Chances are, most of us have heard the saying “No man is an island”. The phrase, coined by the English poet John Donne in 1624, revolves around the central tenet that islands are self-sufficient and independent (1) – an impossibility for most people, no matter how able they are . We are social beings who cannot function without others.
Bearing in mind that this infamous quote was written in the 17th century, we’d like to think that Donne used the word ‘man’ to encompass all human beings instead of just males. However, is there something more gender-specific than just semantics? Do men and women have different needs when it comes to their social support network?
To be sure, the presence of a strong social support network strongly influences the health of both genders. We only have to glance at the numerous scientific research to find the proof (2). Poor social support has been linked to depression and loneliness, which leads to a wide variety of health problems including high blood pressure, diminished immunity, cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline (3). In fact, low levels of social support have even been linked to increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease, infectious diseases and cancer (4). In one study of middle-aged men over a seven-year period, those with strong social and emotional support were less likely to die than those who lacked such relationships (5).
Let’s drill down a bit more. Historically, females have banded together for protection and mutual support. Not only is this true of humans from different cultures; this is also true for many species. From grooming each other, nursing each other through illnesses, caring for each other’s offsprings (it takes a village, people!)…throughout history, the female of the species have engaged in the kind of aimless sociability that generally has mystified their male counterparts.
Science, however, is starting to catch on and reveal some deeper reason for female bonding, other than just for the fun of baffling men. For women, female connections are not only for pleasure, it is for protection. In having other women to share the challenges of life events and transitions, this type of support can lower blood pressure, boost immunity and promote healing. It might help explain why women, on average, have lower rates of heart disease and longer life expectancies than men.
Whilst men tend to deal with stress with a ‘fight or flight’ reaction (read: aggression or withdrawal); women are much more social in the way they cope with stress (6). Men’s approach of aggression and withdrawal would likely take a physiological toll, whilst women’s more social approach is more likely to bring comfort which lessens the negative effects stress. This alone would make a big contribution to the gender differences in life-expectancy.
Other than the psychosocial reason, there is a physiological basis to female bonding. Research from Stanford (7) and UCLA (8) showed that women more than men, need to maintain social connections. Stress increases the production of serotonin and oxytocin, the bonding hormone. This hormonal surge experienced during stressful times can drive women to care for and connect with other women.
In practice, how can we establish a healthy supportive relationship with other women? This seems enormously tricky, especially during these unprecedented times of division and isolation. However, it’s particularly because of this that we need to support each other more than ever. One such space is a Women’s Circle. A Women’s Circle is a gathering of women for women; a safe space for women of all ages and background where they can come to share their stories, to listen and be listened to without any judgements, to connect with other women. Although there is usually a host, she is usually part of the circle rather than a leader. In this way, within the circle, every woman’s voice holds equal importance.
Why can’t I just do this with my girl friends/sisters/mum/therapist – we hear you ask? Well, sure we can, and that will certainly be invaluable too. But let’s be honest…how often does our friend/sis/mum/therapist simply hold space for us, without jumping in with a well-meaning advice, opinion, or worse of all, a knowing look? In contrast, during a Women’s Circle, each woman gets 5 minutes to be fully heard by the group. She can use this time to talk while the rest of the Circle give their full attention without interruption. She can share freely without fear of judgment, in an environment that feels completely safe and supported. There is power and freedom in being able to be completely open and vulnerable in front of a group of women; some of whom we may know, some of whom would be strangers; and to know that they are there to simply listen to us. To give even more of a reason, psychologists have proven that endorphins (the hormone of love and well-being) are released into our brains when we talk about ourselves. We also get to practice the art of listening, which gives us a chance to tap into our empathy and patience, keeping us present in the moment without having to formulate a response.
Most importantly, being able to share our challenges, our stories, our feelings will remind us that we are not alone. Knowing that every woman goes through times of low self-esteem, times of conflict at work or relationships, times of self-doubt – and then seeing and hearing these same women transform their life challenges into opportunities, we feel stronger than ever. We are reminded that we can do the same. We see the light at the end of the tunnel. We are empowered. And as an added bonus, we probably still get to mystify some men with our aimless sociability!
Author’s Note: Maja Healing runs two Women’s Circle sessions every month; one in English and one in Bahasa Indonesia, as well as one Men’s Circle in English. Please check our IG and website for details.
American Psychological Association. Manage Stress: Strengthen Your Support Network. Updated October 2019.
Masi, C.M., Chen, H., Hawkley, L.C., and Cacioppo, J.T. (2011). A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness. Personality and Social Psychology Review 15(3), pp. 219-266.
Uchino, B. (2009). Understanding the links between social support and physical health. Perspectives on Psychological Science 4(3), pp. 236-255.
Grav, S., Hellzèn, O., Romild, U., and Stordal, E. (2012). Association between social support and depression in the general population: The HUNT study, a cross-sectional survey. Journal of Clinical Nursing. 21(1-2), pp. 111-120.
Nazario, B. (2005). Why Men and Women Handle Stress Differently. Available here.
Goldman, B. (2013). 'Love hormone' may play wider role in social interaction than previously thought, scientists say. Available here.
Science Daily (2000). UCLA Researchers Identify Key Biobehavioral Pattern Used By Women To Manage Stress. Available here.