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“You’re so beautiful!”
“No, you’re so beautiful.”
“But you’re the fabulous one.”
I only strive to be as fabulous as you!”
“Let’s do lunch?”

Is this the extent of some of your interactions with friends? Not that you don’t like each other, not that she isn’t fabulous and beautiful, not that you don’t wish each other well. Through the years, you may have made it a little past acquaintanceship, but fallen short of sisterhood.  But somehow you know that you could never call her if you were having car trouble on the highway. You could cry with her over a movie, but you could never tell her about the past personal heartache you relived as you watched the film. You can’t be totally sure she wouldn’t judge you. She isn’t a bad person. That’s just the way she is. And you still consider her a friend.

When it comes to choosing and cultivating friendships, we all have that one friend who:

Has never been on time to a birthday party or spa date
Has always forgotten our birthday
Has betrayed our trust
Has made her life more dramatic and her problems bigger and more chat-worthy
Has trouble thinking before she lets rude things come out of her mouth
Shows up for the party, but is too busy to help us move
Just plain talks too much
Always criticizes our hair, makeup, or clothing, only “trying to help”
Never offers to pay for dinner or to pitch in for the movie
Only calls when she needs something

These offenses can range from annoying to unnerving to borderline unforgivable, but they are pardonable for some. They also affect a person’s ascension through our personal rungs of intimacy, rungs for which we can make adjustments:  We won’t lend any more money to the friend who never pays us back, or we’ll tell our perpetually 30-minutes-behind friend that the 8:30 p.m. dinner reservations are for 8:00 p.m. Other misgivings, like betrayal, require a little more maneuvering.

The ideal definition of friendship has an easily- identifiable context, but I’ve learned that each individual friendship comes with unique expectations. As we get to know our friends, we recognize the ones to whom we can tell our secrets and the ones who are only good for superficial happy hour chatter. But how do we determine whether a friendship is toxic or tolerable?

In an article published in The New York Times, Alex Williams wrote about one woman’s assessment of “new friend candidates”

Thayer Prime, a 32-year-old strategy consultant who lives in London, has even developed aplayful 100-point scale (100 being “best friend forever”). In her mind, she starts to dock new friend candidates as they begin to display annoying or disloyal behavior. Nine times out of 10, she said, her new friends end up from 30 to 60, or little more than an acquaintance.

“You meet someone really nice, but if they don’t return a call, drop to 90, if they don’t return two calls, that’s an immediate 50,” she said. “If they’re late to something in the first month, that’s another 10 off.” (But people can move up the scale with nice behavior, too, she added.)

A bit harsh, I thought, since of the aforementioned friendship crimes, I’m guilty of at least five. It turns out that the older we get, the more aware we are of our own failings as a friend, and playing the grace card becomes a necessary component in our relationships. We cannot just cut off our friends lest we be cut. But what does a friend have to do in order for us to say, “Enough!”?

I’m not one for checklists like Prime’s, but I’ve learned that our propensity to keep track of how much we give when a friend is only taking is backed up by the social exchange theory of sociology; one that indicates the way we weigh risks and rewards of our relationships. We don’t keep track of our give and take relationships; it’s only when our giving trumps hers that makes us go “Hmmmm…”

There’s also what I call the theory of the psychic vampire: Do you feel better after you spend time with this person? Or has she drained all of your energy because the encounter (like most encounters with her) has a negative effect on you and your mood?

Psychology Today suggests, among other reasons, that healthy friendships end when “criticism and put downs are a regular part of your conversations [indicating] this is not a friendship that will enhance your emotional health,” or “when you have an emotional ‘growth spurt,’ and you…find that your old best friend isn’t able to go along with you into a healthier future.”

Then there are the total breakdowns. Your best friend shared your deepest secret, stole your man or committed another heinous violation of trust that makes you question whether she’s on your side in the first place. Are these types of relationships irreparable?

How do you set expectations in friendships? Which imperfections are you willing to overlook and which ones are absolute deal breakers in the way you maintain relationships?

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