They clung together during Susan's separation, Diane's divorce, Holly's first pregnancy at 40, and Sherry's five-year "Should I marry him?" debate.

They celebrated when Sue adopted a baby, Gloria got married, Diane met a new man and Sherry stopped asking, "Should I marry him?"They are 12 women as different as Susan's love of opera and Sue's passion for the Utes. Ranging from their mid-30s to early 40s, many of them have known each other since their early 20s. Others came into the group because they befriended one woman who wanted them to meet all the rest.

For nearly eight years they have met once a month for dinner, thus defying what seems to be a natural law among women that says a woman's close friends are determined by her marital status.

Women who divorce often watch their support system crumble too as married friends become uncomfortable and drift away. Women who marry complain that their single friends abandon them because the friends assume they are no longer interested in maintaining the connection. Single women complain that their married friends can no longer fit them in. The married women seem to prefer social experiences that more easily include their husbands, they say.

Change your marital status and within a year you will find you have changed most of your friends, too.

This group of women, referring to themselves only as "dinner group," defy that to happen. Such defiance takes work. The group that started out mostly single is now mostly "married with children."

"You've got to have good self-esteem to be a minority anywhere, even with friends," Sherry says.

"We've had to deal with conflict," said Julie, who is single. "Several single women once expressed real irritation at that fact that babies were the main topic of conversation. It pretty much came to blows there for awhile. We had to really discuss it and get it out on the table."

Sue remembers that time. She and other mothers of the group are now more conscious about turning conversation to subjects that all women in the group can relate to: books, politics, sports, theater, cooking and decorating.

That focus on the common has become the group's greatest strength, several women now say.

"It has really opened my horizons to hear about the interests of everyone else," Julie said. Women with special gifts - like Carlisle's catering, Holly's quilting and Sherry's community involvement - share those.

In addition, they occasionally invite guest speakers to broaden their perspective on common concerns like finances and stress management.

Sue stepped up her commitment to the group when she married for the second time. "I felt that even though my husband was really important to me, I didn't want my close friendships with girlfriends to change. I didn't want my social life to revolve around my husband and his friends after our marriage. It was important for me to maintain the sisterhood I felt with my women friends."

The women's sharply different personalities - ranging from Holly's vibrant wit to Sherry's gentleness - provide wide perspective on any problem. The group helped Holly sort through the prospect of becoming a stepmother.

Holly, who didn't know Susan very well before the group, found a place for Susan to live when Susan decided to separate from her husband.

The 12 women reflect all the stages in a woman's life. When they mingle, they remind each other of those stages.

"One girl joined the group married, got divorced, then remarried, has had a baby and is pregnant with her second," Sue said. "The women who are married have one perspective. Those who are single remind us of what our perspective used to be."

The group reminds Sue that she loves the stability and security of her married life. And it reminds her that she misses the freedom and money of the single life.

"I feel like I get a piece of my old self back every time I go to dinner group," she said.