Ellen Kauffman remembers when she introduced Joanne to Sherry. She knew Joanne from her job as a nurse. She met Sherry through her kids...

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Ellen Kauffman remembers when she introduced Joanne to Sherry. She knew Joanne from her job as a nurse. She met Sherry through her kids.

After she introduced the two friends at a gathering, Joanne and Sherry started to hang out. Without Kauffman. It hurt, and she was left wondering why they didn’t call her, too.

“The unfortunate part all of us do is assume the worst,” said Kauffman, 51.

We all wish we could rise above schoolyard jealousy — the more mature among us do — but friend poaching, the territorial battle that ensues when friends pick off friends they meet through you, can continue well into adulthood.

On Bravo’s socialite reality show “The Real Housewives of New York City,” status-hungry Ramona invited LuAnn, a countess, to a dinner party but cut out Jill, who introduced them. On MTV’s “The Hills,” best friends Heidi and Lauren broke up over a guy, but Lauren emerged friend victorious with Audrina, who was Heidi’s friend first.

Most of us claim we want our friends to be friends with each other. But we don’t if we get ignored along the way. It’s hard not to be upset when you introduce Sherry to Joanne, and all of a sudden you’re wondering how you got left behind.

Couples poach other couples at dinner parties. A friend can poach a book club. Adults make friends with people they meet through close friends, neighbors and co-workers. Now, online social networks like MySpace and Facebook make it even easier to circumvent the friend who connected you in the first place and contact someone new on your own.

“Things are so instant now, it’s so easy to contact anyone you want and not go through traditional channels,” said Riann Smith, deputy editor of TheNest.com, a Web site for the newly married.

Making friends through friends is a well-worn route to new relationships and certainly can be done without hurt feelings. But if handled poorly and without respect for established relationships, it also can drive a wedge between friends.

Jealousy is a factor at every age, said Jeffrey Parker, a developmental psychologist at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.

“It’s a classic problem for all of us who have relationships and want to feel those relationships are special,” he said. “It’s the symbolism or stature that goes with the relationship, that sense that you are special in the life of this person, and it feels diluted. You must share that privileged status with someone else.”

Breaking down poaching

Poaching can be driven by competitiveness, a need to expand a social network, busy lives that make it hard to meet people and, of course, a real connection with a new person, Smith said.

Good friends already have vetted their network, and it is easy to go through someone you trust. And some people take it too far, relying completely on friends to establish networks. Smith calls them “serial” poachers.

Adam Pears admits he has poached. Friends have accused him of stealing friends.

“I seem to do it a lot,” said the 20-year-old student at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., now in Seattle. “I don’t mean to.”

He acknowledges some types of poaching are more acceptable. Finding friends online and adding them to his Facebook page is fine as long as he keeps it casual, like wishing them happy birthday.

But if he starts to spend time with the new person on his own, problems can arise. A friend once called him out on MySpace over a poach, commenting that Pears was pretty chummy with the acquired friend.

Pears responded with a “Yeah,” and a smiley face. But he eventually stopped hanging out with the original friend and remains close with the person he was introduced to.

“I think it’s funny they get upset,” Pears said. “I guess I could see why. They introduced me. … I think that’s kind of how life happens and people have different connections.”

Poaching in Seattle

The delicate social dance seems to be especially awkward in Seattle, where making friends can be challenging and where friendship circles tend to be tight.

David Stegmeier, a bank portfolio manager who moved to Seattle eight years ago, said Seattleites seem more attached to their networks than in other cities, like Providence, R.I., and Salt Lake City.

“Places we’ve lived, like California and whatnot, people are all about continuing to grow and network,” said the 36-year-old. “In Seattle, my experience has been people have their group and that’s it.”

Stegmeier and his partner wanted to befriend a couple they met at a dinner party, but have not figured out how to do it gracefully. Stegmeier could tell it might create some tension with the original friends if they broke off on their own.

Their friends like to entertain in larger numbers and act as an anchor for the social group. Stegmeier worries they would be unhappy if he and his partner Nate changed the dynamic.

They hope that with enough group socializing, they can naturally segue into hanging out with the new couple on their own, but not at the risk of ruining their relationship with the original friends.

“There’s the potential for hurt feelings,” Stegmeier said. “There’s other fish in the sea.”

Poised to poach

Sometimes people are blatant about wanting to poach, especially when trying to infiltrate a new network. People have approached JJ McKay and asked for invitations to his parties.

“I just don’t generally invite random people,” he said. “It’s a matter of getting to know people, rather than just saying I want to be invited. … It can’t be all about you; it’s all about give and take.”

But even McKay, who loves to connect people, has marveled at how quickly people bond. He once introduced two couples at a holiday party, and by New Year’s, they were on a ski trip together.

“At times, I have been very surprised by what great friends they become,” he said. “Then sometimes they do really cool stuff, and I don’t get invited. These things happen.”

Drawing the line

Most people learn early on that friendships are not static. One near-universal experience is the first time you lose a friend to a boyfriend or girlfriend, said psychologist Parker.

But even as adults, poaching can draw out our insecurities.

“For many people, even if they aren’t really going to lose anything tangible — it doesn’t have to be necessarily an encroachment on their time — they are still upset,” Parker said. “When you lose a friend to someone else … it’s a really salient thing in the lives of both children and adults.”

When Amanda Ford started taking swing-dance lessons with a close friend, the classes were a way for them to spend time together. But as they started going regularly, the 29-year-old writer started to feel like she was losing him to a new social network.

Small moments became perceived slights, like the time he danced three songs in a row with a mutual friend. He never danced that many in a row with her.

“I’ve noticed with this specific friendship, when new people come into play, they don’t know at all the history he and I have,” Ford said. “They come in, are friends with him and there’s this lack of respect for the history. I sort of get territorial and protective of that.”

Ford was surprised at her jealousy, but did not bring it up with her friend.

“I want him to be friends with my friends, but he holds a special place in my life, and I want to feel the same with him,” she said. “I guess we never know the place we hold in another person’s life. We can only trust if we are loving and treat them well, they will reciprocate that in the way that they do.”

Respect is key

Poaching usually stems from a lack of respect or care to make sure you are not hurting someone in the process. But there are ways to avoid a poach and transition into new friendships without leaving angry friends in your wake.

Poaching also can serve a greater purpose, allowing you to assess the value the friendship brings to your life. If your connection and history are strong, the friendship will continue. But if the friendship was never that great to begin with, it might be time to cut someone off, she said.

“People mix, people want to make friends, people are busy,” said Smith, of TheNest.com. “It’s just how you decide you’re going to handle it.”

There are a few ways to help ease the transition, Smith said, such as being open with the connecting friend that you like their friends. Incorporating the new person into group events rather than immediately inviting that person over to your house for dinner will help keep it more natural.

The transition also can be as simple as e-mailing the hostess and telling her you really loved her friend and that it would be fun if you all got together. And resist gossiping about the original connecting friend, Smith said.

“We can’t possibly protect our friendships from poaching unless we lock our best friends up in a room somewhere,” Parker said. “The reality is as we grow up we have to learn to weather these things, to remain flexible, to be patient with these experiences.”

It’s the simple lesson learned in grade school — share with others.

Elizabeth Tutmarc, 28, has experienced friend poaching that has bothered her, but is sensitive to talking about the poach publicly.

The root of the problem is ambiguous friendship etiquette, the Seattle lawyer said. People follow different protocols.

“You don’t date your ex-boyfriend’s friend, that’s a universal rule,” she said. “But we don’t have the equivalent for friendships. I don’t feel like there’s a shared vocabulary like there is for dating.”

Nicole Tsong: 206-464-2150 or ntsong@seattletimes.com