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Friends are like shoes -- and not just because both pals and the perfect pair of pumps can bring you profound joy. Friendship experts agree: Just as your favorite old sneakers aren't perfect for every occasion, neither is every friend. It's crucial to have a colorful assortment of friends -- from comfy to professional -- to match the varied parts of your life.
Says Jessica, 31, of Dix Hills, New York, "When I feel low, I always think, 'Well, I have a friend who is this and a friend who is that -- the super-successful impressive friend, the crazy creative friend, the beyond-loyal friend, the since-seventh-grade friend' -- and it makes me feel better to be able to say, 'I am so good at having friends that I've got them in all different shapes and sizes!'"
Why else are multiple friendships so important? What are some key friendships to foster? And what's the best way to do that when we're always so on the go?
"When we're younger, it's fine to have one or two all-purpose friends," says Marla Paul, author of The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You're Not a Kid Anymore (Rodale, 2004). "But as adults, when our lives and needs and interests become more complex, we need a diverse group of friends who cover all of our dimensions."
Just as you can't expect your great black loafers to work with a strappy sundress, you can't expect your single friend to discuss at length the ins and outs of diaper rash. "It's unrealistic to expect one friend to offer everything," says Jan Yager, PhD, author of Who's That Sitting at My Desk? Workship, Friendship, or Foe? (Hannacroix Creek, 2004). "You're drawing on the strengths and benefits that each one offers, not trying to mold someone into something she isn't."
Seeing different friendships for what they are can preserve and prolong them, as Eleanor, 38, of Syracuse, New York, discovered. "I have a dear friend who's great about doing things only a close friend will, like helping me move," she says. But Eleanor found it frustrating to confide in her pal about her single-woman hardships. "I hated her cool, no-nonsense responses -- she'd basically tell me I just needed to 'get over it.' I would think, 'She has no idea what it's like!' But then it hit me -- her very long-term boyfriend became her husband. She actually does have no idea what it's like!"
Since then, Eleanor says, "I've learned to appreciate what we do share: frustrations with work and politics, similar senses of humor. Now I know she's not the one to call about dating blues. I have plenty of other girlfriends who relate to that!"
So what are the five types of friends that will round out your social wardrobe?
The Work Friend. This relationship is so important that Dr. Yager coined a term for it: a "workship." Having an office pal, she says, "boosts productivity, makes the day go faster, and work more fun." Sylvia, 36, of Brookline, Massachusetts, says her workship is the only reason she survives her "heinous job" at all. "She saves my life every day. We bitch about our boss, fantasize about changes we'd make if we overthrew her, share dirt on who's good to work with and who's not. And we laugh," Sylvia says. "My husband commiserates when I come home, sure, but he's not there."
Just be on guard: If only one of you gets that promotion, things could get uncomfortable. Try to discuss it in advance if you can. Also, if one of you happens to leave the job, the friendship still has promise, says Yager. "Workships often blossom into friendships when they're no longer workships -- because then you can really let down your guard."
The Friend in Your Kid's Class. Your kids are angels, no doubt, but that doesn't mean they have an adult perspective on what's going on in school. "You absolutely need someone to help you check out whether the teacher is really that 'unfair,' the sixth-graders are really dating, or the cliques are really that bad," says Paul. For Nicole, 35, of Charleston, South Carolina, her co-mom keeps her not only informed, but also less isolated. "Almost everyone is all coiffed and perfect, and I'm just talking about the kids -- so you can imagine what the moms are like," she says. "My messy self really doesn't fit in. Thank goodness for Lara, the one other mom like me, and the only one I can hang out with at the science fair."
The Friend Who's Known You Forever. "This friendship is priceless," says Paul, noting that when she recently bumped into an old crush at the mall, there was only one friend she could call to giggle about it. "She keeps your memories alive by sharing them with you."
"If I met her today we might not be friends -- that's one thing I love most. She's so unlike all the friends I've made more recently," says New Yorker, Melissa, 29, of her dear childhood pal. "Other people can learn all our buzzwords and inside jokes, but she and I invented them!"
Friends you grew up with aren't just fun throwbacks; some can serve as sister stand-ins. "As a single only child with few cousins, I wonder sometimes who'll lend a hand when my parents start to need more help," says Corinne, 35, of Lexington, Massachusetts. "But I also know that my friend Lucy, who's been around since I was 2, will always be there for things like that."
The Hobby Buddy. You summon this friend when you want to catch a movie or concert, if you want to enroll in a history class or take a horseback ride. She may be the gal with whom you share a love of art and museums, or your common interest may be river-rafting or crocheting. Many women find that a walking partner suits this need. "This friendship works because you share an interest and a sensibility," says Deanna Kasuya, 48, of Ridgewood, New Jersey. "It's very motivating to know a friend with a passion to start with. You speak the same vocabulary. And you also have this common need to share your interest."
This friend is important, psychologists say, because your significant other may not share many of your most abiding interests. Or you may simply want a gal pal or another friend with whom to discuss and enjoy them.
Deanna has an art buddy, a gal she meets once a month for museum visits in New York City. The friendship has deepened over recent years, and now she and her pal talk about life as well as about Picasso. "The passion in art was the introduction to our friendship," Deanna says. "We looked at paintings together and got dewy-eyed talking about light and color. Then one day we let loose about our personal lives."
Sally Muller, 45, of Bethesda, Maryland, treasures her walking buddy. At least three times a week, the pair loop their suburban neighborhood, starting at 5:30 a.m. The walks started for one reason: exercise. "We were neighbors who didn't know each other well at all," says Sally. "We just wanted to get out early in the morning, when the neighborhood was quiet." Sally's dog joined. The walking itinerary has evolved over the past three years and now includes a stop at a coffee shop. Sally's partner has since gotten a dog of her own -- and a divorce. Meanwhile, the friendship has deepened greatly. "We talk about everything now, from what to serve at a dinner party or which Lucy-Ethel sitcom we like best to how to handle our children. We both feel destabilized when we don't walk." But, Sally notes, the friendship hinges on walking. "When you spend four to six hours a week in a format of walking, that becomes the way in which you're most comfortable talking and confiding."
The Straight-Talking Friend. You know when you're clear that you need to break up with someone...but just can't quite bite the bullet? Talk to this friend. "We all need someone who's honest, gets to the heart of the problem, and doesn't sugar-coat," says Marla Paul. She also won't tell you the swimsuit looks good when it doesn't, or that it's okay with her that you haven't called.
"My roommate, God love her, shovels me full of truth and never lets up," says Rebecca, 24, of Raleigh, North Carolina. "If it's something she thinks I don't want to hear, she'll just stay quiet -- and then I know what she's saying anyway. Damn!" That's the key with this friend, says Florence Isaacs, author of Toxic Friends/True Friends (Citadel, 2003): "Talk to her about what's on your mind only when you want to hear it."
The Feel-Good Friend. "We all need a cheerleader!" says Isaacs. But the feel-good friend may cheer for you even without being all smiles and pom-poms. "My spirits are lifted the moment I hear my friend Rachel's voice," says Paula, 36, of New York City. "She never belittles, or tries to make things about her, or says one of those dopey things like, 'You'll get over it, what you need is a fill-in-the-blank!' She really knows how much better people feel when someone just listens."
And the feel-good friend isn't there for you only when you feel bad. Says Isaacs: "It's essential to have a friend who can be truly happy for you when good things happen, too."
Now that you know which friendships are essential, how do you to find and/or nurture the ones you need? Making friends isn't as easy as it was when you could walk up to another kid on the playground and say, "Wanna be friends?" Says Paul: "Friendships, along with our lives, are less stable than they used to be, and it can feel awkward to try to make new ones." Three key steps to making new friends and maintaining the relationships you hold dear:
So take a friend-inventory today and see what type of friend might be great to add, which friend you could see a bit less of, and who you're dying to catch up with right now. Don't let a busy schedule get in your way. In the end, it's friendship itself that lightens your load and brightens your day.