How Do You Define Friendship?

Here’s what my friend and I learned after reading “Big Friendship.”

Welcome to The Edit! This newsletter is about dissecting culture, media and trends. From politics to pop culture, I’ll be curating and engaging with relevant criticism while also writing some of my own takes. Every week, I’ll send out an essay, a list of good reads, work that I have recently published and a fun recommendation here and there.

A few weeks ago, I was FaceTiming my friend Andie. We talked about the usual stuff: wanting to go to the beach, finding work, the latest in pop culture. Then our conversation shifted to something more personal when Andie asked me about my perspective on friendships. It wasn’t something I thought about too much — to me, friends are the folks who you spend quality time with. They’re the people you enjoy the most, whether it be their humor or their perspective on life. Andie then followed up, “I’m asking this because I want you to know that I want our relationship to grow.”

She brought up the point about how we constantly define our boundaries and expectations for romantic relationships, but we never do it with our friendships. It was odd, you know, hearing that explicitly. But she was absolutely right. I’ve never once tried to define my relationships. Others often defined them for me (I think back to high school or college when I was deemed someone’s best friend, even though I never thought of them in that way). And oddly enough, that same week, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman’s Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close was released. The moment I saw promos for the book, I DM’d Andie: We HAVE to read this together. 

So we did. 

Big Friendship tackles how one extremely close friendship grew apart and outlines what it took to bring them back together. Sow and Friedman, hosts of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, were known for how “incredible” their friendship seemed, when in reality, they were suffering through a cycle of misunderstanding. The duo ended up going to couples therapy together and wrote about what they learned, how they got to that point and what they wished they knew back then.

Big friendship, they argue, is a strong relationship that trumps life changes, locations and challenges — but it requires constant growth. “It can be extremely hard to figure out the right amount of growth and sacrifice to be devoting to a friendship, because we’re not taught that friends are worth stretching for at all,” the two write. “But in a big friendship, both people make a conscious decision, often over and over, that they’re going to stretch toward each other.” 

Big Friendship, while a quick read, wasn’t an easy one. Both Andie and I thought about our past friendships and mourned them (Andie chose to reach out to a former close friend, and I am building the courage, but probably never will do it). We talked about how the tips Sow and Friedman listed — rituals, assurances and openness — probably could have salvaged our friendships. “I had to take a break cause it was getting emotional,” Andie said. Stretching emotionally is hard, y’all! More often than not, we tend to hide our needs and boundaries from our friends, but it’s necessary work. 

It wasn’t always uncomfortable, though. Andie and I also talked about how we were going to commit to lifting each other up, which was something both Sow and Friedman emphasized. “I don’t shine if you don’t shine,” Sow told Friedman years ago. The two went on to create “Shine Theory,” or the idea of “mutual investment in each other,” replacing competition with collaboration. I’ve never seen my friendships as a competition (that takes WAY too much energy), but it was great to have a label for a practice I’ve been trying to implement, especially during these times. 

But perhaps the greatest benefit of reading Big Friendship together was learning how we communicate, what we value and how we express our care. Andie’s obviously very direct and loves giving gifts, and I’m more of a “let me make you tacos from scratch” kinda gal. The book also gave us an opportunity to talk about our cultural and racial differences and how that enriches our friendship. Sow and Friedman talk about how the culture of sameness (i.e. “Omg! I went through the same thing!” or “I love Gossip Girl, too!”) can sometimes be toxic because it lends itself to ignoring the very real differences between people. Sow and Friedman tackle the nature of having an interracial friendship and how the culture of sameness prevented them from being able to communicate their conflicts effectively. Friedman had to acknowledge her power in the relationship as a white person and her complicity in certain events that made Sow, a Black woman, feel small. Typically, you would think bonding over similarities is the move, but the differences are what actually make a friendship dynamic and interesting, if handled with care.

I think back to the moment I first met Andie. She sat three rows away from me in Social Foundations III our sophomore year, wore this netted, see-through-y top, and joked about her internship that summer with such smart wit. I was determined to get to know her better; we ended up writing our final papers together in the library and commiserated over Thai food. But I never explicitly told her I wanted to be her friend. Two more years flew by before I really made it clear that I appreciated her insight and humor. So much of our friendship went unspoken — like so many are — until our senior year when we suffered once again through our respective thesis projects (and corona and the college blog, among other things). We recognized that we valued each other and, in Andie’s words, “stopped giving a fuck!” 

Here’s what I read this week: 

Here’s what I published: For this month’s World on Fire, I wrote about the deadly combination of environmental racism, air pollution and coronavirus. Also, if you missed this week’s panel, you can catch up here!

And here’s a fun recommendation for your weekend: If you’re into Mexican socialites, mushrooms, and gothic horror, read Mexican Gothic. And when you’re done, let’s chat!! I have THOUGHTS! 

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