Chapter 1 How Friendship Transforms Our Lives Connecting with Others Makes Us Ourselves
"Some of the widowed sit at home and watch television for the rest of their lives. They may be alive, but they're not really
living," seventy-three-year-old Harriet remarks, referencing the members of the grief group she attended after her husband's death. Harriet could have easily faced this same fate if it wasn't for one thing: friendship.
Harriet didn't always value friendship. In fact, up until she married Federico at the age of fifty, it wasn't a priority. She was ambitious, working twelve-hour days and traveling enough to eventually meet her goal of visiting every country in the world. To ascend in her career, she moved across the US, chasing jobs-from the Northeast to the Midwest to the West and back to the Northeast again-disposing of friendships along the way.
But her ambitions never impeded her search for a spouse. "That was the training of my culture-to live your life to find a husband," she says. She had a string of boyfriends throughout her life, and when those relationships clipped, she would hunt for someone new. She remembered visiting her co-worker Denise's home and envying how she had it all: an impressive job, a husband, beautiful twins. Single at forty, she struggled to accept the reality that she might never have the husband and children she dreamed of. But, without the towering domestic obligations that arose from family life, she filled her hours with work.
Harriet admits friendship wasn't all that fulfilling in her younger years because of how she approached it. She was ashamed of her childhood, as she grew up on a farm, dirt poor. During the summers, she worked on neighbors' farms to pay for school. As she rose in her career, and her network increasingly churned with wealthy elites, she never felt like she belonged. Friendship was a place for her to live a double life, to perform the culture of affluence she never felt fully accustomed to: attending estate sales, dropping Benjamins on dinners, arguing over mundanities like the color of neighbors' lawns. She never let herself get too comfortable around friends, lest they figure out where she really came from, who she really was.
Then, two things happened that resuscitated her view on friendship. First, when she married Federico, a social butterfly, she acquiesced to hosting friends in their home for regular gatherings. "People wanted to be around us because of how happy we were," she says. From him, she learned that being around others could be a joy rather than a toll.
But it wasn't until Federico died that she truly understood the value of friends. To heal her grief, she attended counseling for the first time, where she learned how to be vulnerable. She transferred the skill of vulnerability to her friendships. When she did, she experienced old friendships in new ways, as her bonds ceased to be places of pretend. While some friendships buckled under the honesty of her grief, others deepened, and she realized that being vulnerable, asking for support, could be a portal to deep intimacy.
In her old age, Harriet values friends more than ever. One friendship, she realized, has been her longest love story. She met Shirleen in college, when she was studying abroad in Marseilles. Shirleen was the least judgmental person she ever met, one of the only people Harriet could open up to. Although they lost touch after college, fourteen years later, Shirleen tracked her down and called her. Shirleen lived in London but made the effort to visit Harriet in Washington DC five times over the course of a couple of years. As much as Harriet loved Federico, he wasn't one to talk about feelings, so throughout her life, Shirleen was her only true confidante. "For our life to feel significant, we crave someone to witness it, to verify its importance. Shirleen was my witness," Harriet says. They still talk weekly, despite their five-hour time difference, and Shirleen has brought up moving to DC to be closer to Harriet.
Now, for Harriet, having friends is more important than having a spouse. She has a male friend with whom she goes for walks, and she's unsure whether the relationship will remain platonic or become romantic. But she's at peace either way: "I take measure of the value of the relationship in terms of whether we enjoy each other's company, do things together, and share things with each other. The answer to all those questions is yes." She's in no rush to determine the fate of the relationship because "friendship is good too, and it's not a second resort."
At seventy-three, Harriet describes the way she's come to value friendship as a sign that "I've finally grown up." Every evening, she meets a friend for tea, dinner, or a walk. In this way, friends help her slow down and be present for life. "I don't know about you, but when I'm alone, I eat standing up," she says. "When I'm with friends, I eat paying attention." In her old age, Harriet can't travel as extensively as she used to, but instead she gets her thrills through the adventure of interacting with her different friends.
Harriet doesn't have many regrets in her life-certainly not marrying Federico, even though he was nineteen years her senior and she spent a few years being his caretaker after he slipped into dementia. But she does wish she could have recognized the power of friendship sooner. Still, she's thankful she came to value it before it was too late: "As you approach the end of your life, you realize each day is a gift, and you want to spend it in ways that are truly important. And for me, that means spending it with friends."
Harriet's trajectory reveals what we sacrifice when we diminish the importance of friends and what we gain when we value it. In Harriet's time, and still today, friendship is cast as a lesser relationship, a buffer to soften the purgatory between leaving our family and finding a new one. But friendship doesn't have to be so second-rate. As Harriet learned, it can be powerful, deep, and loving. And just like what happened with Harriet, friendship can save and transform us. In fact, it likely already has. Why Friendship Matters
Friendship's impact is as profound as it is underestimated. Ancient Greeks philosophized that it is a key to eudaimonia, or flourishing. Aristotle, for example, argued in Nicomachean Ethics
that without friendship, "No one would choose to live." Priests in the Middle Ages distrusted friendship, fearing its love could eclipse our love for God. Then, in the seventeenth century, it enchanted priests, who saw it as a channel to demonstrate our love for God.
These days, we typically see platonic love as somehow lacking-like romantic love with the screws of sex and passion missing. But this interpretation strays from the term's original meaning. When Italian scholar Marsilio Ficino coined the term "platonic love" in the fifteenth century, the word reflected Plato's vision of a love so powerful it transcended the physical. Platonic love was not romantic love undergoing subtraction. It was a purer form of love, one for someone's soul, as Ficino writes, "For it does not desire this or that body, but desires the splendor of the divine light shining through bodies." Platonic love was viewed as superior to romance.
The power of friendship isn't just a relic of ancient thinking. It's demonstrated by science. Psychologists theorize that our relationships, like oxygen, food, and water, are necessary for us to function. When stripped of them, we cannot thrive, which explains why friendship powerfully influences mental and physical health. Scientists have found that of 106 factors that influence depression, having someone to confide in is the strongest preventor. The impact of loneliness on our mortality is akin to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. One study found the most pronounced difference between happy and unhappy people was not how attractive or religious they were or how many good things happened to them. It was their level of social connection.
Friendship files down the barbs of life's threats. When men were alone, a study found, they rated an alleged terrorist as more imposing than when they were with friends. Another study found that people judged a hill as less steep when they were with friends. I remember a time when I was arguing with a boss who refused to dole out my final paycheck. The conflict gave me a constant edge of anxiety until I told my friend Harbani how I was feeling over chai at a teahouse. As the story poured out, and the chai poured in, I felt better. It was the first peace I had had in weeks.
The healing force of friendship extends past our mental health and into our physical. In Marta Zaraska's book Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100, she assesses the usual suspects that contribute to our longevity, such as diet and exercise, but she concludes that connection
is the most powerful contributor. Meta-analyses have found, for example, that exercise decreases our risk of death by 23 to 30 percent, diet by up to 24 percent, and a large social network by 45 percent. When I shared this research with a colleague, she said, "Now I can feel better about being a social couch potato." We all can.
While we can experience many of these benefits through other close relationships, like those with family and spouses, friendships have unique advantages. Friends, distinct from parents, do not expect us to live out their hopes and wants for us. With friends, distinct from spouses, we are not shackled with the insurmountable expectation of being someone's everything, their puzzle piece to completeness. And distinct from our children, we aren't the sole propagator of our friends' survival. Our ancestors lived in tribes, where responsibility for one another was diffused among many. Friendship, then, is a rediscovery of an ancient truth we've long buried: it takes an entire community for us to feel whole.
Friendship, in releasing the relationship pressure valve, infuses us with joy like no other relationship. Without needing to plan for retirement, fulfill each other's sexual needs, and work out who should be scrubbing the shower grime, we are free to make friendships territories of pleasure. One study, for example, found that hanging out with friends was linked to greater happiness than hanging out with a romantic partner or children. This was because, when around friends, people had fun-doing things like going bowling, or to the pumpkin patch, or to the dog park to steal some OPP (other people's puppies)-whereas around spouses or children, they did the mundane, like washing dishes, paying bills, and reminding one another to floss.
Of course, friends too can sink into what friendship-memoirists Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow call "the intimately mundane." Friendship can be a relationship of grocery shopping, chores, and shared retirements. As people unbundle sex, romance, and life companionship, they see that friends can make marvelous significant others. An Atlantic article called "The Rise of the 3-Parent Family" profiled David Jay, founder of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, who discussed spending his life with a friend he had "really intense energy with." That didn't work out, but he eventually settled into co-parenting with another couple. Friendship is flexible, depending on our needs. It can bring us a once-a-month lunch friend or a soul mate.
A key source of joy in friendship is in how unlimited it is: you can have many friends, whereas other core relationships are finite-a couple of caregivers, one spouse (for the monogamous among us), 2.5 children. Buddhism identifies mudita, or sympathetic joy, as vicariously experiencing others' joy. In the Bible, Paul alludes to mudita when he writes of all of Jesus's followers, "If one part is honored, every part rejoices with it." Our spouse, our children, our parents, they'll all ping us with mudita, but with many friends to celebrate, joy becomes infinite.
I experienced the power of friendship for repeatedly invoking joy when I sold this book. My romantic partner at the time was excited for me, bringing me champagne and a strawberry shortcake with the word "BOOKED" written across it. We had a lovely night in. When I called my friends with the announcement, I got to reexperience this joy again and again, as they told me how excited they were, how they wanted to take me out to celebrate, and how much they hoped I would be interviewed by Oprah so they could come to the taping.
We choose our friends, which allows us to surround ourselves with people who root for us, get us, and delight in our joy. There's no looming vow, formal ritual, or genetic similarity to retain us in friendship's open palms. Through friendship, we can self-select into some of the most affirming, safe, and sacred relationships of our lives, not because of pressures from society to do so, but because we elect to do so. Cleo, who works for the government, told me that after her mother died, she felt alone and uncomfortable at the funeral. Her strained relationships with her family made her scared to break down. But when her friend Stephanie showed up, surprising her by flying in from Michigan, Cleo let herself weep.
The electiveness of friendship, coupled with its usual absence of romantic love, means that in friendship, we are free to choose relationships based on pure compatibility. British author C. S. Lewis once said, "Eros [romantic passion] will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities." The consuming feelings of romantic love can sometimes drive us into mismatched relationships, as we erroneously use these consuming feelings as a litmus test for compatibility. But, as psychologist Harriet Lerner states, "Intense feelings, no matter how consuming, are hardly a measure of true and enduring closeness. . . . Intensity and intimacy are not the same." When choosing friends, we are freer to prioritize the truest markers of intimacy, such as shared values, trust, admiration of each other's character, or feelings of ease around each other. We don't always do this, of course, which I'll explore later in a chapter on navigating anger and conflict.
Friends don't just support us personally; they benefit us collectively. When we zoom out to evaluate the merits of friendship on a macro level, we see how these relationships better society. As societies aim to increase justice and decrease prejudice, friendship provides a means. Research finds that having one friend in an outgroup (i.e., a group you're not a part of) alters people's response to that entire outgroup and even increases people's support of policies benefitting the outgroup, suggesting that friendship may be necessary (but likely not sufficient) to trigger systemic change. Another study finds our hostility toward outgroups decreases when our friend is friends with someone in that group, signaling that friendship across groups can have ripple effects throughout entire networks. Prejudice thrives in the abstract, but once we become friends, others become complex beings who hurt and love just like we do, and no matter how different we think they are, we see ourselves in them.
A 2013 meta-analysis found friendship networks had been shrinking for the preceding 35 years, and the impact of this trend on society is grave. Friends research finds, increase our trust in others, and trust is necessary for society to operate. A study with participants from Germany, Czech Republic, and Cameroon found that across all three cultures, people who felt disconnected experienced something called social cynicism, “a negative view of human nature, a biased view against some groups of people, a mistrust of social institutions, and a disregard of ethical means for achieving an end.” Robert D. Putnam, author of Bowling Alone,
emphasized how when we share a social network with someone, we develop “thin trust”—we trust people we don’t know well, but, he argues, “as the social fabric of a community becomes more threadbare, its power to undergird norms of honesty, generalized reciprocity, and thin trust is enfeebled.” For banks to run, we trust our bankers won’t pocket our retirement and vacation in Katmandu. For grocery stores to run, we trust our kumquats aren’t laced with arsenic. For schools to run, we trust the teacher won’t force our children to spend the day clipping coupons for (arsenic-free) kumquats. And yet, this trust trembles when we’re disconnected.Friendship is the Underdog of Relationships
By now, it may sound like I’m saying that to keep society from crumbling, we need to file for divorce, disown our families, twist up our tubes, and seek friends. That’s not it. What I am trying to convey is that, counter to how our culture treats friendship, it is as meaningful as the other relationship Goliaths. And yet, if you deeply value friendship, you’ve likely experienced your platonic love being relegated to second-class.
"What’s going on between you two?" people remark of close friends, their assumption being that platonic love alone cannot explain a tight bond. If two people aren’t romantically involved, then they’re not friends—they’re just
friends. If they want to become romantic, they’ll say "let’s be more
than friends." People with friendship at the center of their relationships are unfairly cast as lonely, unappealing, or unfulfilled, a spinster with a choir of cats, or a bachelor who never quite matured. This happens when, all the while, research finds that friendship is what gives romantic love its strength and endurance
, rather than the other way around.
Copyright © 2022 by Marisa G. Franco, PhD. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.