06/14/2013 06:51 am ET Updated Aug 14, 2013

What I Know About Friends Now That I'm 60

In fifth grade, my BFF Diane dumped me for some girl named Helen. Diane and I had been inseparable for years and it took me what felt like forever to get over feeling betrayed. I agonized over what I had "done" to deserve such mistreatment, and spent months eating my lunch alone under "our" tree on the playground. I worried whether she would betray all my secrets and tell them to the icky Helen; even worse, I worried that she and Helen would have new secrets and she would forget ours. Being dumped by Diane remains the singularly most awful memory of my elementary school social life.

Yes, I'm over it, but thank you for the therapy recommendations.

The experience actually taught me a lot about both picking and keeping friends. And in the decades that followed the Great Diane Dump, I've learned some other friendship lessons, including these:

1) Takers don't make great friends, but they do serve a purpose.
Takers are people who have a lot of problems and needs. You know who they are; we all have a few of them in our lives and maybe even in our families. Their lives are generally a mess and the relationship largely consists of you doing things for them. You give, they take. Don't expect them to be there for you or you'll likely be disappointed.

But there is a reason we are drawn to these people. They fulfill our need to feel important and they satisfy our urge to help people and feel good about ourselves. Just don't mistake their gratitude for loyalty or consider them a friend in the real sense of the word.

When we were younger, they were the kids who constantly called for homework answers and said they would fail unless you helped them. That made us feel not just important, but also smart. In middle age, they are the ones who never drive their share in carpools, who always forget the goodies when it's their turn to be soccer snack mom, and who will ask you to pick up something for them at the market and then forget to pay you back. They are always broke, never reciprocate and if you "test" them by asking them to water your plants while you are on vacation, they will tell you how they'd love to but just can't because they are so overwhelmed with their own stuff.

You exist in their lives to help them, not the other way around. They pump up your ego by telling you how lost they would be without you there to help them navigate the troublespots of their lives. They turn to you when they need a job, when they need a place to stay, when they need a favor. But they turn away when you turn to them.

My advice? Nobody can take advantage of you unless you let them. Separate your charity from your friendships; you can help people who are takers as much as you like as long as your expectations of reciprocity are realistic.

2) Over-givers don't make for great friends either.
Be wary of takers, but be equally wary of over-givers. Over-givers, while projecting an image that they are generous people, never let you help them in return. When you offer to, they say things like "I've got this." They grab for the check and insist on paying. They insist on picking the wine in the restaurant, the movie you will see together. If you invite them to dinner, they will offer to come early and help cook. They don't let you do for them and only want to do for you. The friendship lasts as long as you allow them to be in control.

3) The best friends are neither takers or over-givers; they are power sharers.
For real friendship, control needs to be shared. It is a combination of taking and giving. It's people who "get" you, accept you, make you laugh, make it fun to be around. It's people who value you for who and what you are, don't expect you to change for them, and understand that your friendship is balanced with the other relationships in your life.

A friendship is a love exchange. What you put in, you get back. Anything else and someone is being used.

4) You can have more than one best friend.
Back in the days of Diane, best friends were exclusive entities. But as we mature and our needs diversify, so do our relationships. I have a hiking best friend, a call-in-an-emergency best friend, a best friend for work issues and a best friend for family confidences. I love them all; but I love them all differently.

Life is richer when you allow more people in it. And since adulthood means the acceptance of imperfections -- yours and the rest of the world's -- why insist that one person should meet all your needs?

5) Odd numbers are still awkward.
I know a woman with three kids. She once told me that the only thing that made her question whether her family was indeed complete after her youngest was born was a maiter'd in a restaurant. Restaurant tables are for four or six, she said, not five; when you show up with five, they generally take away a place setting and leave a gap. Gaps are uncomfortable.

Odd numbers are weird in adult friendship circles too. In young kids, threesomes means someone gets left out. In adults, it can mean taking sides. I have historically been Switzerland in my friendships -- the neutral one around whom others gather. I don't like picking sides though and tend to distance myself from situations -- and friends -- who regularly put me in the middle of their conflicts.

But threesomes, as a rule, are tough. Just like on Noah's Ark, we were meant to travel in pairs I guess.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

9 Odd Post 50Celebrity Friendships