The natural reaction to a self-help book on friendship is one of skepticism: What new insights can anyone offer into the simplest and easiest of human relationships? Besides, our innate sense of propriety tells us that, while sex, marriage and the single life style may be suitable subjects for dissection, there is something inviolable about the intimacy of friendships.

The Art of Friendship" is a sensitive, much-needed attack on the myths surrounding friendship. Written by a husband and wife research team from California, the book explores every conceivable aspect of human relations, and, in a more 227 pages, reaches some profound and undeniable conclusions about the state of the art.

The authors put a great deal of stock in delicate honesty. Too many friendships, they say, are irretrievably destroyed due to callous, unfeeling abuse of honesty as the best policy. They wisely prefer a warm, understanding openness, which puts others in a less defensive position during potentially unpleasant discussions.

This attitude, like much of what the Calenbachs say, seems intuitively right, and this is evidently what they are banking on. While the book is billed as a study of friendship in America, it is notably nonacademic and unsystematic in its approach and analysis. No scientific sample is taken of the general population. Rather, as the jacket copy says, every reader is just expected to "recognize something of his or her own experience" in the many frienship profiles used to illustrate particular points or problems.

One of the most instructive of these profiles appears in the chapter "Mates and Friends." After three years of unmarried involvement, "Rebecca" and "Howard" got married, only to find that the active social life they had once enjoyed was now "well lost for love." The couple withdrew into themselves to such an extent that the marriage finally collasped under the strain. Afterwards, Rebecca, through great effort, was able to revive some of her old friendships, but Howard became so unraveled by the experience that he sank into alcoholism.

While that may sound like a situation right off an afternoon soap opera, it's bound to make many a couple squirm and think hard about their relationships. Stifling and uncomfortable relationships of every stripe are included in this book, and they are there for a purpose: to make us see better how we frequently (and unknowingly) hurt the ones we love.

Friendships between men receive a great deal of needed attention in this book. The challenge for men, as the authors see it, is two-fold: to strive for greafer intimacy without the fear of being branded as homosexuals; and to expand their relatively narrow range of emotions. This challenge, the authors say, has prompted the formation of mutual support groups for men, where, as one organizer explained to his leery friends, "We can meet regularly and feel safe to talk about our lives without pulling any punches."

Still, there are few tasks as uncomfortable, and at the same time, necessary, as speaking honestly with a good friend about a problem area is one's relationship. "The Art of Friendship," however, does a fine therapeutic job of coaxing us into talking it out, with the firm assurance that things will be better for having done it.

Actually getting down to it requires that one believe, as the authors do, that while "a friendship may not always survive the effort invested in it," it is "definitely worth a try." Trying requires gentle honesty, patience and the firm belief that any friendship worth having is worth talking about.

Happily, what the authors advocate requires no drugs, therapy or brain surgery; it simply requires a sincere belief in the inestimable value of friendship. And if enough people would just acknowledge that, this country couldn't help but be a friendlier place.