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By Victoria Gladwish
A couple of years ago, over lunch with a friend, I told her about the book I was writing. She suggested I look at the theory of "tend-and-befriend" as it related to women supporting women, which was part of the book's theme. Off I went to the internet and discovered the article by Taylor (2000).
The theory is that females tend to respond to stress by engaging in nurturant behaviors to protect themselves and their offspring, promoting safety and reducing distress by forming social networks. The authors indicated that "this tend-and- befriend pattern appears to draw on the attachment-caregiving system." More frequently, we relate to the fight-or-flight pattern of response to a threat, but if survival and protection of children depend on our ability to mount a response successfully, the tend-and-befriend behaviors of women make sense. If we think of fight-or-flight as fleeing or becoming more aggressive, the tend-and-befriend instinct leans more to reach out to others.
I am not a psychologist nor a behavioral scientist, but I have enjoyed the benefit of strong and long-lasting female friendships. As I was writing The Nature of Forgiveness, a story of reconciliation and time's impact on love and family, I contemplated how to show the main character's behaviour in times of stress. People are complex, and so are memorable characters, and it didn't make sense that my character would have a one-size-fits-all response, although she would have a go-to set of behaviours tied to her core beliefs. (Thank you, Dr. Stephanie Hutton, for your Psychology of Character course!)
In the story's context, it only made sense that the character responds to physical threats with a fight-or-flight response. Without revealing too many spoilers, as a child, too young to effectively flee, she physically withdraws within herself to back away from her tormentor, "alone in a large dark room; the four walls grow taller and taller around me. As the light from above dissipates, my physical self shrinks smaller and smaller until I am a mere speck barely visible in the corner. Although the room darkens and my visibility becomes clouded, a dull aspect of light bleeds through from somewhere above. I can never make myself small enough to disappear completely."
As an adolescent, she is able to fight back with force. But when she is an adult facing emotional trauma, her best remedy for well-being is to rely on the emotional support and bonding of a group of women in a similar circumstance to her own; this is where I dipped into the tend-and-befriend theory.
I thrust my character into her circumstances against her desire, but this is where she built life-lasting bonds and found a sense of community, two elements that had been lacking in her life. The theory hypothesizes that "females create, maintain, and utilize these social groups, especially relations with other females, to manage stressful conditions" (Taylor, 2000, p. 411). Although she didn't want to be where she was, she eventually became a reluctant participant building a deep friendship that played a significant role in her transformation.
When I reflect on my friendships, I see them as a nuanced dance, knowing when to offer support, when to be enraged, and when to say nothing at all. It starts like the pleasure of new shoes, you have to wear them a few times to know exactly how they fit and learn how they’ll withstand the bumps along the road, but at the end of the journey, they endure, perhaps a little more worn, but all the more comfortable.
Rare are those who boost our self-esteem, affirming our identities, offering unconditional support, acceptance, and loyalty.
There is a safe passage when acquaintances evolve to friendship, where trust and intimacy are earned by extending and sharing lives. Not many times in life do we build the deep bonds of friendship, those give-and-take relationships founded on common ground and solidified through the breadth and depth of self-disclosure.
The net of this learning is to lean into female friendships and continue those lunches!
Thank you, friends.
Dess, N.K., (2000, September 1 – last reviewed 2016, June 9). Tend and Befriend. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/articles/200009/tend-and-befriend
Taylor, S.E., Cousino Klein, L., Lewis, B.P., Gruenewald, T.L., Gurung, R.A.R., & Updegraff, J.A. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review, 2000, 107 (3), 411-429. DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.107.3.411
Victoria Gladwish is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor who researches and contributes to the FVB blog. We are delighted to share her perspectives on relationships and how they inform her writing about families and friendships. https://victoriagladwish.com/