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Female Friendship Style: The Butterfly vs. The Worm

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As a socially awkward person, I've always been envious of women with packed calendars and mailboxes bursting the evites. I went to just three parties last year -- and two of them were for work. Should I be worried that I have, like, five real friends?

My "real" connections fell under the category of "lifer" in the psychologically-sanctioned friendship pyramid. From base to tip:

  • Acquaintances. Most people have 50 to 100. The familiar faces on the street, at the gym or playground.
  • Casuals. Ten to 50. A jogging partner, book club member, happy-hour regular.
  • Close. Five to 20. Trusted comrades you had a history with, cared about, and could say anything to.
  • Lifer. One to five. The person you can't imagine life without. A trustworthy pal to vent to, to rely on, a shield against anxiety and loneliness.

No matter the math, I fell short of anyone's ideal friendship total. I could try to make new ones, but that would be challenging. Attracting people when I was a boy crazy, up for anything 23-year-old was piece of cake. But now I was a mortgage-holding stressed-out working mother. I would cross the street to get away from myself. The idea of nurturing casuals into close friends felt like another part-time job. When I had plans, I feel a sense of dread, and had to psyche myself up to get out the door. But then I'd have a great time and wonder why I didn't go out more often. However, when opportunity came again -- a dinner invite from a "casual" -- I'd wave at it as it passes by.

Butterflies lit on any social opportunity. Their constant flitting, however, could be the frenzy of doubt. Perhaps, if they slowed down and took a hard look at themselves and their relationships, they wouldn't like what they saw. Why the need for constant affirmation? Members of clubs and groups couldn't read a novel, jog, change a diaper or go on a diet without dragging someone else into it.

Excessive interaction might not be a joyous as it was billed. "We live in a 'the more, the better' culture. If a little bit of something is good, then a lot of it must be better," said Laura Carstensen, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. "That's not necessarily true of friends. Having a few close, deep friendships is better than having a large number of casual ones. Smaller networks predict positively for mental health. Large networks? Not so much," she said. "It's better to have a small group of close friends you adore than fifty peripherals."

Define small. "Three is the lowest you ever want to go," said Carstensen, "You need at least three people who are close and central to your life. Three people who will drop anything for you, who you would drop anything for, who are deep and almost like family. Dip below three, and you won't have adequate emotional support, you'll be vulnerable to loneliness, isolation anxiety, and you could fall into depression."

Three. It seemed so few. It was, actually, "a few." With five lifers, I should take comfort in abundance That is, if I could hold on to my handful of friends.

I made a vow to stop taking my friends for granted. No matter how tired, lazy or busy, I placed calls and scheduled dinners -- and didn't cancel either. Soon, my calendar filled, if sparsely, doing things and seeing people I genuinely cared about. I also told my lifers exactly how much they meant to me, in sickeningly sappy terms. Having treacly moments wasn't nearly as disgusting as I thought it'd be.

I'll never be a butterfly. I'm more of a social worm, with a friend circle that's small and dug wonderfully deep.

An excerpt from Valerie Frankel's new memoir It's Hard Not to Hate You