Growth and change are hallmarks of friendship, just as they are of life

August 16, 1993|By Diana Morrill | Diana Morrill,Newsday

It was Nancy Rindel's 50th birthday, and a friend had invited her over for dinner. When she walked in, and a room full of people yelled, "Surprise!" she couldn't hold back the tears.

"All my friends were there, some people that I hadn't seen in years," says Ms. Rindel. "There was Betty from high school; Becky -- I met her at my old job; Gail -- our daughters were in the same class. It was like my whole life was in that room."

For Ms. Rindel, as for most people, the stages of life can be defined by friendships. Making new friends -- and losing touch with others -- is natural. "Friends tend to talk about and share the most important experiences of their lives, and as experiences change, the need for new friends changes," says Stacey Oliker, author of "Best Friends and Marriage" (University of California Press, $20). Old friends may fade away, because "when an asymmetry of needs develops, one friend or the other feels unsatisfied," says Ms. Oliker.

"A good friend is someone who's there for you in any kind of situation, someone who cares about your life," says Hannah Horn, a retired banker from New York. Real friends are also "not just those who can commiserate with us and give us sympathy, because almost anyone can do that, but those who can rejoice with us in our success," says Constance Buxer, a New York psychoanalyst. "That is a truer test of friendship. An insecure friend can feel, 'Why her?' "

The heavy responsibilities that characterize certain periods of life may make some people feel they have "no time" for friends. But little things can make a difference -- sending a birthday card, inviting someone to share in regularly scheduled activities, meeting occasionally for a quick cup of coffee. Maintaining friendships is important, because friends are often friends for life.

Childhood friends are often the easiest to make. Classes, sports teams and after-school activities surround kids with others their own age. Friends come over to play in elementary school, share extra-curricular activities in middle school and spend hours on the phone in high school.

Just as people usually remember their first teachers, most never forget their earliest friends. The bond is strong, because "you're going through the growing-up process together, and these are vulnerable years," says Linda Sapadin, a Long Island psychologist. "You're bonding together, and you're moving away from families. When you get older, your identity is better formed."

But as people grow up, they may also grow apart. "The high-school buddy who went to war instead of to college now lives a life so different from his old friends' that there isn't much common ground anymore," writes Lillian Rubin, author of "Just Friends: The Role of Friendship in Our Lives" (HarperCollins; $9.95).

Yet, the attachment often remains throughout life. Old friends who rarely see each other anymore often still keep in touch, because "they are the living reminders of a past that memory dims unless it can be shared with another," writes Ms. Rubin. She cites the example of a man who wept when a childhood friend appeared at his 70th birthday party. "He's a reminder of the boy in me," the old man said.

Going away to college is usually the first big step away from childhood friends. As people meet other students, old friends may fade into the background. However, this transition may be easier than later ones, because college provides an environment where students are surrounded by people their own age.

Single people, whether new in the work force or old hands, encounter challenges in making friends, especially in companies that consist mostly of married employees with families. Working in a new area can add to the difficulties.

"My job was in Minnesota, and I got transferred to New York," says Susan Mendelson, a 32-year-old Manhattan businesswoman. "So here I was in New York City, and I knew no one. People at work were nice, but they went home to their families. I went home to my TV. Eventually, I thought, I can't take this anymore. I've got to do something. I signed up for a class, joined a gym, found out about the local clubs."

Becoming involved in a serious relationship may change old friendships. Single friends may feel that they no longer have much in common with those who are married and may even be uncomfortable -- perhaps the couple's constant togetherness emphasizes their own isolation.

Shared activities may change as well. "We used to go out together all the time, to bars, nightclubs, parties. Mainly to meet guys," says Carol Sousa, a 29-year-old from Long Island. "Now, she's in this serious relationship, and she doesn't want to go out anymore. I mean, maybe to lunch, but then all she wants to do is talk about her boyfriend. It's annoying."

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