AUGUST 21, 2020
Authors photo by Milan Zrnic
IN THEIR NEW BOOK, Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close, long-term friends, podcast co-hosts, and co-authors Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman make the case that platonic love is just as valuable to our personal lives and to our society as the relationships we share with romantic partners or relatives.
The co-authors define a Big Friendship as:
[A] bond of great strength, force, and significance that transcends life phase, geography, and emotional shifts. It is large in dimension, affecting most aspects of each person’s life. It is full of meaning and resonance. A Big Friendship is reciprocal, with both parties feeling worthy of each other and willing to give of themselves in generous ways. A Big Friendship is active. Hearty. And almost always, a Big Friendship is mature. Its advanced age commands respect and predicts its ability to last far into the future.
Drawing on the story of their own Big Friendship, as well as other formative friendships in their lives, Sow and Friedman incorporate ideas and research findings from linguists, historians, and psychologists that demonstrate how platonic relationships are critical in shaping our worlds. A society that values friendship on par with other relationships offers the promise of real collectivity — a network of mutual support through which people can nurture each other beyond the nuclear family structure.
But all relationships involve work, and the fact that friendships are generally undervalued means they are more easily neglected or damaged, sometimes without our noticing. Without societal pressure (or a marriage license) keeping you together, without cultural scripts or resources for navigating platonic conflict, it can be easy to let friendships fade, to let miscommunications or misunderstandings fester. Sow and Friedman urge us to reconsider how we approach our relationships with those who enrich our lives, recognize our Big Friendships, put in the work, and hold on tight.
ELIZABETH DEWOLF: One thing that’s so compelling about Big Friendship is that, in addition to being a very personal story, it’s also a political project of sorts. What’s your vision for a society where friendship is valued equally to romantic or familial relationships?
ANN FRIEDMAN: Some of it really is the stuff of policy and politics. What if it were totally normalized and reflected in all the paperwork that you could buy property with a friend, that you could both be parents of the same child, and have it not be at all eyebrow-raising that you’re not in a romantic relationship? What if you could be each other’s medical proxy, and again, that was fully normalized? Literally everywhere we do paperwork in this society, it’s only possible to claim a romantic partner as the person who benefits from whatever is going on in your life, or sharing it on paper. What if we let that apply to friends as well?
In your chapter “The Trapdoor,” you discuss some of the challenges that may arise in interracial friendships, in your case where one friend is Black and the other is white. (The title of the chapter comes from cultural critic Wesley Morris’s “trapdoor” concept where, for a person of color, a friendship with a white person always carries the threat of sudden [overt or subtle] racism.) You discuss a situation where Aminatou was the only Black guest at a house party at Ann’s house (everyone else was white), and how painful it was for the two of you to address the racial implications of that experience together. You write about the importance of discussing the racism that arises in interracial friendships but also that “the closer the relationship, the more awkward and sensitive it is to address the offense.” Has your approach to addressing racism, when it arises within your friendship, changed over time?
AF: I don’t know if the answer is “yes” for me, like if it’s actually any different, but I guess it’s more normalized. Or, speaking for myself, I have more information and so maybe a little bit more clarity in terms of what is required.
AMINATOU SOW: This issue really depends on which friend you are in the interracial friendship. Part of the tension that we write about is that often when race is discussed in intimate relationships, it is not because the white person in the relationship is who’s bringing it up. And so I think that’s something to be acknowledged and that is probably the thing that needs to change.
What also comes to mind for me is that interracial relationships are not the only relationships that need to be challenged by race. Relationships between white people also need to account for race, and it needs to be discussed. It’s not this brave political project for people of two different races to come together to try to build a life. Spaces that are all white, including relationships that only involve white people, are actually more heightened sites of racism and places where people should be talking about that kind of stuff.
So yeah, the more intimate the relationship is, the harder it is to discuss a lot of things because, unless at the start of your relationship you have a very clear understanding of what your own boundaries are and what your values are in a relationship, that conversation can be more charged. But I do think that for people who really are trying to forge deeper intimacy every day, there is an understanding that the things that you do not discuss are also ultimately a threat to your relationship. I do think that for us, over time, we’ve definitely developed the tools to address a lot of this stuff faster than we have in the past. But I don’t think that it means that we will ever stop having conversations about how racism is creeping into our relationship. It’s just there. But that is also not a challenge that is unique to us, in a Black and white friendship, that is a challenge that is true for any intimate relationship in America.
It was so interesting to read about how the two of you went to therapy together, an experience that is more common for romantic partners. I’m curious what you learned through that process that you still use to maintain or strengthen your relationship, either with each other or with other friends.
AF: The lesson that I really think about daily, that I learned in a real way from our time in therapy together, is that you are really not as similar as you think to your friends. And really to anyone in your life. We form relationships because we feel a bond or we feel sense of commonality, but the fact is that it’s really just never true. You are never processing things the same way exactly. And just because you are feeling one way in a relationship doesn’t mean that the other person is as well. You can have a lot in common with the people you love, and yet you can have such different ways of dealing with conflict or processing your own emotions.
I had never had a therapy experience with another person, and there is something about being really forced to dig into the way you, as two different people, are responding to a difficult situation. And so even though I don’t have the benefits of an “expert opinion” about other relationships in my life, I do think that even just that one experience of sitting side by side and having to really delineate how we saw something differently, and how we were experiencing the same friendship very differently, was extremely helpful. And I think it has allowed me to let go of some assumptions that I had previously made in this relationship and in others that other people were receiving my actions in exactly the way I’d intended, or my words. And the same goes for how I was interpreting their own actions.
AS: I mean, there’s a reason our book is not a self-help book. We are truly not experts. I agree so much with what Ann is saying, that really dismantling this notion of the “story of sameness” — a term coined by linguist Deborah Tannen in her book You’re the Only One I Can Tell — is very powerful. One very practical thing that I learned is that I really have a tendency to internalize conflict and have a conversation with just myself. And it helps to be able to just say that something is off, in as close to real time as you can, and do it in a way that is not necessarily confrontational. Just saying, “Oh, that doesn’t feel good to me. I don’t quite know what to do with that. And I just want to offer that up to you, other person that I am in a relationship with.” I think that so much friendship conflict just truly happens in your head. And I wonder what it would be like if, instead of wrestling with it alone, you put it on the table, up for discussion.
It must have been an intense process writing a book together with a friend about your relationship. Had you processed much of the issues discussed in your book in advance of writing it, or were there things you had work through together in real time while writing?
AS: I think that part of why we were able to write about so much of this is that it really does feel far away, and the pain was just not as stark as it was when a lot of those incidents happened. Some of it we had processed together, but I think it’s fair to say that most of it we’d processed alone, and we felt really at peace about it. I think that what was really remarkable about being able to write this book together is that we had to relive all of those moments and, speaking only for myself, I got to see Ann’s perspective for the first time. I think that that is very different than processing — it’s truly understanding, “Oh, here is the parallel experience that the other person that I love was going through.” And that was very, very revelatory. I wish this was an exercise you could do with all the people that matter in your life. But, alas, that is not possible. So it happened on a lot of levels for us, really understanding through writing the book together that, “Okay, I was going through this, but Ann was going through this very different parallel experience, and here is actually the full 360-degree view of something that used to be painful.” It was definitely healing and revelatory for both of us.
AF: I agree. We both felt good emotionally about everything that we addressed in the book, but the process involved filling in a lot of the specific details. And so there were no giant revelations, but there were a lot of little revelations that I think really added up to strengthening our relationship. I’m very grateful to have had this process. It has really made me think about what it would be like if I asked my other friends to tell me their side of the story about things that happened in the past, and what I would learn from them. Right now all I have is my own version of events. Not that we’re recommending all friends write books together, but I do think that some of that attention and energy can be brought into other relationships without undertaking such a big project.