The Power of Friendship

How, why and when women should invest in friendships.

by Elicia Brown

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It was spring. The sun shone. The birds sang. My baby, as new and bright as the park’s foliage, wriggled in her carriage.

I’d seldom felt lonelier.

I couldn’t stop myself from eyeing them, from envying them, those gaggles of giggling women, sitting cross-legged like kindergartners in a circle on the grass, each adorned with a tiny blanket and infant—their tickets to this exclusive club. I had a baby. I had a blanket. I wanted in, but I didn’t have a clue how to penetrate this group.

Weeks later, though it felt like months, I spoke of those early, empty days to my new “mommy friends,” one a Turkish-Jewish neighbor who lived six floors above me but whom I’d never seen before my child’s birth, the other an Argentine woman we’d encountered on the lawns of Central Park. We formed our own small circle each afternoon beneath the same willow tree overlooking Turtle Pond. The wispy branches of the tree waved down. Our babies’ limbs waved up. We spoke of fears and faith, of changes in our marriages and to our bodies. We laughed and lingered. And slowly at first, and then more quickly as spring became summer, my postpartum blues began to clear.

In recent years, study after study has confirmed what Jewish sages have long understood: the life-affirming powers of friendship. Research indicates that true friends help you reduce stress and live longer and more happily. Friendship can affect your weight, your risk of dementia as you age and the health of your heart.

As far back as the third century, the author of Ecclesiastes wrote: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls, for he has not another to help him up.” 

More directly, the Talmud advises, in Ethics of Our Fathers: “Get thyself a friend.”

Although traditional Jewish texts focused on bonds between men, new research demonstrates that friendship may be particularly beneficial for women. A UCLA study noted that while the “fight or flight” impulse rears up in men confronting stress, women are more apt to “tend and befriend” in a similar scenario. And by turning to friends instead of fists, women may be prolonging their lives in more ways than one. The Nurses’ Health Study conducted by Harvard Medical School found that lacking close friends could be as harmful to your health as smoking.

And yet, many adult women lose their way with friends. They give friendship a low priority, awaiting the day when obligations to spouses, children, parents and work allow for “indulging” in a rare Ladies’ Night Out. However, friendship provides nourishment for mental and physical well-being.

“Everyone I know is pressed for time,” says Irene S. Levine, who is billed as the “friendship doctor” for the Huffington Post, and produces “The Friendship Blog.” 

“Friendships are discretionary, but if you make time for friends there are a lot of payoffs,” says Levine, including stronger relationships with husbands, children and colleagues.

Lost in Transition

During college, the social scene often begins before the morning coffee; for many young urbanites, those early years after graduation can feel like an extension of dorm life. But inevitably, at some point in adulthood, most people find themselves longing for a deeper or wider circle of friends.

Often, a life transition, such as marriage or motherhood, divorce or a spouse’s death, spawns this sense of longing.

When Rachel Bertsche moved from New York City to Chicago to live with her boyfriend, she found herself without anyone to “call on Sunday morning to see where we were having brunch, nowhere to stop by after work to watch Project Runway,” she recounts in MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend, published in 2011 by Ballantine Books.

In an attempt to meet a soul sister or two, Bertsche devised a plan: At the age of 27, she dove “into the world of serial girl dating” and went on a “friend date” each week over the next year. Her quest brought her to yoga and improv classes, a Jewish discussion group, and a session of “speed friending” (interviewing a table of women with prepared questions, organized by GirlFriendCircles). At the end of the year, Bertsche hadn’t replaced her best friends in New York, but she made 22 true, new pals.

A divorce or separation from a longtime spouse often unsettles friendships even more than a move across the country. Not so for Amanda Steinberg, 36, the founder and CEO of DailyWorth, the online resource for women.

 Amanda Steinberg accepting her 2013 Women to Watch award at JWI's gala in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Michael Bennett Kress.)

Amanda Steinberg accepting her 2013 Women to Watch award at JWI's gala in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Michael Bennett Kress.)

“Divorce only affects friendships if you let it,” says Steinberg, who lives in Philadelphia. When she first separated from her husband in 2011, Steinberg arranged meetings with mutual friends, and shared her fears of losing them. The tactic worked. “Like with most things,” says Steinberg, “it all comes down to communication.”

Joy Ladin, on the other hand, had a somewhat thornier divorce, and also a more complex experience with friendships, both before and after. Ladin, a professor of English literature at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University, began transitioning from Jay to Joy, from male to female, in her mid-40s after a lifetime of extreme discomfort with her gender. That evolution also coincided with the dissolution of her longtime marriage.

Ladin mourns the loss of friends who sided with her ex-wife. “Some people just ran away, thinking this is strange and horrible. There were such hard feelings that they couldn’t be friends with both of us. It was terrible.”

But there is another chapter in this story. As Ladin underwent not just a separation from her wife, but also a physical and mental metamorphosis of sorts, she forged new bonds. “There were so many awful things about early transition,” says Ladin. “But one of the great pleasures was the blossoming of friendships as a woman.”

She says she particularly enjoyed the “texture of the conversations,” where, unlike the direct style common with men, she found herself lost in “looping, associational conversations.” She says, “I’d been longing to have those conversations my whole life.”

Ladin quotes the poet William Blake: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” Her interpretation: “[Friendship] is what grounds you in this world.” She adds, “Female friendship is one of the greatest joys in life.”

Those Feisty Fifties

This particular brand of joy can be essential as women journey through menopause, according to Suzanne Braun Levine, who was the first editor of Ms. magazine.

Levine has been building a movement for women in their 50s and beyond, trying to reclaim this transitional period as a Second Adulthood. “It is a time when you are entering a period that is as full of possibility as the last time your hormones changed, and relationships were as fraught with complexity and confusion,” says Levine. “It is a time when you are desperately asking yourself what to do with the rest of your life.”

“Friends become even more important,” says Levine, who is the author of the e-book You Gotta Have Girlfriends: A Post-Fifty Posse Is Good for Your Health (Open Road Integrated Media, 2013). “They reassure you that you aren’t crazy, or if you are, that you’re not alone.”

A Web of Support

While milestones such as menopause (or moving or motherhood) can inspire a reevaluation and renewal of one’s social network, sometimes “the loss tiptoes up, the unexpected fallout of a hurried life,” writes Marla Paul in The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore (Holtzbrinck Publishers).

Such was the case for Shoshana Kline. Kline, who lives in Los Angeles, woke up one day shortly before she turned 30 and realized that she was spending her leisure time with her boyfriend and his friends. She worked from home. She volunteered for Jewish organizations, where she was among the youngest by two decades.

She’d met her boyfriend through JDate, so she turned again to the Internet, exploring the new and growing world of friend-matching websites. The choices include SocialJane.com, which has a joining fee of $14.95 and provides “access to its database of 25,000 members.” Girlfriend Social, a free site, organizes local events, hosts a chat room and allows members to sift through its almost 30,000 profiles.

Kline signed up instead for GirlFriendCircles.com, which costs $29.95 for a six-month membership, $49.95 for a year. For that price, the organization promises a top-notch roster of women committed to investing in friendship.

The company organizes events and features personal ads. Its signature service, however, is its “connecting circles,” which bring together members in a small group at a local café. The company supplies the circle with a list of questions to spark conversation.

For Kline, the method paid off. She immediately bonded with one woman from her initial circle, and together they started a book club. She’s also organized a trip for 11 women to San Diego and has delved into deep discussions of feelings and family with women in one-on-one hikes and dinners.

“It’s been such a great opportunity,” says Kline, whose social calendar is now occupied by plans with 12 to 15 new friends. None are Jewish. Kline thinks that JDate would do well to create an offshoot for making friends.

It has become trendy to blame the online world for diminished social ties in the “real world.” In fact, though, many of the women interviewed for this article would agree with Levine, who calls the Internet “a double-edged sword.”

“It’s not a substitute for having close friends,” says Levine, who is author of Best Friends Forever (Overlook TP). Still, as a means of making plans with friends, or to locate potential new friends, the Internet can prove an invaluable resource. In addition to the friendship “dating” sites like GirlFriendCircles, numerous meet-ups have emerged over the last decade or so, which allow a virtual community to gather in person. (Meetup has a list of Jewish-oriented ones.)

Levine says she is constantly amazed by the websites she encounters, including those dedicated to helping older women find compatible roommates and travel partners. She also knows of at least one intimate relationship that exists almost exclusively online. The two women write emails to one another, sharing private details of their life, “just as one might in a diary entry.” In cyberspace, a friend can “pour one’s heart out without being interrupted,” says Levine.

On Board Your Lifeboat?

My book of Yiddish proverbs exhorts friend-seekers to focus on quality over quantity: Besser ain freint mit gekechts aider hundert mit a krechtz. (Better one friend with a dish of food than a hundred with a sigh.)

It is a message that Jessy Tolkan treats as her mission.

Tolkan, who is in her 30s and the director of Campaign for Global Electric Vehicle Infrastructure based in Washington, D.C., has more than 500 Facebook friends. She’s seldom felt lonely, but she recently realized she was surrounded by “relatively shallow friends,” she says.

It is an observation that wouldn’t surprise the founders of Lifeboat, an organization that aims to revitalize friendships. Lifeboat’s recent survey, “State of Friendship in America,” found that three-quarters of Americans are not satisfied with their friendships.

Tolkan realized that something was amiss when she heard a Lifeboat presentation. She set out to deepen and enrich an inner circle of eight friends, aiming to establish the intimate, loving relationships she recalled from summers at Camp Interlaken, a JCC camp in Wisconsin. To do so, she adopted the Lifeboat methodology: Make it official.

“Basically I would ask someone if she would enter into an agreement that we would be there for each other.” She laughs. “It sounds creepy and cultish, but basically I just want to have good friends.”

Tolkan worked to improve the quality of those eight friendships, skipping television shows for phone calls, stopping over in the Midwest to visit a close friend, asking for help when she needed it.

The payoff came sooner than expected. This spring, Tolkan underwent a bone marrow transplant for a life-threatening disease. Her network of Chosen People immediately sprang into action. Seven of the eight visited Tolkan in Wisconsin, where she was recovering in her parents’ home. One friend sent a painted picture by her 3-year-old daughter almost every day for three months. Another sent a photo almost every day of Tolkan’s favorite spots in the D.C. area. Another delivered a singing telegram from India every day for a week.

“It was hilarious,” recalls Tolkan. “It was during my darkest days, and I would totally erupt in laughter.”

At summer’s end, as Tolkan prepared to return to her life in D.C., she seemed to be in the blissful state one often finds in those newly in love. She says, “I had high expectations for how people would be there for me.” But, she says, “these have all been exceeded.”

(Written in winter 2013 and updated in winter 2016.)


Elicia Brown is a freelance writer who lives in Manhattan.