Our mutual friend

When I married, I thought my friendship troubles were over.

No more moping around the apartment, waiting for someone to call. My best friend was now a live-in. As a couple, we would simply combine our lists of friends, and have twice as many. We'd double the number of dinner invitations and get-togethers. Right?

Sometime in the mid-'90s, I noticed our plan wasn't working. Friends were dropping like flies. Some moved out of state. Or got married and had kids. Paths didn't cross as often. Jobs consumed more of everyone's time.

Gathering a group for dinner and a movie required serious advance planning. A platoon of baby sitters. And then we were too exhausted to enjoy ourselves. It became easier to just hang out at home.

I did manage to maintain a few oases in this desert of desertion. For a couple of years, two theater friends and I met monthly for dinner at one of our apartments. As significant others came and went, we set extra places at the table. Eventually, everyone in the group found true love, and six people for dinner became unworkable.

One of my closest friends and I have a standing dinner date at an oceanside restaurant in Rockport, Mass., each year. In early May, we anticipate the start of summer by e-mailing each other with dates. We have vowed that wherever our jobs and lives take us, we will do our best to meet there each June.

But what about those acquaintances who slipped away almost unnoticed? Was it something I said?

To trace the trajectory of past friendships, all I have to do is open my address book.

There, scratched out, written over, or scrawled into the margins are the last known addresses for people I haven't heard from since Christmas '95. One college friend has moved 11 times since graduation. It's gotten so I no longer write addresses in ink: yellow stickies are much easier to paste in and take off.

But I'd be silly to blame the state of my friendships on the fact that other people move too often. We all change, grow apart, take up different interests. We become weighed down with family and work obligations, and friendships fall into distant third place.

It dawned on me recently that friends have a lot in common with automobiles: if you neglect the routine maintenance, then you can't rely on them over the long haul.

It's taken me a long time to give up the fantasy that being married would automatically widen my circle of friends.

What could I have been thinking? If anything, it's harder than dating because now two people's opinions have to be considered. Writer Laura Zigman calls it "couples dating": because there's two of us, there are "twice the flaws and imperfections another couple would have to overlook - and twice the performance anxiety."

No discussion of friendship would be complete without talking reciprocity. Or maybe I should call it "commitment parity," e.g. I don't want to make a commitment to you as a friend until I'm sure you're just as committed.

For example, if I invite people I barely know over for a fancy dinner, I'm overdoing it. They will feel overwhelmed. They'll pretend to be out of town the next time I call.

On the other hand, if I chicken out and never make a move, potential friendships will never get a chance to flower.

Why does this sound like dating all over again?

*Write the Homefront, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115 or e-mail us at home@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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