Psychotherapist Alan Loy McGinnis routinely asks his patients a simple question: "Do you have any friends?"

"Almost invariably they never have any," says the 46-year-old former pastor. "People with no friends usually have a diminished capacity for sustaining any kind of love . . . and people get in trouble emotionally because of a lack of love in their life."

McGinnis learned about friendship the hard way. Ten years ago he was divorced-- a particularly traumatic experience for a pastor since it affected both his work and personal life.

"After that experience I wanted to learn about love," recalls McGinnis, who "ransacked the biographies of every great lover and friend. I found that the basic principles of friendship were at work in all intimate relationships-- children, mate, parents."

The result of his study is "The Friendship Factor," a warmly-written, practical guide for "getting closer to the people you care for." He describes the "friendship factor" as the quality possessed by people who are able to draw the admiration and affection of friends.

Some people are born with it, and others, he contends, can learn it. "I don't mean winning a popularity contest or changing your personality to become the life of the party. I'm talking about the ability to cultivate five or six deep friendships."

Now happily married to a woman he calls "my best friend," McGinnis is co-director of the Valley counseling Center in Glendale, Calif. He went into counseling full-time in 1973 after becoming dissatisfied with the quality of the therapists to whom he referred parishoners. Three years ago he began compiling his thoughts on friendship for a book.

Close firendships are rare among men, notes McGinnis, who says societal attitudes train little boys to "fear being called a fag.

"In our society, except to shake hands, men are not even allowed to touch each other," he says. "Little girls can hold each other up when they skate or kiss hello.But few males have been allowed the luxury of openness and vulnerability in their friendship.

"Middle-aged men and women have considerably different definitions of friendship. Women talk about trust and confidentiality, while men describe a friend as 'someone I go out with' or 'someone whose company I enjoy.'"

While McGinnis sees the ideal marriage as friendship plus sex, he says platonic relationships also can be richly rewarding. "It needs a solid marriage to bring it off," he adds, "since sex is in the air any time a man and woman are together."

McGinnis and his wife have devised some rules to keep platonic friendships from getting out of hand. "We're free to have lunch with anyone we want, but if I'm traveling and I'm going to have dinner with a woman I call my wife to ask if it's okay." (She has yet to say no, he says.)

"But if you find things are getting out of hand, it's time to bail out of the friendship. Marriage is just too important to take that risk."

McGinnis' book is laced with a Christian context, but rarely in a heavy-handed way. "I was tempted to write without mention of my religious belief so it would sell better," he admits. "But I couldn't do it, since I feel basically that love comes from God."

Spiced with sayings attributed to everyone from Jesus to Babe Ruth, and peppered with anecdotes, the book includes techniques for deepening relationships and salvaging soured ones.

McGinnis poses these two questions to ask youself about your relationships:

"Do you have at least one person nearby whom you can call on in times of personal stress?"

"Do you have several people you can visit with little advance warning?"

Here are his five guidelines for cultivating intimacy.

Be liberal with praise. "If you train your mind to search for the positive things about other people, you will be surprised at how many good things you can observe in them and comment upon."

Schedule leisurely breaks for conversation. "There can be no intimacy without conversation. To know and love a friend over the years, you must have regular talks . . . Try asking your spouse or friend out for coffee, face each other, and see what a difference your undivided attention makes in conversation.

Use your body to demonstrate warmth. Be aware of the power of communication which you hold in your hands. "The skin of most adult Americans is starved," he claims. Sometimes the only way to express the depth of your feeling is through a hand on someone's shoulder or a hug.

Learn to listen. "The secret of being interesting is to be interested. Ask questions the other person will enjoy answering. Encourage people to talk about themselves. 'The road to the heart,' wrote Voltaire, 'is the ear.'"

Talk freely about your feelings. "Most of us have somewhere heard that if we reveal our needs or get emotional, people will not like us. But exactly the opposite is true. People begin to feel close to us when they know something of our needs.

"Dare to be needy. The person who shows a vulnerable side to us and says 'I need you' is hard to resist."

Friendship-- that unique bond we share with a few people-- comes in all forms . . . woman to woman, husband and wife, man to man.No one, of course, can explain friendship's special chemistry, but it's no secret that it has to be nutured in order to grow. Here, three sets of friends look at their through-it-all connection and some of the ways they sustain it.

Every day for nearly half a century, Victor and Esther Ewald have taken an hour-long tea break. The two friends sit quietly and drink yerba-mate tea from small gourds-- a practice 75-year-old Esther Ewald says has helped keep their marriage strong for 49 years.

"It's a relaxing sort of thing, and even if you don't talk you communicate. It's been one of our safety valves. No matter how angry we are at each other, we sit down over mate. It's a great thing for us.

"When we were working, we'd get up as early as 5 a.m. in order to sit down together and have it. Now we have mate at 4 or 4:30 each afternoon."

"It's an anti-Dagwood start to the day," adds Victor Ewald, 75, who grew up in Argentina and brought back the tea ritual practiced by gauchos on the pampas. "You can't rush it, the tea in the warm gourd is very relaxing."

The daily ritual is also practiced in times of crisis.

"In our family whenever we had a problem, like the day our pony was hit on the road and we had to shoot it, we would sit down and have some mate," says Esther Ewald."One of our three children has carried out the custom.

"I think every family, and particularly every couple, needs this sort of thing to hold them together."

"It started out as sort of a rivalry thing," Greg Jones, 23, recalls of his friendship with John Burns, also 23. "We both attended Prince George's Community College; we both played guard and we were going for the same position on the basketball team."

"We found we were interested in similar things," says Burns, a community development assistant. "We were both crazy about ladies and basketball, and we had the same backgrounds-- coming out of the District and having the same hard times."

Although Burns made the team and Jones didn't, the two remained good friends.

"I don't get jealous of my friends," says Jones, who works for a data management team. "He (Burns) is a likeable guy and a true friend."

Jones and Burns are part of a group of six former Prince George's Community College basketball players who still shot hoops together each weekend.

"We're all tight," explains Burns. "But when it comes down to talking about certain things, he (Jones) is really the person I go to."

"Our lives are sort of parallel," says Jones, who phones Burns about twice during the week to see how things are going. "Some of the problems he has, I have, and we work out solutions together."

There's some magic when we start to talk," Denise Freeland says of her best friend Penny Finkelman. "We could go on forever, it just doesn't stop."

Freeland, a 29-year-old Washington singer, met Finkelman four years ago when they both worked for the National Endowment for the Arts.

"We discovered we had a lot of the same interests," says Finkelman, 28, an apprentice assistant film director who now lives in New York. "We both love music and the arts. And almost from the beginning we found our philosophies are the same and we have a special rapport, mutual respect and enjoyment."

Although the friends call each other occasionally, their main contact occurs twice a month when Freeland travels to New York for singing lessons and stays overnight in her friend's apartment.

"We always pick right up where we left off," says Freeland. "Seeing her on a regular basis like that provides real quality time for communication."

"No matter how busy or how late it is when I get home we always manage to spend hours talking-- even if we really need the sleep," says Finkelman.

"Talking just takes precedence always. We have a lot to say to each other. She's a very special part of my life that defies time or distance."