Male and female friendships are different, and scientists don’t know why

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You might have noticed it in your own life: Men and women have different relationships with their friends. While women are often ready and eager to speak about more emotional or personal topics, men’s relationships often seem consumed by less talk and more action — watching sports or playing video games, for example.

Robin Dunbar, an Oxford psychologist who has studied friendship for over 50 years, has noticed it too.

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From a very early age, Dunbar’s research shows, the difference in friendships between young girls and young boys becomes clear: While girls’ friendships are generally conversation-based and emotionally intense, boys’ friendships are more casual.

“They depend much more, not on who you are, but the fact that you belong to my club,” said Dunbar. “Doesn’t matter what defines the club… it could be just the guys who go drinking on a Friday night together or play soccer.”

Dunbar said studies he and his team conducted looking at thousands of people’s Facebook pictures corroborated this. While women’s profile pictures regularly featured them and a close friend — often just two people — men were more likely to have profile pictures featuring them and a group of people, often other men, taking part in some kind of activity, like sports or hiking. They were far less likely to post a picture with them and their “best friend” or their spouse.

This social media observation reflects the real dynamics at play in friendships, said Dunbar. Its effects can be observed in primary schools — while at first, researchers observe, girls like to join boys in rough play, at some point, as it gets rougher and rougher, the girls get bored and go off to talk to each other instead.

Friendship upkeep

Another major difference in male and female friendships Dunbar and other researchers have noticed are their upkeep. When men move cross-country, they often lose contact with their friends, while women are much more likely to keep in contact with friends they made in university, for example.

More often than not, Dunbar said, when jobs and children make life busy, it is women who end up putting more work into maintaining friendships, so by the time they have reached middle age, a man is more likely to be consumed by a woman’s social circle — befriended by those women’s husbands — than vice versa. This lack of their own intimate support system can become a problem when men reach old age and outlive their wives.

“Deaths of loneliness” are well-documented in research and can happen to both men and women — they occur when a spouse dies shortly after their spouse passes away. Research shows that the main contributing factor to these deaths is social isolation and loneliness. The 2005 Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging found that having friends and a social network offered a significant protective effect against mortality in older people.

Dunbar also mentioned the hard work of pregnancy and the early years of childcare as a potentially distinct reason why women maintain bonds more readily in adulthood. In heterosexual relationships, advice on how to breastfeed, for example, can’t be provided by their spouse, so they have to rely on other women to adapt to their new circumstances.

This experience also often causes intimate bonding between a mother and daughter. Dunbar said research conducted using phone logs from study participants in Europe showed that over the course of the lifespan, although spouses typically are each other’s most-called person, this changes abruptly for the woman once she reaches midlife and later. At this point, the most-called person often becomes the daughter.

The evolution of female friendships

Ana M. Martínez Alemán, a professor at Boston College in the US, conducted studies in the mid-90s about female friendships made in university. She found that these close friendships played a formative role in the womens’ socialization, influencing their identity formation and intellectual understanding of their place in the world.

She followed up with the same women ten years later to see what their social worlds were like — had they maintained the friendships?

Many of the women had — and the friendship had in fact grown closer as the women grew older. The years after college, marked by the loneliness of moving to new cities, struggles with partners and children, pregnancy and careers in sometimes male-dominated fields, the friendships often underwent a “heightened intimacy”.

“More detailed, penetrating, and incisive, the women’s friends’ conversations are perceived to have intensified despite geographic separation,” wrote Martínez Alemán. “Many women are now living substantial distances from their college female friend, so all noted that their conversations are now planned and to a certain extent intentional.”

Tend and befriend

Parenting also seems to play a role, but answering the question of nature versus nurture is nearly impossible in this situation.

Dunbar said that although subconsciously gendered parenting may play a small role in the different ways boys and girls approach friendship, he rejects the notion that this tells the whole story. The same social dynamics can be observed in primates, he said — when young male apes play, they often take part in bouts of rough-and-tumble wrestling, while young female apes have been observed carrying around sticks and rocks like babies — just like little human girls do with baby dolls.

Family can certainly play a role in human relationships. For example: Research published in 2019 in the American Journal of Primatology does indicate that the better an adolescent girl gets along with her mother, the more likely that she has close friendships.

The paper also notes something called the tend and befriend hypothesis, a theory about how people — more often women than men — respond to stress.

Psychologists have largely identified two ways in which people respond to stress: Fight or flight. The tend and befriend theory offers insight into a third way people respond to stress — by connecting with others.

Coined by UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor, the theory states that when people, usually women, are faced with stress, they tend to their offspring and connect with other people. She said the impulse to make these connections could be caused by a lack of oxytocin in the brain in response to social isolation and relationship problems.

In a 2011 paper outlining the theory, Taylor wrote that it could help explain one reason why women are more likely to live longer than men — while men more often turn to fight or flight responses to stress, causing problems like substance abuse, coronary heart diseases and even suicide, women are more likely to turn to their friends in time of need, which has positive impacts on their health.

What causes these differences?

While the tend and befriend hypothesis might be explained by women’s more maternal instincts, it doesn’t explain why women appear to find more fun in conversation and emotional vulnerability than men, or why female friendships generally aren’t centered around activities like playing games.

Although the very different nature of female and male friendships has been noted time and time again in social research, understanding its causes is difficult. It requires answering an age-old, highly debated and politically complex question: Is there a difference between the female and male brain? To what degree are gender differences nature, and to what degree are they nurture?

Some studies have attempted to answer this question. But as soon as one study is published, a review critiquing its methods comes along. For now, the reason why male and female friendships are so different remains unclear.

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