How We Keep Each Other Close
By Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
We all have problem friendships. They nag at the back of our minds, like taxes undone and laundry unfolded. Nothing forces us to resuscitate faltering friendships, where talk of the weather and office politics replaces deep intimate sharing. Or worse, where subtle barbs are felt but never addressed. We have other things to do. After all, it’s just a friendship, as in “he’s just a friend,” not a lover, or a brother, or a husband.
Just a friend.
Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman want us to stop seeing these relationships as something that can be put on hold while we focus on careers or marriages or children. In their new book, “Big Friendship,” they describe intense friendships as one of life’s foundations, neglected at our peril and, likely, our regret.
In this thoughtful and highly readable story of their decade-long friendship, punctuated with the relevant social science, we learn about the crisis that sent them to therapy together. Few pairs are likely to go that far to save a fraying bond, but they were tied not only by their history but by their popular podcast, “Call Your Girlfriend.” They shared an LLC, a bank account and a trademark; breaking up would mean not only pain and loss but, as Aminatou recalls, paperwork.
Their regular listeners would be surprised to know that while they were warmly chatting each week, pulling listeners into the intimacy of their cross-country repartee, they were barely speaking when not working together. They were, they write, “lonely behind our respective emotional walls.” And, later: “We were finding it difficult to speak freely to each other about the places where we felt hurt or raw.”
The beginning, like so many, was glorious. Sow and Friedman spent hours together, learning each other’s secrets and snack preferences. They got matching tattoos of interlocking circles. Their mutual friends joined their names with an ampersand — “a sure linguistic sign that you are publicly tied to another person.” They celebrated the friendship, extolled it, announced it; they even attended weddings together, making the point that friendships are just as important as romantic or family bonds.
Like most instant and passionate friends, the women first came together by celebrating their similarities. They helped each other strategize on office politics and salary negotiations. Together they developed the idea of Shine Theory, whereby mutual support replaces competition.
But with time, there was a growing chill. What caused it? As in all friendships, it’s unclear, and a little complicated. One feels hurt, and the other doesn’t even notice. One stretches hard to make the friendship work; the other, not quite. That’s the way of friendship.
In therapy, Sow and Friedman grew to understand that shared passions had blinded them to the consequences of their differing ways of communicating. Ann, for instance, was like an angry mama bear. When a close friend like Aminatou was dating someone she considered unworthy, she trashed that person, which was her way of caring. But it didn’t feel like protection to Aminatou; she felt unsupported, and so naturally started withholding details from Ann about her romantic life. Once withholding begins, it accelerates.
While the book is likely to interest people of every age and friendship stage, its examination of race makes it especially timely. Ann is white; Aminatou is Black. They examine how race plays out in their lives and sometimes leads to hurt feelings and misunderstandings. While a large percentage of white Americans tell pollsters that they have friends of other races, studies of the faces in their wedding photos tell a different story. In a 2006 study, the demographer Brent Berry found that “just 3.7 percent of whites were close enough to Black people to include them in their wedding parties.”
I do wish they had told us more about the rest of their lives. We learn little about other important relationships. There is talk of Ann’s boyfriend, but Aminatou’s romantic life remains obscure. She suffers early on from a disease, later identified, but I wanted more. Did she heal? I have to assume this withholding was deliberate, but perhaps as a testament to how well the book succeeds in making Sow and Friedman real, I wanted to know more. I kept writing in the margins: What happened? Finally? Where is he now?
Lockdown has made all of us think more about what we truly need. Laws and social customs force us to attend to marriages and children. Friendship is a choice. With this book, Sow and Friedman remind us that laziness in tending to friendships is dangerous, and that regardless of the circumstance, whether geography or pandemic, friendships must be nourished, or they will wither.