Academic journal article Adultspan Journal

Lesbian Friendships: An Exploration of Lesbian Social Support Networks

Academic journal article Adultspan Journal

Lesbian Friendships: An Exploration of Lesbian Social Support Networks

Article excerpt

Lesbians may face unique challenges when building friendships. The intersection of culturally sanctioned discrimination and familial rejection may intensify the role friendships play for lesbians and the development of social support networks. The author discusses existing research and qualitative findings and provides suggestions for counselors working with their lesbian clients.

Keywords: lesbians, social support, friendship development, social relationships

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Throughout the literature addressing overall wellness and optimal functioning, strong social support networks are consistently noted as protective and productive of both psychological and physiological well-being (see Degges-White & Borzumato-Gainey, 2011, for a review). In studies specifically addressing the well-being of sexual minority individuals, the presence of a strong social support network is frequently underscored as one of the most essential components of healthy adjustment (Badgette, 2001; Kurdek, 1988, 2003; Kurdek & Schmitt, 1987; Solomon, Rothblum, & Balsam, 2005; Witte, 2003). It is clear that everyone needs a little help from friends to survive and thrive, to paraphrase the Beatles. However, the development of same-sex friendships for lesbians may present unique challenges and provide unique benefits for these women.

The value and need for social support and human connection have been validated through empirical studies in both the hard sciences and the social sciences. Perhaps the most widely researched theory developed to explain the formation and deepening of relationships is Altman and Taylor's (1973) social penetration theory, which has been used to explain both platonic and romantic relationships. Invoking the metaphor of an onion, Altman and Taylor observed that everyone of us has defensive layers that are peeled away one by one as we allow others to become emotionally closer to us. As we get to know potential friends, we give them deeper access into our lives and our inner selves. As we grow more deeply connected with new friends, additional layers of our defenses and protection are peeled away just as the layers of an onion might be. We are able to shed layers of self-protection and expose our authentic selves so long as our trust in others grows as we reveal ourselves. Generally contingent on mutual self-disclosure and honesty, both parties must be willing to be open and vulnerable for genuine friendship to develop. For many lesbians, however, the freedom to engage in this process with either lesbian or heterosexual women is not always guaranteed.

The need for circumspection and guarded self-disclosure may affect the willingness of lesbians to attempt to develop deep friendships with new acquaintances. This may lead lesbians to lean heavily on the members of their existing social support systems, which, in turn, may lead to strained relationships and further narrowing of their social circle. Although the cultural stigma of being an "out lesbian" appears to be lessening, many women may still be hesitant to invest significant energy into potentially tenuous platonic relationships that may not last past a certain level of self-disclosure. Galupo (2007) found that the historical pattern of lesbians' preference for other sexual minority women as friends continues today. Whereas some women may seek to surround themselves with a support network consisting solely of other lesbians, other women may prefer to cultivate heterosexual women as friends to avoid their lesbian identities.

Just as there is a wide range of individual and societal acceptance of sexual minority individuals, there is a wide range of lesbian relationship types that may be influenced by the environment in which lesbian women develop. In this article, the topic of lesbian friendship is addressed. Following a review of the literature addressing lesbian friendships, a discussion of findings from qualitative interviews with 31 lesbian women who ranged in age from 19 to 73 years will be presented. …

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