Why Is It…?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Why is it…that many women forsake their female friendships once in a relationship with a man?

In response to a previous column on female friendship, I received feedback from a reader who stated that the biggest obstacle to adult female friendship appears to be a woman’s intimate involvement in a relationship with a man. The observation being that once a man is in the picture, female friends take a back seat and are often neglected, or entirely dismissed.

A: While it is normal for women and men to spend time exclusively with their intimate partners, there is evidence to suggest that heterosexual women are more likely to disengage from their platonic friendships more so than men. From early childhood, females are taught (both directly and indirectly) that their primary goals in life should be marriage and motherhood. Social influences such as family and religious values, media, and even toys marketed to female children (such as baby dolls and easy bake ovens) communicate this expectation in a variety of ways. As such, most young females internalize these expectations in the formation of their self-concepts and social aspirations.

The Leave it to Beaver style of home and family in the 1950s became the ideal standard for the average American woman. Notions such as “a bad marriage is better than no marriage at all” and “we are incomplete without a man” have permeated female psychology for generations. In the American Folklore Theatre production, A Cabin with a View, a musical number parodies this dynamic claiming that the one, single goal of female students at UW-Madison in the 1950s was to earn a “M.R.S.” rather than a B.A. or Ph.D. And while some contemporary women have broader horizons than their 1950 counterparts (in terms of career development and economic independence), most still feel a need to fulfill the wife/mother mandate.

The impetus toward intimate bonds and procreation is certainly a basic human drive in both males and females. However, because females have been socialized to adopt the role of primary care-giver/taker, many women still focus their attention, time, and effort toward the service and nurturance of the man and children in their lives. While home and hearth has many rewards, this trend tends to result in certain negative consequences as well. For example, research has shown that, in modern day families (where both parents work full time), women are still doing 80 percent of the childcare and domestic tasks. This leads to stress, exhaustion, and decreased life satisfaction for women, as well as less time for personal pursuits such as friendships and relaxation. Therefore, women with families tend to befriend other women who are also wives and mothers as a system of support and shared experiences and concerns.

Single adult women in need of female companionship frequently find themselves in a difficult place. Friendships with other single women seem to vaporize once one member establishes a dating relationship with a man – and so, the cycle begins. Because females are taught that they must “attract” a man, many women view other single women as competitive threats to their romantic aspirations. Termed the “divide and conquer” strategy by some feminist researchers, the idea is that the intimate bonds women share quickly become dissolved once the possibility of romance comes into focus.

While the benefits of heterosexual relationships are many, frequently men are unwilling or unable to match the free communication and emotional empathy and support of a female friend. A recent study indicated that women who maintain their close female friends after establishing a romantic relationship with a man actually fare better (emotionally and physically) than women who place their friendships on the back burner. In fact, some have argued that, with the additional weight of work and family shouldered by modern women, close female friendships are a necessary deterrent to feelings of isolation, loneliness, and stress. So the next time a girlfriend calls…think twice before saying that you don’t have time to talk. It may be later than you think.