Generally speaking, you can leave two women in a busy doctor's waiting room and by the time they're called for their appointments, they know each other's life story and have traded phone numbers. That's female bonding at work. On the other hand, when two women are competing for a man or vying for resources for their children, things can get quite nasty. That's female competition.
Both are instinctual responses, based on body chemistry and evolution. Our culture would like us to believe that women compete with each other more than they bond. But now that fewer than half of all U.S. households are occupied by married couples, we may have reached a tipping point that shifts reality and perception towards the value of female bonding over competition. Think about it...if your girlfriends are going to be there long after your next relationship ends, isn't it high time we gave those friendships their due?
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Let me fess up to my personal stake in this. My relationship of nearly three years with a man I thought I might be with forever (or at least a lot longer than this) recently crashed and burned. The details of why we broke up aren't important, not in comparison to what happened next. In the aftermath of this sad split, my female friends rallied around me...took me to lunch, invited me to stay with them, talked on the phone for hours, dutifully called him a jerk, gently questioned why I was with him in the first place, and above all listened until I was okay again. With this fresh reminder of the power of female friendship, I've taken a step back to look at the relative importance we give to the friends and spouses in our lives--and the forces at work that lead us to view each class of relationships in the ways we do.
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To begin with, there are biochemical reasons for women's ability to support each other through thick and thin (and why most men do so poorly in the empathy department).
Women, far more than men, mirror other people and their emotions exceptionally well. Because of estrogen and a greater default level of oxytocin, the hormonal "superglue" that makes two people want to bond, women feel more in their bodies than men do, from their emotions and physical sensations of pain, pleasure, and everything in between. Women also feel and respond with anguish when faced with another person's pain to a much larger degree than men. If you were to turn the lights on in a movie theater during a particularly violent scene, chances are a large number of the women would be covering their eyes.