Girlfriends: Your How-to Guide for Healthy Relationships

by Debra Milinsky, MSW, LCSW 

::   There is a chain letter making the rounds in which a mother offers her just-married daughter these words of wisdom: “Don’t forget your sisters. They’ll be more important as you get older. Remember to go places and do things with them. Remember that ‘sisters’ means ALL the women – your girlfriends, your daughters, and all your women relatives, too. You’ll need other women. Women always do.”

Everyone — girls, boys, women and men — want healthy friendships. The wish to trust, to feel accepted, to feel valued and respected, and to have a positive sense of self, purpose and connection with others, is universal.

Special learning occurs within a woman’s relationships where her self-esteem and competence are forged, enhanced, or damaged on the anvil of her connections with other girls and women. Every woman can recall the joy of having a best friend and deep despair when that best friend’s words or deeds were wounding or rejecting. Acknowledging hurt and disappointment while building self-esteem and strategies to successfully manage these inevitable relationship challenges, installs the resilience required for effective problem solving in life.

Each passing age brings fresh opportunities to grow as social skills are practiced and honed with old friends and new acquaintances in a widening circle of all kinds life experiences and people. In order to have a friend, you must be a friend; to be a friend, you must have a friend. How is this reciprocal wisdom about valuing connections and being a good friend imparted, especially to girls as they grow up?

Essential elements for making and keeping friends

Learning about relationships begins at home and requires consistent care and attention from parents, other caregivers, and siblings who provide a child’s first socialization experiences with peers. Kindness, respect and predictable consequences nurtured during formative years, can in turn be extended to others through this type of modeling that shapes positive attitudes and behaviors.

The child develops a resilient social awareness when basic needs for security and acceptance are met, when exposures to danger and trauma are minimized, and as language develops, when feelings are named and acknowledged. The child’s ability to name and respect her own thoughts and feelings prepares her to speak up for herself and in turn, to show empathy for others, both essential ingredients for maintaining friendships.

Healthy friendships are built upon a foundation of mutual trust, honesty, give and take, and acceptance. A true friend wants what is best for you, supporting your self-esteem and positive growth without hurtful criticism or judgment. These very measures of friendship become the standards by which to measure a friend. As your self-worth and self-confidence develop, you can use these feelings to evaluate what is constructive or out of balance in order to make better relationship choices in your life.

Another key element is sharing common interests and activities that develop as you get to know each other. This allows you to build a more solid friendship with many dimensions that will stand the test of time. In addition to enjoying what you have in common, flexibility and tolerance for inevitable differences and disappointments are the hallmarks of any maturing relationship. 

How can I know if a relationship will be healthy when I first meet someone?  

While some lifelong relationships ignite with a spark of instant attraction, most warm up more slowly, taking time to achieve attachment, belonging and intimacy. Enjoying mutual work or social activities, and feeling safe, secure, happy and good about your friend when you are together and also when you are apart, build a foundation for enduring attachment. Protecting and respecting each other’s likes and dislikes, boundaries and privacy — beware of gossip! — also build trust. The desire to know and be known provide dynamic, ever-deepening opportunities that keep friendships alive and well.

What if my friendship is hurtful? How do I change it for the better or end it in a healthy way?

Self-esteem— positive thoughts and feelings about yourself— and self-awareness, are essential for evaluating your own needs and desires, and making appropriate choices that support self-respect. Even in the best of friendships, empathic failures, misunderstandings and ruptures can arise. Your friend’s response may not meet your expectations and may hurt and disappoint you.

In most situations, the best way to manage disappointment is to speak honestly and responsibly, describing how your friend’s actions have troubled or hurt you, without launching a personal attack or blaming her. Finding common ground, removing obstacles as they appear and solving problems together, can actually strengthen your friendship.

When events that cause protracted suffering and undermine trust and self-esteem cannot be worked through, you may wish to seek help from other supportive friends and family, or a professional consultation. A different perspective can provide an opportunity to evaluate the friendship, figure out who owns the problem, and whether or not there is something you can or should do to repair the rift. Sometimes just a break and the tincture of time can clear the air and heal the rupture between you and your friend. However, if you are unable to resolve the conflict, ‘warm distancing’ and detachment may illuminate a path of least resistance to the ending.

A diverse circle of friends is your best health insurance

“Bio-psycho-social health” research examines how factors such as innate biochemistry, mental attitudes and the presence or absence of supportive friendships, affect the quality of health and longevity. It comes as no surprise that social support and shared activities boost well-being, general health and happiness. Conversely, mental and physical health often decline when relationships are troubled and troubling. A person who feels alone and disconnected from others is more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.

Good friends take an interest in each other’s well-being, encouraging her to seek help when problems arise. Connecting with your girlfriends during stressful times provides an emotional safety net, enhances coping skills and reduces suffering. Friends can motivate each other to maintain healthy diet and exercise goals by working out or walking together.

Just as attention to diet and aerobic activities improves heart health, a diverse circle of girlfriends with whom you share a range of interests, expands your options for companionship and connection. Developing different aspects of yourself through varied friendships and activities brings out your personal best and instills happiness— which are good for your heart in every sense!

© Copyright 2011  Debra Milinsky, MSW, LCSW

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Debra Milinsky, MSW, LCSW, is a licensed couple and family psychotherapist, practicing in Berkeley and Vallejo. She helps women and men, couples and families, mothers and daughters from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, sexual and gender identities develop healthy, harmonious and satisfying relationships.

Contact Debra Milinsky @ 510.525.7575

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