When did you last make a new friend, and why did you choose that person? Almost certainly not for the reasons you think you did ... Emma Cook on selecting a mate
Beth and Helen are best mates; their friendship started five years ago at university when they met through a drama club. Helen was directing a play and offered Beth a part in it. They got on immediately, perhaps because they have a lot in common. Apart from shared interests they come from a similar background: both their mothers are teachers; both are youngest sisters raised in the same area in London. They studied for the same degree and now share a flat in London.

They have never analysed exactly what drew them together five years ago and which qualities they found attractive in one another. Why should they? The process of selecting friends is something we don't question too closely; it happens naturally at different stages of our lives. Yet friendships can be as intense and possessive as any love affair and betrayals can be just as painful. But whereas we may devote many of hours of speculation to the dynamics of opposite sex relationships; how we are always attracted to certain partners; why we always repeat certain patterns, friendship rarely provokes such intense examination.

What's interesting is the amount of choice we have when it comes to selecting friends. Do we knowingly search out "like-minded" companions or are we unconsciously drawn to certain personalities before we know really anything about them?

The first thing Helen remembers about Beth was her hair. "It was short and bleached, just like mine," she says. "Apart from that we looked completely different. But I still felt there was something familiar about her." When Helen struck up conversation with Beth, they discovered they had more in common than hair colour. "We had both just finished our first serious relationship with boys from our home town, both of them art students. And the relationships finished for similar reasons that gave us a lot to talk about. Our backgrounds were also similar; we were the youngest in a family of four children."

It was Helen who made "the first move" and spoke to Beth. "I suppose that's how I behave with men as well. I'll always start up a conversation if someone looks interesting," she says. "Beth tends to be more reserved in those situations." Beth admits that many of her friendships have been initiated along similar lines. "Sometimes I feel I haven't had that much choice in the friends I've got," she says. "They've always made the effort to chat and find out more about me. But then I've been surprised how much we've got in common and wondered why I've never really noticed them before."

Like sexual relationships, friendship is often driven by unconscious motives. As Jo Ellen Grzyb, psychotherapist and director of The Impact Factory, explains: "Inevitably when a group gets together, people who are drawn to each other will have a lot of family similarities - without even knowing it." This is perfectly illustrated in an exercise used by many therapists and counsellers in trainee groups.

Sometimes known as the "milling" exercise, strangers will walk around the room in silence and stop in front of someone they feel they have something in common with. "It's uncanny how you end up with someone who has a similar family background," says Sophie Buckley, a counseller and psychotherapist. "People find out they're both only children or they've suffered a bereavement - there are often two or three parallels." But strangest of all, she says, are the ones who don't pair off - the wallflowers that come together last because nobody else has chosen them. "It's amazing how often they turn out to be adopted or fostered, and have all coped with rejection in their early years."

Grzyb explains the process. "Somehow you seek out people who are familiar to you - that doesn't necessarily mean physically similar. We look for someone who appears to be empathetic, it's almost like looking in a mirror. They may remind us unconsciously of a sister, brother or auntie." There are other more obvious factors that influence our choice of friends such as age, circumstance and proximity. As psychologist and psychotherapist Dr Petruska Clarkson explains: "We tend to recognise similarities in other people when we are thrown together in the same situation." Which may explain why the "milling" exercise is always so effective. We search out commonalities to try to establish a bond.

But in terms of deep, lasting bonds, we can only really hope for two or three of those if we're lucky. "When we teach people about making friends," says Clarkson, "we always say, 'Don't expect to have too many close ones or to expect too much from them'." Grzyb agrees. "It takes a lot of time to develop the kind of non-sexual intimacy that real friendship requires. From a psychological point of view, that's why we can't have many."

According to Grzyb what we look for in friendships varies throughout our childhood and adult life. "Often in your mid-twenties you're attracted to someone who's completely opposite to you. It's as it that person fulfils the other side of you. It's a crucial stage; you're searching for your own identity and often friends will define, rather than support, who you are."

Susie, a 30-year-old designer, met Emily eight years ago through a friend at work. Emily was an extrovert, party girl-type while Susie was much quieter. On the face of it, they didn't have much in common but within months they were sharing a flat and doing everything together. Then four years ago, Susie met her current partner and moved out. "I can see now that we both envied each other terribly," says Susie. "But I stopped wanting to be like Emily when I met my boyfriend - I became more confident being myself."

That's when the friendship deteriorated; Emily became resentful of the new relationship and accused Susie of using her until something better came along. "This can be quite a sad time for girls," says Clarkson. "I've seen people feeling quite bereft when a friend changes and their priorities shift, especially when they have babies. The single friend can feel a real loss; like a bereavement." When Susie stopped being the focus of Emily's feelings and thoughts, she felt completely rejected. "It can leave a gap in your life and it often feels like abandonment," says Grzyb. "People could understand it more if their friend went to live in another country."

Male friendships never seem to match up to this level of intensity, perhaps because they're conditioned to express emotions differently. Grzyb says: "Men have a much harder time making intimate friendships with other men. They have mates but not people they talk to in the same way that women do." The difference between male and female friendship is, as Grzyb says, "set in cement" around puberty. "Girls begin to change hormonally and there's a commonality that men don't have at that point."

In adulthood, the male "mate" mentality tends to continue as does the lack of emotional candour. This may result from the way men often select their friends. Rather than seeking an emotional affinity, they tend to establish ties based on shared hobbies. Grzyb explains: "They access each other through common interests. Conversationally men need to know where they stand and they talk about subjects on a less contentious level; football, politics, etc. Women cut to the chase much faster and are less afraid to talk about emotional issues."

The problem is that once men have established friends at this "interests only" level, it's difficult for the relationship to develop any further. Which means many men, particularly in their late 30s and 40s, can find themselves left with very few emotional outlets.

When Ben, a 32-year-old sales manager, discovered his father had walked out on his mother last year he kept his feelings to himself. "I mentioned it to my mates but I didn't feel like discussing it at length. Besides I couldn't see what good it would do to burden them with my problems - it's not going to change anything or make me feel better."

But it could make him feel less isolated, as Clarkson explains: "I've worked with men to try to develop friendship skills. It doesn't always feel natural to them but it's important otherwise they get very lonely." Especially at retirement, a particularly vulnerable phase for men when figures for depression and heart attacks increase sharply.

Clarkson explains: "That's because the low-maintenance friendships; the jokes and friendly hustling that men get at work are suddenly taken away from them." In this sense, the ability to make friends is an essential life skill. "It's something that should be taught and we don't pay enough attention to it," says Clarkson. "But it's certainly a major way of staying healthy emotionally."

WHO IS YOUR BEST FRIEND?

"My best friend is Douglas Gabb. He was my agent when I was an MP in Leeds and has been my friend for 44 years. We can rely on each other, and we never have to say thank you." Lord Healey, former Labour MP

"Big Harry. I met him 25 years ago when he supplied books for my mail order business. I realised he was my best friend when my other best pal robbed me of pounds 250,000. Real friendship comes from longevity. In all that time he's never asked me for anything." David Sullivan, publisher of the Sunday Sport

"Roger Howe. We've known each other since 1964 and worked together since 1970. His life has been the mirror-image of mine - he's been married and divorced, too. We spend day and night together at work, but we make no demands on each other, which is very important in a friendship." Peter Stringfellow, nightclub owner

"One of my best friends is Leon Trotsky's cousin - Marina Cronin. We met when she joined OutRage two years ago while still at school and aged 17. Marina's intelligent, witty, challenging, helpfully critical and unafraid to tell me when I'm wrong. Like Trotsky, her grasp of political strategy is brilliant, but she's much better looking and wears lipstick. Friendship is the basis of enduring love - all my lovers have remained my friends even after we've split up." Peter Tatchell, gay pressure group OutRage

"The whole concept of best friends is very schoolgirlish. I don't have a best friend, I have a group of friends who are terribly important and who are always there when I need them. There's Joan Chapman, who I've known since the Seventies - we spend hours on the phone; Helena Kennedy, who I've known for 10 years - we gossip; David Rayner - he's a very comfortable person to be with. ... There are so many others I could name, but it would just turn into a list." Claire Rayner, agony aunt

"My best friend is Hilda, my cat. I have known her since she was born on top of my wardrobe on 4 March 1991 (which makes her a Pisces and a cat with a richer fantasy life than most moggies). I realised she was my best friend when I tried to think of someone who was always pleased to see me, and who I am always pleased to see. She finds everything I do interesting and she always knows which letters are urgent - she 'sorts' them for me when they arrive. And she never asks to have her fortune told (I suspect she's seen her future)." Mystic Meg, astrologist

"My best friend is my husband, Grant McChon, who I've been married to for six and a half years. He knows me better than anyone else and I've never been as close to anyone as I am to him. My other best friends are Helen and Caroline, who I've known for about 25 years. I met Helen through Elton John and we became friends almost instantly. She's a dishcloth Virgo compared with my messy Taurenism. I lived with Caroline and her husband for three months - if a friendship can survive that, it can survive anything." Nina Myskow, television broadcaster

CRUCIAL STAGES IN FRIENDSHIP

w Puberty: male and female attachments begin to differ and set future patterns of friend-making skills. Girls tend to form close, confessional friendships whereas boys identify with a gang of mates.

w Adolescence: male and female friendships are group orientated and activity centred. Girls and boys tend to "hang out" in crowds to meet the opposite sex.

w Early twenties: men and women are still establishing their identity and often seek mutual friends who have characteristics they envy or would like to emulate. Friends tend to define rather than support their self- image.

w Late twenties: men and women start to settle in long-term relationships which become the primary focus. Both sexes use a relationship as an excuse to drop unwanted friends. Friends often "outgrow" each other as priorities shift dramatically.

w Early thirties: both sexes tend to cultivate friends for different activities - for example, the theatre companion, the confidante - rather than expecting one "best" friend to fulfil every need.

w Mid-thirties: men and women reassess their situation in terms of relationships, careers and friends. There can be a big shift in personal values, often triggered by emotional events - divorce, bereavement - where friends outgrow each other.

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