Friendships between women are often based on mutual sharing of confidences that build trust, but sometimes those friendships can cause more harm than good, says Lisa Do Couto, a master’s student in psychology, who recently defended her thesis on “Women’s Relational Orientation and Relationship Formation.”
Relational orientation refers to how women develop interpersonal connections. “Their relationship with other people forms an important part of their identity,” says Do Couto. By comparison, men tend to be more focused on themselves, their personal goals and achievements. Women are also goal-oriented, but are more concerned about the opinions and perceptions of others.
“I’ve always been interested in understanding women and their relationships in particular, especially because past research has shown their relationships are an important part of women’s lives,” she says. “I wanted to understand how these relationships affect women’s identities, affect their understanding of themselves and affect their lives in general.”
Previous research has shown that female friendships are mostly beneficial — they provide women with social support and an outlet to talk about themselves in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. Women in these types of relationships benefit by discussing their problems, collaborating on solutions and having their feelings validated.
But other studies suggest that female relationships can be stressful if one woman feels overburdened by her friend’s problems. “Their problems become your problems,” says Do Couto.
Women typically begin a friendship by sharing private details about themselves and gauging the other woman’s response. The more they share with each other, the closer they become. As the relationship evolves over time, trust builds and those revelations become more personal.
“Oftentimes you don’t reveal a lot of personal information right from the get-go,” she says. “It takes a couple of interactions before you really feel safe with them, you really feel you can trust them and you can reveal yourself to them. They’re not going to judge you, they’re not going to tell all of your secrets to someone else.”
Do Couto wanted to explore how women form friendships with each other from the beginning. “The first interaction really sets the stage for how this relationship will develop in the future.”
For her study, female undergraduate students who had never met before were paired together and given a series of personal questions to ask each other. Do Couto observed how much each participant was willing to reveal about herself. Some participants gave superficial answers, while others disclosed more personal information. “Depending on yourself and how you orient toward these relationships, you can decide how far to go with that question,” she says.
Women tended to be more open if they perceived the other person’s response to their revelation as positive. Those who were less forthcoming may have been guarded because they feared rejection.
Female friendships can become negative if one side reveals more than the other and thus benefits more from the relationship, she says. If the relationship is one-sided, it can cause feelings of dissatisfaction for the person who benefits the least from it.
Relationships are important to both sexes, says Do Couto, but they differ between men and women. From an early age, girls are socialized to care about others. As they get older, they begin to define themselves by their relationships with others such as daughter, sister, wife or mother, followed by their professional role. Men view themselves through their professional role first, followed by their interpersonal and familial relationships.
Women often interact by talking and sharing their problems, whereas male bonding usually occurs through a shared activity such as sports, she says. Men are also less likely to engage in deeply personal conversations with other men, preferring instead to deal with problems on their own.
“Women tend to be much more verbal in how they interact with each other,” says Do Couto. “Women are much more focused on talking about their issues and their experiences and processing it verbally.”