Q: Sometimes I question the loyaty of the people I call friends. How can I tell they're really my friends?

A: Friendships are so important that it's easy to overlook certain behaviors and slights.  Sometimes minimizing these disappointments is wise—other times it is harmful.  Often we miss the clues that a friend is not true friendship material. Reading people is not just detecting nonverbal cues; it also involves understanding the actions of others. See if you can find the questionable behavior and decide how you would handle it.

1. Gina was traveling on business to her home town and was excited about visiting her long-time childhood friend Frannie. They went clothes shopping to their favorite store, but when they left the store, Frannie said she was done with shopping. She said she hated how she looked in clothes and complained about her tummy bulge. Gina consoled her and said she hadn't noticed. Frannie said, "Well, it must be easier for you to ignore yours.  You're tall and pretty."

2.  Alex and his wife Anita, both physicians, were always available whenever friends called for medical advice. These friends called often and took up a lot of the couple's time. However, at holiday season when Alex and Anita were alone, none of these friends invited them to spend the holidays with them and their families--whom Alex and Anita had also helped. 

3.  Molly and Laurel are both realtors and struck up a friendship during training over twenty years ago. Whenever they meet at events or by happenstance, they always feel that instant connection--even though their lives are so different.  Once in a great while, they have lunch together. Molly has a part time job, a loving husband and twin boys, Laurel has been divorced three times and does not have any children. Her husbands all complained about her remoteness. Yet Laurel said she really loves their lunch dates--even if they are few and far between.  Molly wonders whether Laurel is really a friend.

Let's look at each of these situations and learn from them.  You will see that reading friendships and deciding what to do are not an all or nothing endeavors.

1. We tend to be more forgiving when it comes to childhood connections. What Frannie said was not nice. It stems from her jealousy. But should you end your life-long friendship because of it? It's your call, of course. We feel comforted by these friends knowing us, our families and situations--and possibly sharing in some funny and memorable times. This forgiveness can even extend to slights such as Frannie's.  However, if you do want to "call" Frannie on her comment, it is best to do it in a way that still keeps the friendship warm.  For example, you could say:  "You know I work hard at staying in shape.  It's not easy. I'm sure you just had a bad moment and said what you did."  This response allows Frannie to save face and apologize at the same time.

2. Friends can't mind-read. And holiday season often carries with it lots of "family rules" about who is there--or not.  However, you can still mention that you understand that family traditions can vary, but if there is ever a chance for you to say hello to the family, perhaps you could just come for dessert, a light bite or appetizers.  Your friends might even invite you for the entire meal. More importantly, it's time to set some limits on how much you give. When the scales of give and take slide too much in one direction, it's time to examine the situation.

3.  There are all kinds of friendships. The sense of connection between Molly and Laurel is real, but it is greatly limited by Laurel's personality and unhappiness. Your first step is to assess whether this connection is worthwhile on any level--personally, socially, politically. The next step is to decide how much prospective action you want to take. Do you want to set up a lunch--and not rely on chance meetings to spark the connection? It's your choice.  But don't expect a grand friendship. Laurel's love history and behavior are signaling that she cannot sustain too much closeness in general. 

How did you do on assessing these common situations?  Here are some tips about friendships.

1. Pace yourself. Take your time. Resist the urge to "tell all."  A great beginning connection might not yield the richness you want.

2. Be aware of the power of jealousy.  It can make the nicest person say or do unkind things. But don't throw out insecure friends with the cooler waters of friendships. Step back, assess the friendship and ask yourself if the friend's jealousy is so intense that it ruins the friendship.  If you have an insecure friend, be sure to compliment them genuinely on something.

3. Don't over-give--or over-take.  You can't create true friendships without an overall sense of reciprocity.

4. Get flexible about the range of your friendships. 

5. Don't personalize all rejections or negativity. Examine each friendship on a case by case basis. You can always pull back on how many times you see each other, what you reveal and share and what kinds of events you might consider including them on the guest list.

6. Don't look for friends to substitute for your disappointment in romantic relationships.  These two types of connections are very different.

7. On the other hand, don't drop your friendships once you have found love.

8. If a situation with a friend gnaws at you, talk it out first with someone you trust such as another friend, therapist, partner or pastor.  You might get another perspective--and another decision about how to handle it.

9. Don't be a gossip.  Never say anything about a friend to another friend.  And if your friends engage in criticism of a mutual friend, don't participate.

10. Don't compromise your values for a friend, such as lying or covering for a friend who is having an affair.  Good friends would not put you in this position.