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Don't Have Any Besties? Then Do This

Also, here's how to avoid the not-so-great friends.

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animation of woman looking for a best friend
JR Bee
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“Be careful or you’ll end up in my novel.” These words, emblazoned on a T-shirt given to me by a high school friend, proved to be prophetic. In the six books I’ve written, I’ve appropriated aspects of my life — a recap of a meal in Barcelona, let’s say, or a pal’s pithy observation (“I decided I could either make more money or want less,” my buddy Bruce memorably said as he ditched Manhattan for Tucson.)

Small stuff.

In one novel, however, I reconstituted a whole hunk of raw reality. I speak of With Friends Like These: A Novel, a tale of warm connections gone awry among four women.

While I won’t disclose which slightly fictionalized brouhaha in the book mirrored my life, suffice it to say that the selfish b--ch — oops, the woman — who did me wrong is no longer a friend. In fact, given hindsight, I only mistook her for one, having learned the hard way that enjoying someone’s frequent company doesn’t necessarily mean you are kindred spirits.

The woman who shafted me was someone I ran with numerous times a week. I’d recently been laid off from a beloved job, felt crappy about it and admired her contagious energy and remarkable creativity. The contact high I got from hearing about her projects made me more optimistic.

But should I have shared information she could pass on to someone else and screw me? Hell, no. Sadly, I failed to notice that I was far lower on her friendship food chain than she was on mine.

“Women’s friendship is not a casual thing,” observes Sherry Amatenstein, a New York City psychotherapist. “Men are simpler creatures who tend to connect around sports and politics, but women don’t do surface. They see friendships as more primary than men do. We really talk. I’ve experienced betrayals from a female friend as a far deeper cut than those from men.”

Many factors influence why women are drawn to one another in the first place. She made you laugh. You share commonalities: Both of you have three daughters, one of whom is named Kate, and are the only redheads in Seattle from Nowhere, Kentucky.

I zeroed in on a mom during our kids’ second-grade visiting night in Manhattan, when I recognized her accent from Winnipeg, Manitoba, a city due north from my North Dakota hometown.  

Anita and I have now been chums for years. Perhaps the only surprise of friend acquisition is that we’re attracted to others who smell like us (and I’m not referring to a shared love of Flowerbomb). In a study published recently in Science Advances, researchers examining twosomes whose friendship clicked from the get-go found similarities in the individuals’ body odors.

After we’re beyond the first flash of attraction, however, how many relationships pass the long-term sniff test? That’s less obvious. As Einstein — or maybe my mother — famously declared, “It’s OK to make mistakes; just don’t keep making the same mistakes.” With this advice in mind, since I lived through the breach and with a little help from my friends, here’s one woman’s opinion on what to consider — and avoid — when committing to a bestie.

  • Does your friend see the real you? We all want and need to be validated. Does this possible friend acknowledge that she recognizes you’re smart, funny, kind, industrious or whatever it is that you appreciate most about yourself? Does she show you that she values what you see as your most cherished traits? All good signs to move into real friendship.
  • Is a friend work? Before socializing, do you feel obligated to stockpile amusing anecdotes to hold up your end of the conversation? After hanging out, do you feel refreshed or that your brain has been sucked out of your head? Does the idea of taking a long car trip with this woman strike you as cruel and unusual punishment? All red flags to stop the relationship while you’re ahead.
  • Does a person’s “factory flaw” drive you nuts? We’d all like to believe that to keep a friendship, we’re willing to tolerate foibles. But can you truly accept a friend’s maniacal cackle or tendency to be a motormouth? I’m remembering one woman who reached out to me. I was game until I noticed that our conversations to set up our kids’ playdates never took less than 45 minutes, with her doing 90 percent of the yakking. I’d try to get a word in edgewise while resenting that I could be using those precious minutes to alphabetize spices, learn French or do anything but listen to her drone on. That friendship died a short-lived natural death.
  • Is envy an impediment? Envy and jealousy are no less pretty than gluttony or any of the other big-league sins, but the emotion can be especially icky in friendship. Given that your last family vacation was spent camping 20 miles from home, do you seethe when a friend starts talking about taking her entire family on safari? If envy is functioning like a third person in your friendship and you can’t talk through the issue, maybe you two need to cool it.
  • Do you respect her? I try not to resent another person’s good fortune, but I do resent when another person seems unappreciative of her good fortune. In my earlier professional life editing a magazine, one of my friends was paid dearly for writing a column for another magazine. I was happy for her until the yearly contract renegotiation rolled around, and she’d moan about her miserly boss, who wouldn’t give her a raise. Boo-hoo, I’d think. You’re already being paid twice what my magazine’s budget allows me to pay many writers I consider to be your equal. If you can’t respect someone, it’s hard to be her friend.
  • Is a friend reliable, or does she bail at the last minute — a lot? Need I say more? Keep in mind that someone you can count on is key.

Now that you’ve realized who your true BFFs are, how can you keep them? Here are the four essentials.

  • Be attentive. Check in often.
  •  If something is bothering you about the relationship, discuss it.
  • Celebrate when good things happen, and make memories together.
  • Treat your friends the way you’d like to be treated.
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