Over 20 years ago, the night my first marriage ended, I spent hours dialing the phone. My husband had beaten me unconscious, I’d given statements to the police in my wrecked living room, and then I’d driven with my dog to City Hall to file a restraining order at midnight.
But when I got back home at 2 am, bruised ribs and glass cuts on my face, the first thing I did was make several calls, all of which were as important to my survival as the police, a locksmith, a divorce lawyer, and a good therapist.
I called my girlfriends. One in Chicago, another in Minneapolis, a few in California, DC, and New York. I woke each one in turn and confessed what I’d been hiding in my marital life for four years. But what those calls really did was line up my army, like King Arthur in old England summoning his most loyal knights for battle.
Even in my dazed state, I knew I couldn’t get through the next several days and months, the passionate, persuasive apologies my husband was sure to attempt, the financial challenges, the societal shaming, plus my own self doubt and twisted desire to save a destructive marriage, without my platoon of girlfriends yelling “no!” at every turn.
Rallying my girl gang felt instinctive. Turns out, it literally WAS instinct. Behavioral scientists have lately uncovered strong evidence that female friendships increase the chances of survival and reproduction, not just among humans, but among horses, mice, primates, lions, hyenas and elephants. Mutually beneficial female friendships are one key to survival in the animal, and human, kingdoms.
According to Natalie Angier of the New York Times “Science Times” section, researchers in New Zealand, Africa, and even Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida, believe that female affiliations are a basic building block of many animals’ social life, a strong part of why herd animals (including humans) became herd animals in the first place.
Wild mares with female friends are harassed less often by stallions; lionesses suckle their friends’ cubs; elephants rescue their pals’ drowning calves; mice with female nesting partners have more babies; monkeys, chimps and baboons form strong, stable, lifelong bonds with other females that last until death.
Some primatologists have observed that the ideal number of female friends is three. An heir and a spare, if you will. In case one cell phone is busy, you have a back up.