The girlfriend connection

The ways we socialize change with each generation. Today, friendships often get squeezed out by work and family obligations.

Robert Louis Stevenson neatly summed up the value and rewards of friendship when he wrote, "A friend is a present you give to yourself."

In the past decade, that kind of gift to oneself has become rarer for many women as careers and family obligations have taken precedence over friendships. But increasingly, as if to signal agreement with Stevenson, some are quietly expressing a determination to reorder their priorities. They may be starved for time, but they are also hungry for connections and friendships.

"I see it in all generations," says Susan Erony, an artist in Gloucester, Mass. Referring to what she calls the "pendulum theory of history," she adds, "We're trying to swing back and reestablish some human connections in our lives."

Linda Bucklin, co-author, with Mary Keil, of "Come Rain or Come Shine: Friendships Between Women," agrees. "People are paying more attention to the spiritual side of their life," she says. "Relationships are very important to all of us. I see it as a wonderful sign that instead of being swept away with this world of technology and money and power, people are really saying, 'What's important to me are my friends and the quality of my friendships.' "

Men's friendships, Mrs. Bucklin finds, are typically based on doing things together, while women's focus on being together. "Women are the nurturers, they're used to sharing their feelings and thoughts and ideas," she says. "They're a more natural network for deep friendship."

Just ask Wendy Wolfson, a consultant in high-tech public relations in Somerville, Mass. As a graduate of a women's college, she was accustomed to having close female friends. But several years ago, while working in a male-dominated engineering firm, she found herself feeling isolated. Then an idea struck. "I wondered what it would be like to get the people I knew together for a dinner-table conversation," Ms. Wolfson recalls. "I realized I knew all these fantastic women who would have something to say to each other."

She invited half a dozen women to meet at a restaurant for what she lightheartedly calls a "Diva Dinner." Their ages and professions varied, and most were not her close friends. But, she explains, "I saw something in them - intelligence or spirit or creativity or a sense of humor - or thought they had something interesting to say."

The no-host evening was a great success. "Everybody was very happy and very absurdly grateful to have a chance to get together for dinner and interact with each other," Wolfson says.

Now, two years later, the Diva Dinners continue every three months, forming what Wolfson calls an ongoing dinner party. "Some real friendships have developed," she says.

Wolfson traces her interest in connections like these to the several years she spent in a small town in southern Israel. "People would just drop by," she says, creating an open and friendly environment.

But all that ended when she moved to the East Coast of the US 10 years ago. "I was stunned by how stratified and remote people were. I was shocked that in order to get together with a friend you'd have to write it down on a calendar two weeks in advance and call and confirm. It was brutal."

In time, she found herself becoming the same way. "I realized I had mutated to match the environment. I just didn't want to be that way." She decided that whether she marries or not, she would build her own framework of friendships. "It was a very deliberate decision on my part to invest the time."

Constance Mazelsky of Andover, Mass., a college friend of Wolfson's, made a similar decision. During her 20s, when she was single, maintaining friendships was easy. But in her 30s she "fell behind" as she devoted energy to her career in public relations. By her late 30s, she realized that she had many friends she had not seen for a long time.

E-mail messages started flying. For two years now, Ms. Mazelsky and three college friends have met for a weekend. They stay in a small hotel, share family photos, relax at a spa, and attend a play.

"It's a great way to recharge your batteries, to spend time with old friends you've lost contact with," Mazelsky says.

Like many women, Midge Forsythe, a special education teacher who lives in Dedham, Mass., follows the advice of the old verse "Make new friends, but keep the old/One is silver and the other gold."

For her, "gold" is a 25-year friendship with a university professor in Dallas. The women exchange letters every two weeks, writing about everything from families and religion to activities and trips. "We both are very busy, but our friendship is really important to us," says Mrs. Forsythe.

In her "silver" category is a year-and-a-half-old friendship with a colleague. As the two became acquainted in the teachers' room during breaks, they discovered common interests in art, travel, and music. Now they meet monthly for an early dinner at a small restaurant.

"It's a sense of sharing," Forsythe explains. Like other women with full calendars, she finds herself increasingly very discriminating about how she spends extra time.

Looking ahead to their eventual retirement, some women emphasize the importance of maintaining their own friends in addition to those they have as a couple. If the wife someday finds herself alone, they say, she may no longer fit as comfortably within the same couples' circle.

Ms. Erony also notes generational shifts in friendships. Because of work schedules, she must plan well in advance to see friends. Her mother's friendships, by contrast, did not focus on work but on home and personal life.

"She would often see people every day or every couple of days," says Erony. "Almost always her close friends were people who lived in close proximity, which is very different from me."

Proximity is also a challenge for Janet Daly, who travels extensively as head of communications for W3C in Cambridge. Frequent absences, she says, require patient and understanding friends. "You need to use all the communication tools at your disposal to reach them." As one gesture, she sometimes brings friends small mementos from her trips.

In the same way that people do not like to talk about a bad marriage, Bucklin says, many do not want to discuss a friendship that falters. She notes that books often "eulogize" women's friendships, ignoring the reality that not all friendships endure.

"A lot of women we talked to were devastated when a friendship ended," she says.

Whatever the circumstances surrounding a friendship, Bucklin emphasizes this point: "Our friends are a reflection of who we are." She also quotes a Spanish proverb: "Tell me who you're with, and I'll tell you who you are." Friends, she says, speak volumes. "Choose your friends wisely and well, and hope they choose you in the same way."

That could be Wolfson's philosophy as well. "I don't believe that isolation has to be the necessary consequence of the way we live," she says. "When I don't interact with people and keep up on my friendships, I feel a little stunted, like my neglected houseplants."

To avoid that feeling, Wolfson is already thinking of other ways to encourage friendships. "My next project," she says, "is cleaning up my apartment so I will be brave enough to have people over."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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