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Suzanne Braun Levine’s recent book, How We Love Now: Women Talk About Intimacy After Fifty, continues her exploration of a new stage of life for women that began with Inventing the Rest of Our Lives and Fifty Is the New Fifty. Levine was the first editor of Ms. magazine and editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. She produced the Peabody Award–winning documentary She’s Nobody’s Baby: American Women in the 20th Century. She blogs for Huff/Post50, AARP, Next Avenue, and Vibrant Nation, and has appeared on The Oprah Show, Today, and Charlie Rose. She has also presented at TEDxWomen.
YOU GOTTA HAVE GIRLFRIENDS
Life happens. Distance separates.
Children grow up.
Jobs come and go.
Love waxes and wanes.
Men don't do what they're supposed to do.
Colleagues forget favors.
Sisters are there, no matter how much time and how many miles are between you.
A girlfriend is never farther away than needing her can reach
The best thing a man can do for his health is to be married to a woman. One of the best things a woman can do for her health is to nurture her relationships with her girlfriends, especially after the age of fifty. The longer we live, the more important our friends become. We call them our "chosen family" and in times of need they are the most likely to be at the door, on the phone, or in the waiting room. In other words, the post-fifty version of "an apple a day" is "nurture your friendships."
Not only do our girlfriends keep us physically healthy, but their support can also make us well when we are sick. A study of breast cancer patients by researchers at Ohio State University's Comprehensive Cancer Center found that those who were in a supervised support group were 56 percent less likely to die than those who were going it alone. In fact, the stress-reducing influence of their company is thought to contribute to women's longer life expectancy than men. "I had two separate conversations with friends today about how they tend to hold things in, sometimes until they experience physical symptoms," one woman told me. "One has panic attacks, the other had shingles, which she attributes to stress. Both are hesitant to express their emotional pain to their husbands—they just don't seem to understand." But, she adds, "both reiterated how much they need their girlfriends."
Friends are just as vital to our psychological and spiritual well-being. They give us courage, confidence, and understanding; we know that no matter what happens as we age, we are not alone. They give us love, patience, acceptance, and a healthy dose of comic relief for the accumulating absurdities of life. And we empower each other to achieve the well-being of accomplishment beyond the years of past generations. All in all, such cherished friends are a blessing; they make life matter when it counts.
Our mothers' generation wouldn't understand this notion of friends helping friends achieve new levels of accomplishment and vitality beyond the sell-by date of menopause; their friendships remained relatively static as their circles aged together. Our own friendships, on the other hand, shift during different life stages. They may not have been as important to us earlier in our lives as they will become now. Back in our thirties and forties, we were frantically balancing the multiple demands on our days, and friends were just one ingredient in a swirling mix. Many of us neglected some meaningful friendships for those that developed out of common interests (parents whose children were friends with your kids) or shared space (workplace colleagues). In our fifties, we open a new chapter in our lives, and we can't take friends for granted any more. Without a circle of trust, we will have a very hard time turning the page.
We are entering a challenging, promising—and unprecedented—stage of life Gail Sheehy, in her book Passages, has called Second Adulthood. The twenty-plus years after fifty are a statistical gift to our generation, bestowed by the good health, accumulated personal authority, and self-awareness of our first adulthood. An open field of dreams lies between adulthood and old age, where we move from a life in which we have fulfilled many roles—child, student, mother, employee, wife—to one where we are able to write our own scripts. For many of us, it is the most exciting, optimistic, and fulfilling stage of our lives.
I often hear from women who are amazed to find that they are happier now than ever before—that despite sagging boobs and drifting memories, this is the best time of their lives. We feel more confident, more open to new experiences, more appreciative of good times, more thoughtful and self-aware. At the same time, things don't get to us the way they used to; we have literally mellowed with time and simply don't sweat the small stuff. Recent studies by Laura Carstenson at Stanford and others have found that people over age fifty are very happy, happier, according to the researchers, than those respondents in their twenties and thirties. That makes sense when you think about it. We are better able to roll with the punches and many of the conflicting demands on us have receded.
To get there, though, we must pass through a period of upheaval as confusing and extended as adolescence. The two have a lot in common: raging hormones, self-doubt, recklessness, tumultuous relationships, and wrestling with the question of what we will do with the rest of our lives. No matter how independent and resourceful we are, meeting this challenge successfully requires teamwork. And courage. "Many think of courage ... as a solitary journey," write Deborah Collins Stephens, Jackie Speier, Michaelene Cristini Risley, and Jan Yanehiro, the friends and co-authors of This Is Not the Life I Ordered. "We believe the journey of courage is best walked with women friends who literally and figuratively 'en-courage' us."
The journey takes us through change and doubt, and the destination is not clear. It is easy to get stuck and hard to forge ahead. That is where our encouraging friends come in. As Ellen Goodman and Patricia O'Brien point out in their book, I Know Just What You Mean: "There are times when a friend provides more than the warm soup of empathy. She becomes a catalyst for change. Over a long life, full of disruptions, stops, and start-ups, friends can be the collaborators, the instigators who make change possible. They are often the ones who urge us to take a leap, who jump with us or help us scramble back up the other side." When it gets good, Second Adulthood is about taking leaps, so a loving nudge is essential—especially since the men we know are often heading in the opposite direction, looking to scale back and settle in.
"By the time we reach fifty," Eileen Williams, founder of the website The Feisty Side of Fifty points out, "we know a thing or two about the changes that life can bring. We've lost loved ones to death and gone through the breaking up of relationships. We've endured injured pride, damaged self-esteem, rejections, and crushing disappointments. And we have gone through menopause." Surviving hard times has also taught us a thing or two about what makes the difference between triumph and defeat. I haven't interviewed a single woman about the ups and downs of her recent life who hasn't at some point told me a story that ended with a grateful "I couldn't have gotten through it without my girlfriends."
So, the next time people say (or you say to yourself), "why are you wasting your time having coffee with your girlfriends when you have so many more important things to do?" tell them they couldn't be more wrong! Beyond the fun of it all, and the infusion of energy and optimism, those seemingly meaningless get-togethers are crucial to aging well. Without the kind of human contact and intellectual stimulation we take for granted earlier in our lives, we are likely to literally fade away physically, psychologically, and socially. The failure to maintain quality relationships with others, according to Dr. David Spiegel, a Stanford professor of psychiatry, is as dangerous to our physical health as smoking.
Your Circle of Trust: Who Makes the Cut?
In your gut, you know who your friends are. They are the people you choose over all others to spend your fiftieth birthday with. They root for you and they put up with you. They stand up for you and they stand by you. They patiently teach you how to use your smart phone (and can be trusted not to tell your kids you couldn't figure it out yourself). They listen sympathetically when you need to vent. They know when you are hurt or angry and how to patch things up. And they make you laugh.
I have recently taken stock of the women I call friends and singled out those who I trusted most and who made me feel the best. The list made me smile. These are the women I want on my team as I sort out the rest of my life. What surprised me as I looked over the list was how seamlessly they wove together the chapters of my life so far. It is as if collectively they have been at my side all along, helping me grow up.
Ruthie and I were grade school friends and have now reconnected after a long gap when we probably didn't think of each other at all. We started out in the same place and have ended up with the kind of bond we might have achieved if we had been in constant touch through all that time.
Patricia and I go back almost as far. We went to the same college; she was the one I told about my abortion senior year. The only accommodation to growing up has been that we have gone from calling each other "Patty" and "Susie" to "Patricia" and "Suzanne." While her life has become very different from mine, our understanding of each other is timeless.
I also met Maddy in college; she is my no-nonsense, curmudgeon friend whose reading recommendations are unfailingly rewarding. Because she is "difficult" she gets into tight situations, but I love her for her ability to articulate what emotions and circumstances are at play and her gutsy willingness to face the consequences. She tells it like it is. If I act like Cleopatra, Queen of Denial, Maddy keeps me grounded.
Susie came into my life around the time I got married. In fact, she was at my wedding—enormously pregnant—on the groom's side. Her support and admiration never waver. She is wise in all things family related and has a warm and generous family to prove it. She is incredibly smart and talented, and very funny, too.
My other BFF is actually a posse: five former colleagues who have been having dinner once a month since 1989. We like to try new places, which is a good thing, since I am not sure we would be welcome back to any restaurant after a visit. We generally sit there for three or four hours, order nothing but appetizers, laugh uproariously, and then pay with five credit cards. Collectively, we are more than the sum of our parts. Each one of us brings her own kind of support, encouragement, empathy, and humor to the table. We are in sync and can pretty well predict how any one of us will respond to a situation, even what she will order to eat. (I wonder if our monthly meals have become the postmenopausal equivalent to the synchronized periods that female roommates often have.) As the years go by, we marvel at how many more of us it takes to remember the name of a movie star.
There was one more name on the list, but after due consideration, I crossed her off. I realized that although the deep understanding is there, the commitment is not. We took a course together a few years ago and had lunch after each class. During that time we got down to the real stuff and established a warm and trusting intimacy. As soon as the class was over, so was our regular communion. Now we get together once or twice a year, usually at my instigation. The intimacy clicks in as we catch each other up, but if I don't call her, she never thinks to touch base or give me an interesting piece of information. I am off her radar screen between one encounter and the next. I will call her my out-of-sight-out-of-mind friend but not admit her to my circle of trust.
Nurturing Friends over Time
While the bottom line of friendship is trust, acceptance, and constancy, everyone has her own friendship style, and often a different style with different friends. It is almost as important to be aware of your style as it is to be aware of your true friends. Not only to make sure that you are contributing all the nurturing you can to the relationship, but because as our lives change, so will our needs, and our friendships will have to adapt in order to remain healthy.
Some friends talk or email every day; others get together once or twice a year but stay in touch in other ways. Some do things together—like travel or go to movies or power-walk every morning. Others touch base regularly but not often. I am in that last group, but I never doubt that the tie is there. Every once in a while, I get a call from one dear friend asking if I am "waving or drowning." That line (from a Stevie Smith poem about watching someone drown thinking they were waving, not signaling for help) is our code for "just checking in; I thought of you and wanted to make sure there was nothing I needed to know." It's shorthand that enables us to check in without having to "catch up," a process I must admit I would rather be spared. Headlines about events and honesty about feelings are what I am looking for. My emails are probably the least newsy that anyone I know receives.
Given my telegraphic style, I will have to watch out in the years to come so that I don't miss important concerns and events behind the headlines I ask for. Perhaps I should begin asking more probing questions, even learn to play catch up.
Some friendships form a literal "circle of trust," like my dinner pals. Many reading groups have coalesced into intimate and loyal sororities. Susan created one with some former colleagues when she retired from teaching. They've been together for twelve years, though they rarely get together outside their regular meetings. "We are really devoted to one another in terms of this book group, which we adore and which we protect with our lives," she says. "We are very, very careful about anybody coming into the group that we don't think would fit in."
The time may come when they need to break out of their happy bubble. If, say, one of the women stops showing up, will the rest accept the excuse that she got too busy? And the time may come when a new person would bring a healthy breath of fresh air to the group.
Other women are turned off by the group model. "I have noticed among certain women a tremendous need to bond, which in itself is not a bad thing of course," says Jane, a textile artist. But she is suspicious. "The bad side of bonding is the subtle pressure to conform to the group. I have found that some gossip, or passing on what was said, is really a subtle coercion to conform." Pat Wynn Brown, creator of one-woman shows she calls "hair theater," also finds collective intimacy "uncomfortable. Being together in gangs of girls makes me anxious. I much prefer one-on-one chats or small groups where we can talk." Eileen favors "taking a long walk with one friend and then going to lunch afterwards. There's something about being outdoors in nature, exercising together and then sharing a meal, that elicits feelings of closeness."
Carrie, an executive with a not-for-profit foundation, is a one-to-oner also. But when she needed major surgery, she realized that she would have to mobilize the individual units of her "circle of trust" into a caregiving team. She assigned one friend to take her to the hospital, another to pick her up, a third to organize a meal delivery system. Inevitably they crossed paths and developed an acquaintance with each other. When Carrie was safely recovered, the team did not stay in touch. She didn't encourage it. "I think it is because of the intensity I require from a friendship that I can't bear one relationship being diluted in deference to another," she says. "My friendships are not about doing things together, which is often more fun in a group, but about relating—unique woman to unique woman." Furthermore, she goes on, "if I introduced two friends I would be in high anxiety about whether they liked each other or whether one said something that I knew—but she couldn't possibly—would hurt the other. And what if they didn't like each other? How would I deal with that?" Still, she knows how to adapt her friend-shipping style to a crisis.
Excerpted from You Gotta Have Girlfriends by Suzanne Braun Levine. Copyright © 2004 Suzanne Braun Levine. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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