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We all understand the joys of great women friends. They counsel us through our darkest moments, applaud us during our greatest triumphs, and provide lots of light and laughter during the times between. In fact, friends are so beneficial, they actually make us healthier. Marla Paul, author of The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You're Not a Kid Anymore (Rodale, 2004), says that women with strong networks of friends have bolder immune systems, get fewer colds, and are less likely to get cancer. "You really need pals. The rewards are both physical and emotional," she says.
But what happens when a friendship isn't so rewarding? When instead of leaving you excited and energized, your bud makes you feel anxious and drained? Should you call it quits?
When we're kids, the more friends we had the better. After all, there can never be enough birthday parties when you're 7. Even in our 20s, a huge gaggle of gal pals can make life fun and exciting.
But as we grow older, our needs often change. "A lot of women juggle work, family, caring for elderly parents, and then try to squeeze in a visit to the gym. They can't afford to have as many friends, and feel very stressed and guilty when they don't have time to nurture the women in their life," says Paul, who also writes a column on women's friendship for the Chicago Tribune.
So how do you know how many friends are right for you? "There isn't a magic number," says Paul. "People have different social appetites. Some people are happy with one or two close friends and some like a whole flock."
But there are some signals that you have too many social contacts. If your social calendar is so jam-packed that you barely see your close friends and family, you might want to consider pruning your list. If meeting an acquaintance for a glass of wine feels like an obligation then you're probably overextending yourself.
Of course, not all friendships end because we're too busy. Sometimes it's a natural extension of other changes in our lives. The new mom and single woman can't bridge their now very different lifestyles. The former officemates discover that their only commonality was their shared outrage at their boss' buffoonery. "Our lives are so much less stable than they used to be," says Paul. "We have babies at wildly different ages. We move around a lot more. We get divorced. All these things shake up a friendship, and often fracture them."
Many women report ending friendships due to a profound disappointment -- their pal disappeared during a time of crisis or became jealous and resentful during a time of celebration. These rifts occur for men as well as women, says Judith Sills, PhD, a psychologist and author of The Comfort Trap (Viking, 2004). "I do know men who will say there is a problem between us, let's talk about it, but women are usually more comfortable with that," she says.
How do you decide if a friendship is worth saving? Sills says you need to ask yourself how you feel when you're around your pal. "When you find yourself in chronic pain from the friendship -- if there's an ongoing feeling of being used, pressured, or just bad about yourself. Or, if there is an absence of pleasure, where you think 'I'm just going through the motions here. We haven't had a good time in years,'" she says.
Okay, so you've decided to call it quits. Should you announce this formally or just let it fade out?
Most women opt for the latter. "There are some instances where someone had been so hurt that they e-mailed a letter explaining why the friendship was ending, but usually it's like a slow drift. You don't put in the time, don't return the phone call, etc.," says Paul.
That's not always so bad, since it keeps the door open. "Unlike romantic relationships or jobs, friends are elastic -- what doesn't work now might work somewhere down the line," says Sills.
While allowing a friendship to peter out might be easier, there's actually a lot to be gained from addressing the issue head-on. Paul recalls one new mom who told her clueless single pal that she was ending the friendship because she wasn't respecting the profound changes in her life. "But once the single friend understood what was happening, she made some adjustments in her behavior," says Paul.
By talking about the problem, you also may be able to redefine the friendship in a way that suits your changing lives. Says Paul, "There's something very precious about someone who knew you in kindergarten. Even if you don't have a lot in common anymore, you can still see her once a year. It doesn't have to be all or nothing."