5 Pal Problems

Caleb*, a photographer, and Mike*, a musician, both 33, met at an arts festival and became fast friends, eventually laying down roots just blocks from each other in New York City. When Caleb slipped into a scary bout of depression, he leaned on Mike. "We saw each other almost every day," recalls Caleb. "I was having a hard time being alone, so I followed him around. He tried to entertain me, and we discussed my fears about what was happening. I felt like he compromised his own life because he was spending so much time on me."

After Caleb came out of his depression, the two drifted apart. Caleb thought Mike would appreciate the break; he also started dating a woman Mike disapproved of. Caleb's efforts to keep the two apart meant that the once-inseparable friends spent even less time together. "Mike read that as me ditching him when he was no longer needed."

The unspoken rift kept them out of touch for almost two years. Finally they patched things up, but only after Caleb received "a pretty big lecture about what I'd done by 'disappearing.'"

Solid friendships make us happier and healthier, and in our late-marrying, highly mobile society they're more important than ever as pillars of support. But like any human entanglement, they can cause pain and confusion. For every Sam-and-Frodo tale of loyalty and sacrifice, there's a Brutus or Judas who breaks a heart. And there are myriad situations in between.

1: Growing Apart

"I feel awkward and self-conscious sharing my life with her, and I'm not that interested in hers. When we were teenagers, we'd stay up all night talking."

Longtime friends can be invaluable, as they often understand your mosaic of experiences and emotional makeup. But how do you sustain a relationship if your primary-school bosom buddy is off reforesting the developing world while you are prancing around parties in stiletto heels?

We tend to choose friends based on who's close by and similar to us. The question, according to Judith Sills, a Philadelphia-based clinical psychologist, is whether you can accept the trade-offs that occur when friends individuate. "The more heterogeneous our circle ," says Sills, "the more rewards, the more access, and the more opportunities we reap. We also reap more discomfort, though. So expect to feel annoyed or threatened on occasion when you have a diverse group of friends."

Friendship is accordion-like: Sometimes you'll be close, sometimes you'll be distant, and sometimes you'll revert back to being close. Or not. It can be heartrending to realize that a friendship has petered out. That's why Terri Apter, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge, recommends confronting small conflicts head-on, to avoid a schism. If you're hurt that your friend didn't invite you to her barbecue or tell you about her promotion, say so (in a non-defensive tone) before built-up resentments taint all of your interactions.

And examine your own changed feelings. Let's say a single woman's best friend gets married and has a son. The new mom blows off her friend's e-mails, cuts short her phone calls, and shows up late to coffee dates before holding forth for 30 minutes on sleep training methods. The single woman gets critical: "She's so boring now." But really, she's feeling neglected. It would be better, Sills says , if she were to think, "My friend is not as available to me as she used to be, but life is long. Someday I may have kids, and I'll want her understanding then." When you do reconnect, you'll both bring new experiences to the interaction.

The Takeaway: Accept that friendships erode but then sometimes rebuild. Communicate hurt feelings. Appreciate chums who aren't like you. Wouldn't a life filled with clones bore you?

2: Lending a Hand to A Friend in Need

"I'm sorry to show up at this hour, but I don't know what I'd do without you. I'm so upset."

It feels good to comfort a friend who is stressed out, lovesick, or embroiled in family conflict. We like solving other people's problems—it's certainly easier than facing our own. But if a pal's bad day stretches into weeks or months, how can you help? "Clearly communicate that you are there for her," says Beverley Fehr, author of Friendship Processes. Listening is usually more appreciated than giving advice, and while men tend to appreciate practical support in hard times (rake his lawn, pick up some groceries), women value emotional support (give a hug and point out how well she's taking it all).

Help can easily shade into unwelcome interference, another reason you're better off just listening. When it comes to your friend's love life, for example, she's usually not going to listen to you skewer a new relationship: "Romance is based on a mild positive delusion," points out Nando Pelusi, a New York City-based clinical psychologist. "Your friend will just marshal evidence against your argument."

Friends often fall into respective roles of "saint" and "sinner," Sills observes. The sinner reels from crisis to crisis, reporting all the ensuing drama to her friend, while the saint dependably, patiently, takes it all. If the saint enjoys her

Mother Theresa complex, there's no problem, but if her frustration outweighs the gratification she gets from being a confidante extraordinaire, she needs to set limits. If the sinner is constantly whining about her job but refuses to look for another one, the saint could say, "You know I'm happy to hear from you, but it's clear that you're not ready to leave this job. I keep getting caught lecturing you and I don't like that, so let's not talk about that topic anymore."

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