Book Club: Big Friendship

Sep 2, 2020

Friendship is fascinating to me. It’s through friendship that I’ve felt the most seen in my life.

But it’s quite rare to come across studies on friendship that are as deep and wide as studies on romantic or family relationships. Why is that?

This book isn’t a scientific study, but a personal account of a deep friendship between two women for 10 years. In it, the explore the formation of their friendship, the role of friendship historically and in society today, how a friendship (like any other relationship) will have struggles and things that need to be worked through, and how they’ve kept their “friendship flame” alive all these years.

Here are some highlights from my reading.

Friendships vs Family vs Romance

There is a belief in this book that friendship is just as important as romantic or family bonds, but that it is viewed as more disposable. When you get a new promotion, job, or romantic partner, your friends are expected to be okay with less time and to be okay with being a bit neglected.

“At a cultural level, there is a lot of lip service about friendship being wonderful and important, but not a lot of social support for protecting what’s precious about it. even deep, lasting friendships like ours need protection – and, sometimes, repair.”

In this book, they explore the historical role of friendships and how that looks a bit different from today:

In the 16th and 17th centuries, marriages tended to be arranged to make political or economic alliances or to create community solidarities. ‘Love was nice if it came afterwards, but it was not considered a good reason for marraige, ‘ Coontz says. ‘And so friendships were very different and perhaps more emotionally central to people.’

“Friendship, not romantic relationships, were a place where women felt free to be themselves and express their emotions.”

And in contrast to female friendships, a deep, intimate male friendship is uncommon today. It’s my belief, that this is not because intimate male friendship are not wanted by other men, but are socially taboo when men share emotions and vulnerability.

These days “men are increasingly expected to get any emotional support they need from their wife, not from other men.” How isolating that must be.

First, what is Big Friendship?

“A big Friendship can hold you when you’re worried that everything else is falling apart. It can be a space of validation when you feel alone in the world. It can provide the relief of feeling seen without having to explain yourself in too many words.”

“It wasn’t that we made a conscious pledge to be friends forever. It’s that we accepted a truth deep without ourselves that our lives, from that point forward, would always include each other. Anything else was unimaginable.”

“There is tremendous value in having a witness to your singular life. We all want to be understood.”

“Day to day our friends influence our tastes and our moods. Long term, they can also affect how we feel about our bodies, how we spend our money, and the political views we hold. We grow in response to each other, in ways both intentional and subconscious.”

“It’s possible to go months without seeing a longtime friend and still feel close to them, but new friends require steady investment.”

“All significant relationships are founded on some serious time together.”

“We shared a desire to be women who take up a lot of space and refuse to apologize for it.”

“We felt so lucky to have found someone on our exact wavelength. What we didn’t realize was that we were actually creating the wavelength. Our ideas about showing emotion, relating to other friends, expressing vulnerabilities, and handling conflicts were forming in relation to each other.”

“It’s an extension of our political believes that friendship is a relationship that’s equal in importance to romantic and family bonds.”

Friendship, like any other relationship, need work.

One thing I really appreciated the authors wrote about was how friendships need work.

The sign of a good friendship isn’t that there’s no conflict. It’s that you can work through the conflict.

Any long-term lasting relationship (romantic, family, or friendship) will need to stretch.

“Especially when it comes to friendship, we’ve been taught it’s supposed to always feel easy and harmonious.”

“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. Your spouse? Definitely, you’ll need to work hard to adapt and change together. Your family? There’s a therapist for that too. Friends, though? When things get hard, it’s socially acceptable to abandon them with no conversations about it whatsoever, even if you’ve been intimate parts of each other’s lives or years.”

It’s important when an issue comes up in your friendship to address it, not leave it simmering underneath.

“If you can’t acknowledge it openly when new circumstances are affecting your friendship, you can’t stretch to account for them.”

“But in Big Friendship, both people make a conscious decision, often over and over again, that they’re going to stretch toward each other. In fact, they will likely  come to see their stretching as a necessary part of being in the friendship, a way of adapting to the inevitable changes that life contains.”

“We expect the import ones to last forever (hence the last F in “BFF”). At the same time, we’re taught that if a friendship isn’t working, it’s perfectly acceptable to walk away – sometimes without even a conversation acknowledging it.”

However, the authors point out that one friend can’t be your everything.

“Even the biggest friendships need other outlets: a lone friend cannot be your everything. The friendweb is an acknowledgment that we are all connected and that it takes a village to be a healthy, happy, successful person in the world.”

At one point in their relationship, Aminatou and Ann went to therapy to work things out. I thought it was interesting that they had to reconstruct their idea of “sameness” in order to reconnect.

“Much of the therapy process was about undoing our powerful story of sameness. We had to be shown how different we really are before we could start to understand our actions.”

Often “sameness” is what brings two people together in a powerful bond. Feeling immediately and automatically understood is a powerful emotion.

Exploring interracial friendships

I love that this book also has the ability to explore interracial friendships. Aminatou is a black woman and Ann is a white woman.

“The trapdoor describes the limited level of comfort that Black people can eel around white people who are part of their lives in a meaningful way. Even if these white people decide they will confront racism every day, it’s guaranteed they will sometimes screw up and disappoint the Black people they know.”

“Interracial intimidate is the only context in which “broken windows” theory is actually relevant: any visible signs of crime encourage further crime! You have to call to ut or it will erode your friendship.”

Sociologist Robin DiAnelo “challenges white people to meet their friends halfway by taking a risk. ‘What’s the worst that’s going to happen to you?’ she asks. ‘Come on.’ She notes that the fear while people feel about addressing race is not remotely equivalent to the terror that black people experience on a daily basis as a result of white inaction.

In it for the long haul

“You can’t stay truly connected without some level of misunderstanding or conflict, and you can’t et back the years you weren’t present for. So the real Big Friendship goal is just to stay in it. Instead of pretending we won’t be challenged, we want the ability to bounce back and heal our inevitable wounds.”

“There is no autopilot mode for big Friendship. You have to just keep showing up. Active friendships require active maintenance. You don’t get to sit back, do nothing, and enjoy the benefits of a meaningful relationship – any relationship. But action is especially important to friendship, which carries no familial expectation or marriage license. If you don’t take action to mark it as important and keep it alive, a friendship will not survive.

“Staying attached to close friends can be boiled down to three main things: ritual, assurances, and openness.”

“Even the closest of friends need to assure each other that the friendship is important. Another key to staying attached is to find verbal and nonverbal ways to tell each other you plan to be there in the future.”

“Langan adds that being transparent also means opening up about how important someone is to you as a friend – making sure you are saying to them that you value their presence in your life. Don’t just occasionally think of your friend fondly. Tell them that your life would lose meaning if they disappeared from it. Tell them you love them. Tell them exactly why you want to hold on to this friendship and make it last for the long haul.”

“We give relationships meaning by the amount of attention and work we put into them.”

This is what it all comes down to…

“Most of us are going to have to work to stay in a Big Friendship. We’re going to have periods of stretching to the point of strain, and periods when we really need our friend to do the stretching. We’re going to have moments when we feel out of sync. Times when we don’t feel understood and seen. Situations where we feel failed by our friend, and other situations in which we are doing the failing. All the rituals and assurances and openness in the world can’t make a Big Friendship feel easy all the time. And when it’s hard, the only way for a Big Friendship to survive is for both people to decide it’s going to. Showing up, in good times and in bad, is the only way to stay in it.”

“Make a decision to create a world in which Big Friendships are valued as the identity-shaping, life-altering relationships they truly are. Start by valuing your own friendships – not just for their pleasures, but their challenges too.”