Enough Talk, Already
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Drop by a high school cafeteria at lunchtime some day and listen to the girls' conversations. One may be commiserating with another over how much schoolwork they have. A couple of others might be fretting over how tired they are from lacrosse practice and that they're never going to get their college applications finished and that all this stress made them eat a whole bag of Oreos and now they'll never get into the size 0 jeans they bought last weekend.
You might call it the "I wanna be in a mess, too" syndrome, known by some therapists as co-rumination. Women do not outgrow the habit. While males tend to think their way through problems, females tend to talk their way through, according to William Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. Get two or more women together exchanging stories about difficult husbands or bosses or children, and suddenly you've got a pity party that may leave everyone feeling worse.
But isn't personal conversation with girlfriends a good thing?
Turns out the answer to that is yes and no. Social scientists are realizing that while talking may strengthen female friendships and leave pals feeling temporarily better, it can also lead to increased anxiety and depression if perspective and problem-solving aren't included rather quickly. And what about the husband who listens every night to his wife complain about her job, then one morning at breakfast offers her steps to get out of her funk? Perhaps he deserves credit rather than having a cup of coffee thrown at him.
"There's a distinction between healthy catharsis and unhealthy rumination," says Alice Rubenstein, a clinical psychologist in Rochester, N.Y. "Catharsis is a form of venting, of not leaving stuff inside." When it turns into rumination with others, she says, "it becomes contagious. You have a sinking ship, and rather than bailing water, you're making more holes in the ship."
Amanda Rose, an associate professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri at Columbia, discovered this when she surveyed about 800 boys and girls, ages 8 to 15, twice over six months, attempting to assess depression, anxiety and friendship quality. Rose and her colleagues found that both boys and girls reported drawing closer to their self-identified best friends. But girls also demonstrated symptoms of increased anxiety and depression as their friendships deepened. Boys showed no such symptoms. When she repeated the study on college students, she got the same results.
Advances in the science of the brain help explain this. According to Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco, the female brain picks up emotional cues, both verbal and nonverbal, more quickly than the male brain. Starting at about age 12, girls put feelings into words more efficiently than boys. The key thing, though, according to Brizendine, author of the controversial book "The Female Brain," is this: Brains learn by repetition. Repeating negative thoughts can make not only the injured party but those around her more, rather than less, distressed and angry.
Some therapists call this emotional contagion, and adolescent girls are "brilliant at it," says Rubenstein, author of "The Inside Story on Teen Girls." While boys tend to nurse their wounds privately, sometimes self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, girls are likely to copy each other's destructive habits, such as binging and purging.
For much of the 20th century, people in distress were encouraged by psychologists and therapists to dig deep into the past for answers. Talk therapy, particularly for the rich, could take years, as Woody Allen in the movie "Annie Hall" confessed when he said about his analyst, "I'm gonna give him one more year and then I'm going to Lourdes."
The recently deceased New York psychotherapist Albert Ellis and others argued for shorter periods of therapy with an emphasis on changing behavior and moving forward rather than looking back. This approach gained increasing acceptance in the latter part of the century.
It also makes sense to Meghan Cassin and her guy friend Alex Graham, both incoming sophomores at George Washington University. Each admits to seeking out a friend of the opposite sex when difficult issues arise. They offer different reasons.
Cassin says her friend Rob offers helpful suggestions. Graham is blunt about his sex: "Guys have found out it's not worth it talking about a lot of stuff to other guys -- especially about girls."
Sharing personal information is the coin of the realm for women's friendships. "Men bond around common interests and occasionally turn to a buddy for help," says Doherty. "Women bond through confidences. A girlfriend will feel hurt if she finds out you had a problem and didn't share it. A guy will say, 'Good, you took care of it.' "
Doherty recalls being at a conference with another therapist he knew and the therapist's wife. He knew they were having marital problems and wasn't surprised one evening when he got a call from his friend, who said the wife had thrown him out of the room. Could he spend the night in Doherty's room?
"He came over and we watched TV, talked a bit about sports and went to bed," Doherty recalls. "He didn't owe me any personal revelations about his marriage. Months later, after the couple got back together, his wife told me how pleased he was that I didn't ask him to open up."
Nikki Schwab and her friend Emily Baith, both 23 and friends for almost 10 years, can't imagine such a scenario.
"We would never, ever do that," says Baith, sitting next to Schwab at a Georgetown restaurant.
Schwab nods in agreement. If she got in a fight with a boyfriend and sought asylum with Baith, "I'd have all this pent-up angst," she explains. "If Emily didn't ask me what happened I would explode! I'd be angry because she wasn't being a good friend."
As they mature, they will begin to see that at certain moments in life, all of us, women and men, are reluctant to share problems with anyone. But there's no doubt that women grow up more curious about their inner life, Doherty says, and enjoy talking about it. Men, on the other hand, view emotions as a cue to solving problems. "They want to move from feeling to action, or make a decision that there is nothing they can do and get over the feeling."
In some couples, of course, the roles are reversed. The challenge, says Doherty, author of "Take Back Your Marriage," is to accept the different styles of coping. "A man may need to let his wife talk and not try to solve her problem right away. The woman can ask him if he wants to talk, but if not she shouldn't pursue it right away." If either partner is morose for days, of course, or seems to be stuck, the other one should step in.
Girlfriends hoping to help another friend should ask themselves a couple of things, according to the experts. Will encouraging the friend to spill more dirt actually help her? Or is it time to flip the conversation over to what the friend may be contributing to the problem and what she is going to do?
Doherty relates the story of a client named Tina, whose friends didn't realize the importance of switching gears. Tina had married young and regularly complained to her friends that her husband, Mark, didn't support her enough emotionally and didn't spend enough time with their two kids. Her friends were all single, Doherty writes, and told her, "You deserve better than this," "He's completely out of line and I wouldn't stand for it," and "Why are you still there?"
On the one hand, the friends were empathetic and encouraging her to stand up for herself. But they didn't go to the next stage, according to Doherty. They failed to suggest that Tina think about what might be going on with her husband and what she could do to get them both out of the rut.
Seeking solutions for a friend or yourself is essential to recovery at any age, says Rubenstein, the Rochester psychologist. She gives her adolescent clients two days to be angry or depressed and then tells them they have to visit the "what can I do part" of recovery.
"It doesn't mean you'll stop feeling bad," she says, "but you must visit that other part."