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Friendships As We Age

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Women's friendships have been misunderstood since Lysistrata united the women of Greece on a "sex strike" to end war. A recent article in the New York Times -- "Friends of a Certain Age" -- spotlighted the difficulty both men and women have in making close and lasting friendships beyond college, but used as "evidence" logistical difficulties (no time) and the challenge of pairing couples with couples, a matchmaking game involving the compatibility of four people.

The theory that "life gets in the way" of friendship may be true, but it's ultimately superficial. I am not speaking for men, but the nature of women's friendships changes as a direct result of their psychology, not their schedule.

Women are hard-wired for intense and continuous emotional engagement with one another. Females evolved to weave the social fabric of small and tightly-knit clans. (Think: nomadic bands of prehistory -- or Levittown in the fifties.)

As a part of creating micro-societies, women learned to form their identity primarily through their female relationships. It may seem trite -- or obvious -- but the tone and intensity of every female-to-female relationship can be traced back to one person: Mom. Yes, Dad plays a part, too, but it's not the same intensity.

Everyone starts life with an epic bond to their mother. For both sexes, issues of boundaries between self and other are evident (Where do I begin? Where does she end?) and define the earliest phases of emotional growth. This love for Mom is a grand passion, but ultimately must be forsaken. While boys generally turn away from their mothers and seek male role models, women continue to struggle with issues of identification with other women. Each relationship women have with each other is in some sense a reiteration of that first powerful female bond -- with all its pros and cons.

College age and post-college women imbue their friendships -- mostly unconsciously -- with issues that arise from their deep but ambivalent attachment to their mothers: Sexual competition for father's attention (the oedipal phase) is transferred to competition for sexual partners and comparisons prevail. (Am I as attractive as she is? How does my body stack up? Am I as smart?) For women in their twenties -- who are in the prime time of self-definition -- girlfriends are central to that process. Although they are a band of "sisters" who provide comfort, they also provide a mirror and a yardstick that are all key to identity formation and self-esteem. The HBO show Girls is dead-on in its portrayal of twenty-something female friendships: fascinating and faceted relationships that are by turns rife with competition and conflict.

Later in life, after women settle into an identity and gain confidence, the tie with other women may loosen -- and the heat of deep and primitive emotions typically fuels and forges ties with spouse and family.

Understanding phases of female friendship -- and their relationship to the life cycle -- is key to understanding oneself as a woman, and accepting the change that mature adulthood brings to this special connection. We should not be too busy to nurture these relationships. It's worth the effort.