The Most Important Relationship You're Not Paying Attention to and What to do About It
Why friendships are so easily abandoned, and how we can nurture them
After over a year of adjusting to our pandemic lifestyles, many of our relationships are suffering. Unable to socialize in all the usual ways, we’ve had to adapt and make do, cobbling together virtual escape the room activities with coworkers and weekly Zoom family reunions to stay connected. At a certain point, these activities may have begun to feel more like obligations than truly fun, but many of us stuck with them. We were at the mercy of our bosses’ ideas about what team bonding should look like during a pandemic, or feeling guilt-tripped into signing into yet another family video call filled with crosstalk, poor connections, and yes, lots of love. But there’s one set of relationships that many of us are likely neglecting most of all: friendships.
Even before the pandemic, for many of us, friendships were the kind of relationship we valued in theory, but didn’t always put the work into maintaining. Unlike marriage, a friendship isn’t bound by any legal or financial terms — there’s no “stay together for the kids,” or messy divorce proceedings to dissuade us from parting ways. Friendships are relationships unique from family, too — they lack the blood ties that bond us (whether we like it or not) to our siblings, parents, and extended family. Nor are they mediated (or evaluated) by managers, bosses, or teammates.
Friendship, instead, is the family we choose — often based on shared values, passions, hobbies, and sensibilities. Friends get us through our first crush and first breakup. They help us negotiate an ambitious job offer and remind us of our true value when office politics get so messy we forget what makes us special. Friends play the role of our personal coaches, therapists, and cheerleaders. They know our tender spots and are some of our most loyal, fiercest advocates and protectors. (Depending on the relationship, they may also be our enablers, despite their good intentions.) In fact, friendships can have an even bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships, especially as we grow older. But despite the emotional, physical, and mental benefits, most of us would admit that we’ve let a few friendships go over the years — sometimes big ones. Without the ties of marriage or blood, it is unnervingly easy to ghost friends we’ve held dear for years, or simply not make the time to get a new friendship over its beginning, tentative hump and into solid friendship territory. More than any other relationship, friendships are vulnerable — subject to our whims, frustrations, and occasionally self-destructive behavior.
This is the premise of Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman’s trim but powerful book, Big Friendship — that friendships are worth fighting for, working on, and investing in. Sow and Friedman are the hosts of the popular podcast, “Call Your Girlfriend: A podcast for long distance besties everywhere.” The pair talk pop culture and politics in a casual, intimate manner that reveals their friend chemistry off the bat. Since launching in 2014, the show has become wildly popular, with hundreds of thousands listeners per episode reveling in the pair’s dynamism and unapologetically feminist views. In their episodes, the pair sound, well, happy — like two best friends having smart and insightful conversations, content in each other’s company. But behind the scenes, years into their friendship and their business, their friendship was struggling. The paragon of friendship they were known for began to feel rocky IRL.
Big Friendship takes readers on the journey of Aminatou and Ann’s friendship trials and tribulations and (spoiler alert) how they made it to the other side. But the book is more than a simple recounting of a complicated but rewarding friendship. It’s a deep look at why friendships matter, how we tend to treat these important relationships (not well enough), and what we can do about it.
They talk about:
The three types of friendships, according to research by William K. Rawlins: active (important right now, actively investing in — “big” friendships live here), dormant (once active but no longer, yet we can still easily pick back up where we left off), and commemorative (friendships that faded, fizzled, or flamed out and are not likely to come back). (Is it just me or are more and more of our friendships these days somewhat dormant?)
The difference between stretching and straining to keep a friendship alive. “When you’re stretching, you’re both making an effort to figure out how to adapt to your differences and to the shifting shape of your bond. Just like exercise, some of this emotional stretching feels good, and some of it will make you feel like you can’t take it anymore.” Stretching, according to Aminatou and Ann, is what allows healthy friendships to strengthen when differences arise, rather than fall apart. Sometimes we will need others to stretch for us, and other times we will do the stretching for them, meaning that there is a natural give and take on each side of the relationship. If, on the other hand, one person is consistently stretching more than the other, “adapting to the other person’s needs, or always having to explain herself and feeling like the other person isn’t retaining anything — it’s probably more of a strain than a stretch.” Too much of a strain and the friendship can give way. There has to be an overall balance.
The politics of friendship and how the friends we choose reveal our values and place in the world. "You don’t get to pick your family of origin or the place you grow up. But you do get to choose your friends, and those choices say something about the kind of world you want for yourself. This is one of the many ways friendship is political… The choices that each of us makes every day about who we include in our lives end up shaping the larger world we live in.” Mic drop.
The pandemic isn’t responsible for our lack of friendship commitment, but for many of us it has accelerated, if not exacerbated, the issue. How many “big friendships” — generous, inspiring, supportive, loyal, resilient, and effortful — remain in our lives? Reflecting on this, I think about the friendships I am grateful to still have, the ones where no matter how much time passes, we can still pick up where we last left off, as if it were yesterday. But I also think back to the friendships I let get away, due to pride and ego. I think about those that fizzled out, sometimes mutually, sometimes not — how they slowly and mysteriously disappeared from my world, and the shadow they left behind. Others abruptly fractured, suddenly revealing the weakest of foundations beneath them. Rather than address our feelings, so often we simply quit instead, whether we gave up on each other in a fit of rage, slowly faded each other out, or purposefully demoted each other from our friend ranks. As hard as these friend breakups were, breaking up was always easier than sticking to it and seeing it through.
Most of us do not bat an eye when a friendship ends. A marriage that ends in divorce makes an impression on us. A falling out with a manager has ripple effects on our careers. We are taught to be careful in such relationships, yet when a friendship grows challenging, we think little of walking away. It’s often far more socially acceptable — and even understood as normal — to step back from a difficult friendship, rewarding as it may be.
Sometimes a break up, whatever form it takes, really is the right approach — knowing what’s good for you, what’s not, and honoring those boundaries is important. Distancing yourself from a draining or toxic relationship may indeed be your best option. But other times, we just need to do the work.
That work looks like leaning in, even when it’s uncomfortable. It means having that difficult conversation instead of walking away. It’s trying your best to understand your friend, even when it hurts. It is attempting to uncover and unpack their needs in your relationship. It’s noticing how you show up for others, and interrogating whether our approach is what’s called for. It requires the self-awareness to recognize when your own opinions, thoughts, or feelings have clouded what you are hearing. It is an intention to practice empathy, humility, and curiosity. A willingness to bear witness. An openness to learn from our friends, and the persistence to try and try again even when it’s hard. In other words, it requires listening — to ourselves and to others. This is what allows us to build more resilient, big friendships overall.
Relationships matter in ways no robot, automaton, or AI can ever replace. They help us collaborate better, build our resilience in difficult situations, and combat loneliness. We choose our friends for their values, their love and support, and also for the ways they challenge and inspire us to do better. We can choose to invest in them, too. The biggest friendships take time and effort, and lots of listening, but they are worth it.
There is a saying in UX research, “Garbage in, garbage out,” meaning that the investment you make in a strong study design early on determines the quality of your data; if you don’t put in the effort up front, your results will be useless. The same can be said of relationships: The best relationships are those we prioritize and work to keep alive, investing in them even when it’s a stretch. We work hard to keep our marriages in tact and bosses happy — why shouldn’t we apply this same work ethic to friendships, too? Friendship, in all its glory and mundanity, deserves to be prioritized.
My new book, Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection is now available wherever books are sold. Grab a copy for yourself and a friend to help keep the connection going.