Friends, Interrupted

How to find (and keep) the best pals for your life now.

by Sally Koslow
Photograph: Illlustration: I Love Dust

Do you have some great friendships that have lasted for decades? Tell us about them here.

I’m a born-again shy person, not the type to buzz through life in a swarm of friends or even a tight group of beloved Ya-Yas. And yet I thought I’d mastered friendship. At my 30th and 40th birthday parties, a satisfying number of warm, wonderful women shared my cake.

This seemed providential, given that research tells us friendship may be as essential to good health as not weighing 400 pounds. The Harvard Nurses’ Health Study is one of many bodies of research showing that the more buddies we have, the less likely we are to become ill as we age. So I feel all the more freaked out that lately I’ve noticed friendships becoming harder to start and harder to sustain.

You’d think that as fully vested adults, we’d have this thing down. But no. I keep hearing women lament that relationships they once considered indestructible have become casualties ­of various life assaults: divorce, widowhood, relocation, the empty nest, workplace bitch-slaps, health problems, glaring schadenfreude or, the most common reason of all, a simple drifting apart. Irene S. Levine, professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine and author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, claims that “the large majority of friendships are not forever.” Say it ain’t so, Irene! But the available evidence supports her conclusion.

Since our culture has never sent us the message that the role of friend is as important as that of mother, wife, daughter or sister, “every time we become overly busy with work and family, the first thing we do is let go of friendships with other women,” says Ruthellen Josselson, a Baltimore psychotherapist and coauthor of Best Friends: The Pleasures and Perils of Girls’ and Women’s Friendships.

It hasn’t always been this way. “Recently I found my mother’s autograph book from junior high school and realized she still has most of those friends,” Levine says. “Her generation was typically less mobile. Women were unlikely to work, particularly in high-powered careers, and more likely to keep their childhood friends.” Active lives, however, only partly explain this weeding-out process.

With the passing years, most of us develop a savory blend of confidence, self-awareness and attitude. This distillation has various upsides; for example, most women I know could easily cohost The View, zinging their opinions out there with a clarity and frequency that are often quite entertaining. However, that same my-way-or-the-highway spirit also puts many friendships under review. “I’ve had some real challenges, like being diagnosed with breast cancer and losing a daughter and a husband,” says Ellie Fuerste Weis, a textbook sales representative in Dubuque, Iowa. “I only want positive people in my life. No more Debbie Downers and Wendy Whiners.”

Recently I read that the average person now replaces half her friends every seven years. I had a hard time believing this cold, hard stat until I chewed over my own life.

One jump-the-shark moment occurred when I was telling a buddy about an engagement party I’d been invited to, which promised to be your basic affluent-suburb moneyfest. The same weekend in New York City, she was attending a three-day wedding extravaganza—cue the 20-piece band, the twinkling skyline—capped off by a ceremony for hundreds at Ellis Island. Contemplating this collective opulence, I channeled my inner “frugal daughter of Fargo” and spit out, “With so many people unemployed and suffering, over-the-top celebrations seem almost in poor taste.”

From the other end of the phone I was impaled by accusation: “You’re being really nasty about a dear friend’s daughter’s wedding.”

“I’m talking about the party I’m going to as much as yours,” I responded defensively.

“Can we just drop this subject?” my friend asked. We did, like an armful of nuclear waste.

What’s your reaction?

Comments

lafou 02.20.2011

This article is spot on.

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