“I’m learning something new about friendship these days,” said Daphne, who divorced her husband and ended her relationship with her best friend after finding them in bed together. “I used to have a bunch of women who I thought were friends, but I think the truth was, I didn’t really know what friendship meant. Some of them deserted me during the divorce. They weren’t willing, or able, to be there for me during the hardest time of my life.” Always a caregiver, Daphne discovered that when she needed care herself, the number of women she could count on quickly diminished. “I was really vulnerable during the early days of the separation and divorce. I lost the two people I trusted most in the world—my husband and my best friend. And I discovered that lots of the women I had thought liked me only wanted me to take care of them.”

Daphne’s caregiving nature had always been what connected her to many of the women in her life. “Even though I look like an outgoing person, I’m actually shy. But I can open up when someone needs me. As my friends disappeared, and I thought about starting to make new ones, I decided that I would be much more discriminating about who I would let myself get close to. But it’s not so easy to make new friends at my age. What are you going to do, just say to someone, ‘Hey, I kind of like you. Will you be my friend—but first will you let me know if you’re willing to make this a mutually supportive relationship?’ I spend a lot more time with my kids and my family now, and a fair amount of time on my own. I’ve accepted that making new friends will be slow. That’s actually a good thing. I’ll make sure that I know someone really well before I trust her—or him—completely. But I can’t help but feel bad sometimes, like when I look at the Facebook pages of some of the women I used to spend time with. They have so many friends. I have some, but not many, and right now nobody I’m really close to.”

I have met women of all different ages and experiences who worry about not having enough friends. An outgoing waitress with a gold tooth that flashed when she smiled said, “When I was little, every time I saw my grandmother, she would ask me how many friends I had. I was always ashamed to admit that I only had one best friend. As I got older, her words echoed in my brain. I have a lot of friends now, but I wonder if it would be enough for Gramma; and I also wonder why it was so important to her.”

Why does anyone count the number of friends she has? Of course, one modern reason is social media, where friends and followers, likes and shares are visible to us and anyone else who happens to take a look. When the poet Alex Morritt asked in his book Impromptu Scribe, “How can anyone truly claim to have eleven hundred friends?” he was of course pointing out the oddness of the very concept of “friend” these days.[i] The term, once reserved for people you know and like, is used now to describe someone you may never have met in person, who might be vaguely connected to someone else you know, who likes something you’ve posted on social media.

The question of how many friends we need, however, is one that troubles many of the women I interviewed. An office manager in her forties told me that she has many acquaintances, “but only three women who I would actually call friends. I wish I could be one of those women with a large group of girlfriends who meet up for a glass of wine or a cup of tea and go away for girls’ weekends, but that’s never been me. I just don’t open up like that.”

A travel agent who has a large network of women and men she calls her “dearest friends” said that she could not imagine a life without them. “I feel sorry for women who don’t have a bunch of friends. They must be so sad.” There is a belief that the more friends you have, the happier you are, but is that an accurate perception? It turns out that the number of friends is less important than the role they play in your life.

Research has found that friendships support mental and physical health in a variety of ways.[ii] We know, even without the research confirming it, that friends help us process emotions, but in many cases they also help us stay physically healthy. One study found that a lack of social connection was worse for physical well-being than smoking, obesity, or high blood pressure.[iii] The connection is not magical. Social support can help us manage stress, which can reduce the impact of stress hormones, high blood pressure, and other potential physical damage.

[i] Alex Morritt, Impromptu Scribe (Amazon Digital Services, 2014).

[ii] D. Umberson and J. K. Montez. (2010), “Social Relationships and Health: A Flashpoint for Health Policy,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 51 (Supplement, 2016), http://doi.org/10.1177/0022146510383501; J. S. House, K. R. Landis, and D. Umberson, “Social Relationships and Health,” Science 29 (July 1988): 540–545.

[iii] Schore, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self; Charles and Carstensen, “Social and Emotional Aging”; Umberson and Montez, “Social Relationships and Health”; House, Landis, and Umberson, “Social Relationships and Health.”

Excerpted from I KNOW HOW YOU FEEL: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women’s Lives by F. Diane Barth. Copyright © 2018 by F. Diane Barth. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.