Social support can help buffer the effects of stress and promote better physical and mental health. Additionally, tending to others can give women a sense of purpose and fulfillment, helping them to feel more connected and fulfilled in their lives.
Life isn’t always easy, and day-to-day life was likely much more challenging for our ancestors. Women, however, have always figured out a way to hold it down for their families- even thousands of years ago. In fact, we may have our ancestral women to thank for teaching our instincts to help us in times of stress. Psychologists have studied the powerful coping abilities of women throughout time and have identified a tendency for women to “Tend & Befriend”.
The Tend & Befriend theory is a psychological theory that explains how women respond to stress differently than men. The theory was first introduced in 2000 by Shelley Taylor and her colleagues, and it suggests that women are more likely to seek out social support and form connections with others during times of stress, while men are more likely to engage in fight or flight response.
Sound familiar for anyone? If your significant other is male, have you ever expressed emotion that he could not navigate well, and it seemed like your attempt to process your stress caused him to spiral and become elevated? He may be convinced that processing emotion during times of stress isn’t productive, even though we know it helps to regulate our nervous systems and feel closer and more connected to others, ultimately leaving us feeling more supported.
The theory is based on the idea that women have evolved to be more nurturing and protective of their children and families, which leads them to respond to stress in a way that promotes social connections and support. When faced with stress, women are more likely to tend to their children and other loved ones, and to seek out social support from friends and family.
This tendency to Tend & Befriend can have a number of benefits for women. For example, social support can help buffer the effects of stress and promote better physical and mental health. Additionally, tending to others can give women a sense of purpose and fulfillment, helping them to feel more connected and fulfilled in their lives. And as for our male counterparts, maybe in the past they didn’t have the luxury of tending and befriending- they were likely responsible for fighting off dangerous predators or finding a solution to the problem. Sound familiar again!?
In modern times it seems far less critical to always find a solution to every problem, but men’s tendency to do this is likely the way their brains are wired, and they have ancestral men (and predators) to thank for that! (Women could also fight off predators and men could also nurture others, but throughout history the gender norm patterns have been so significant that studies often generalize these traits).
The Tend & Befriend theory also has implications for how we approach stress management and therapeutic support for women. Instead of focusing solely on individualized coping strategies for women, it’s important to also consider the Tend & Befriend response and provide opportunities for women to connect with others and seek out social support.
For many women, the loved ones that they spend quality time with can offer wonderful support, but there can be barriers to being vulnerable with even our closest trusted supports out of fear of being judged or misunderstood. Processing mental health struggles, as well as life stressors like parenting difficulties, career struggles, traumas, and relationship issues in a safe space without fear of being judged is an important aspect of women’s mental health. This is why I am so passionate about women’s group therapy and why I have worked hard to cultivate safe and confidential virtual spaces for women throughout California to be able to Tend & Befriend through life’s ups and downs!
I’ve been working as a therapist and clinical supervisor, serving clients of all ages and backgrounds, and supporting dozens of aspiring therapists with their own professional journeys, for over a decade now. After the birth of my first child in 2020, I became increasingly more passionate about working with mothers and women.
I created Women’s Therapy California to offer quality, affordable, and flexible online drop-in group therapy services for women across California.
Want more? Here are some other blog posts you might be interested in.