to-hearts along the way.

Girl talk

Two women chatting over coffee. Image by Noriko Cooper

The backbone of most close female friendships are those heart-to-heart conversations, but also the chitchat. While both men and women talk to one another, they converse about vastly different things. According to Pew Research, women are much more likely than men to talk about their family (67% vs. 47%) and their physical health (41% vs. 31%), while men enjoy talking about events.

We also enjoy talking about our problems. Sociologist Gail Jefferson calls this type of convo “troubles talk,” during which we listen to each other, empathize with one another and boost each other’s self-esteem. When my friends and I get together over lattes, airing and sharing our issues may not make our troubles go away, but we somehow feel better afterward. By contrast, when I tell my husband about a problem, he just wants to solve it … preferably within the next commercial break!

Stress reliever

Considering the cathartic power of conversation, it’s probably no surprise that getting together with our girlfriends also helps us deal with stress. When we become worried over a scary diagnosis, a financial issue or a family conflict, we release a hormone called oxytocin that compels us to “tend and befriend,” rather than the typical fight or flight response exhibited by our male counterparts. Gathering with other women in these tense situations typically has a calming effect, allowing us to cope with those sticky situations more easily.

Even other mammals are positively affected by relationships. For cows, pairing them with their preferred cow pals made their heart rates drop. They stamped, tossed their heads, swayed, and paced less when with their cow pals than when they were around cows they didn’t seem to like.

The best medicine

A group of four female friends sharing old photographs over coffee and cupcakes. Image by Laq Hill. Article on the value of female friendships

Female friendships aren’t just good for our mental health. Because our friends give us a softer landing when we fall, these relationships can also our lower blood pressure, increase our immunity and promote healing.

In fact, a 2006 study of women suffering from breast cancer found that those without close friends were four times as likely to die from the disease as those with 10 or more friends. In comparison, being married had no impact on survival.

Emotional intimacy

These symbiotic friendships can be surprisingly similar to romantic relationships in their length and depth. The average female relationship lasts 16 years, which beats the average romantic partnership by six years.

And in terms of closeness, sometimes friendships can be hard to tell apart from romantic ones. Best friends finish each other’s sentences, intuitively sense when something is wrong and always know the perfect gift to buy. Some friend pairs even choose to live, travel, purchase property and be at each other’s bedside during illnesses and ultimately, death, much like a marriage, according to Raina Cohen, who wrote “The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life with Friendship at the Center.” While these relationships are platonic, the emotional intimacy that these partners share can be tantamount to any committed romantic relationship.

Related: Tips for trips with friends

Friendship evolution

As we age, our friendships naturally change. While our girlfriends decline in quantity, due to external factors like divorce, relocation, health issues and of course, death, the relationships we have with them typically increase in quality. These later life friendships, which are based less on interests and circumstances and more on values, tend to be more meaningful and supportive.

Explained author Edith Wharton, “There is one friend in the life of each of us who seems not a separate person, however dear and beloved, but an expansion, an interpretation, of one’s self, the very meaning of one’s soul.”

Every woman deserves such a friend to grow older with.

Related: Maintaining friendships over the years

Terri L. Jones

Terri L. Jones has been writing educational and informative topics for the senior industry for over ten years, and is a frequent and longtime contributor to Seniors Guide.

Terri Jones