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  1. Arts & Entertainment

Women, after a week at the office and tending to family, need time with friends

The estate sale was just half a block away but by the time I arrived, the house was already crowded with people looking for treasures and bargains.

Weaving my way through the rooms, I began to feel uncomfortable. There were a large number of personal items for sale; even cosmetics that had been half used were laid out and priced. It felt as if the owner had left some morning to take a walk and never returned.

A neighbor whispered the backstory: The owner had recently committed suicide. With that, the sale took on a whole new meaning.

Lying on her nightstand was a copy of The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant, one of my favorite books about women's need to feel emotionally connected to others. I picked up the book and thought about its late owner.

According to a study from UCLA, women are particularly prone to reach out during stressful or traumatic times, "tending and befriending'' those who matter most to them.

Yet the circumstances of modern life can make fulfilling this basic urge truly challenging.

A woman I'll call Sharon sat across from me in couples counseling, trying to explain how lonely and sad she felt at times. A successful, educated businesswoman, she expressed frustration over the lack of emotionally intimate relationships she had with the women in her life.

The sister with whom she'd once been close now lived far away and had her own obligations. Professionally, she didn't feel safe getting too close to co-workers. And her husband, Ted, seemed to resent the fact that she wanted to spend some of her leisure hours not with him, but with a girlfriend.

His reaction isn't unusual, I explained. Nor is Sharon's desire for girlfriend time.

Women tend to do most of the caregiving in our society — 79 percent is the figure cited by Shelly Taylor, author of Tending Instinct. It is no surprise that men, on average, live longer when they're married and receiving the benefit of a woman's nurturing ways.

Yet this isn't a two-way street, possibly because women are too exhausted from all that caretaking to refuel their own emotional tanks. This is a particular challenge to women like Sharon, for whom the end of the paid workday marks the start of her daily obligations to family and home.

Recent neurological findings show that women who share stories and empathy with one another release oxytocin, an essential brain chemical that helps create feelings of safety and security. (Oxytocin is also released through exercise, meditation or prayer, sex, and while mothers nurse infants. Lingering hugs with someone you care for and feel connected to can also stimulate the production of this important chemical.)

Sharon and Ted began talking about their needs and expectations, individually and as a couple. They developed healthy boundaries for relationships outside the marriage, which helped Ted let go of resentment over Sharon's time with friends. For her part, Sharon started scheduling time on Saturdays for lunches with friends so she'd have the evenings free for dates with Ted.

Their last session with me was spent celebrating the new path their relationship had taken. Each expressed a deeper satisfaction with life in general.

I put my deceased neighbor's book on the shelf in my office as a reminder that connecting with people will always be a top priority for me, professionally and personally. I can't think of anything more important, especially in today's society.

Barbara Rhode is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. Petersburg and can be reached at (727) 418-7882, barbararhode@hotmail.com or barbararhode.com.

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