We are friends. I am tempted to write "just friends." The bias against attributing depth to friendships is still so strong. Something inside us discounts their importance by 10 to 20 percent -- below family, below lovers.

Nevertheless, we are friends. We cook for each other. We hold parties for each other's birthdays, books, promotions, pregnancies. We spend dozens of Saturday nights and occasional weekends together. Our children call us by first names; we are remembered when they say prayers or sell raffle tickets.

For all of this, we don't assume each other's presence in the way we assume family. We don't always acknowledge the richness of this inner circle, of our lives.

I thought about this again, about the nature of friendship, during Alan Alda's new movie. "The Four Seasons" told a story about three middle-aged couples. It paid attention to the complexity, the contours, the significance of those attachments by choice.

The theme was as rare as it was amusing and thoughtful. How many movies star middle-aged people? How many deal with emotions other than sex or violence? But here was a slow exploration of three couples who made -- what else can it be called? -- a commitment to each other.

The movie tracked the path from conviviality to acceptance through periods of attraction and alienation, disruption and continuity. These friends, like our friends, enjoy each other and get mad at each other, judge and misjudge each other. Without a friend name or place, they are connected enough that the events in one life reverberate through others.

Alda, a man rooted in his own commitments, made a pitch for the people who try to stay together despite all the centrifugal forces. He made a pitch for the importance of this support system of friends, the constellation that keeps us in balance.

He took friendships seriously. I think that's rare. Most of our love stories are about the making of a couple, not the friendships of couples.

Our storybook lovers show their emotions by isolation from other people, not connection. Intimacy comes in a small number here: two. There is even a notion that the people who need to be with others have trouble being alone with each other. There are couples who feel threatened by others, instead of nurtured.

In general, we probably focus too much energy and too many expectations on lovers, and too little on friends.

But Alda reminded one that there is something remarkable about the larger group that exists around the "I" and "Us." He reminded me that friendship is an act of creation, of individual will.

"I think this act, the "making" of friends, is crucial to us. An earlier generation, after all, spent its life with family. Even our grandparents' social life was rich with relatives, stormy and warm with permanent memberships. When family members reached out to touch someone, they didn't have to use long distance. In the old neighborhoods, the people who ate together on Saturday nights were often generations of parents and children. The "aunts" and "uncles" were biological.

But it is different for many of us. We live in a state called flux. We have smaller families to take for granted. We have fewer relationships guaranteed. We have to found and sustain our own "communities."

There is something fragile in friendships. Some do not survive a move, a job change, even a salary increase. In real life, as in the Alda movie, social circles can come apart at the seams during divorce. A split can open up the most painful fault lines when friends are divided, like property, into his and hers.

But if we're attentive and lucky, we do something remarkable: we create communities out of attraction and affection, and make them stick. Eventually through shared history, confidences, time, we even become Friends Because We Are Friends.

Inevitably we do it because if "one" is not enough, neither is "two." We form communities, willfully, for the simple reason that, as Carol Burnett said at the end of this movie, we don't want to grow old, just the two of us against the world.