By Mary Lou Sanelli

Six years ago, I did a lot of research for a book I was writing about friendship. I wrote down things in one of those tiny notebooks I carry around, like: “You don’t need a thick skin to have friends. You need a porous one.”

And there was a moment last night when IthoughtI was about to share this quote with someone. I was giving a talk at a Unitarian Women’s Retreat. During the Q&A, almost everyone likes to tell a story about their own experience.One woman told us, “According to an article I read, as many as 15 percent of American adults don’t have a single close friend. This means,” she said, whipping out her phone to do the math, except she couldn’t figure how to use her calculator, “well, anyway, alotof people are friendless.”

“Sad, considering how well-connected we are,” I said, very much facetiously, pointing at her phone.

And then the question went around the room: What do we mean by “close”?

“Someone who will offer to pick me up at the airport.”

“Someone who will sit with you when your mother dies and let you cry for hours.”

“I called my friend Lynette when my pressure cooker exploded,” I said. “Split pea soup everywhere. I couldn’t cope.”

“I don’t have a friend who would clean up split pea soup,” one said. “Close, but not that close.”

I had to think. Let’s see, I have at least three friends I can call when crises strike. And a few more recent ones I hope will be as long-lasting. But I’ve lost enough to understand that the closer friendships are, the more fragile they can become. Which reminds me of another truth I wrote in my notebook, “Tread carefully.”

Another said she found it difficult to keep friends, that she tends to wind up disappointed. And because so many other women at so many other Q&As have expressed the same problem, I assumed, wrongly, that she was struggling with friendship in the long run because of an unrealistic perfection quest. I think of all the pain I could have saved if I’d just brought my expectations down a notch or two over the years.

I was about to say as much. And that in each of my closest friendships, there has been at least one moment when we could have broken up, but we came through, stronger for it. I nearly shared another quote, too: “Friendships are like marriages. Yes, we love each other, but we have to be able to hate each other sometimes, too. And be bored by each other.”

Luckily, before I said any of this, I asked, “What do you mean by disappointed?”

She stared at me.

And this was her honest, un-abashed, and totally unexpected reply:”You mean, like, when she slept with my husband?”

The room went silent. Then, oh, how we all laughed! Her reply was so real yet so unassertive, I’ve never forgotten it. The whole evening was intimate and special like that. That’s the most interesting part about the work I do: No matter how well I plan ahead — going over my notes, knowing my material — it’s usually something totally unplanned that makes the whole evening one of the more satisfying.

Mary Lou Sanelli is an author whose latest book is A Woman Writing. When not working as a literary speaker on the Mainland, she lives in Honolulu. For more of her work, visit

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