When Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman first met, at a viewing party for the teen drama Gossip Girl in 2009, each recognised a kindred spirit. “I can tell you for a fact that I viscerally remember the moment Ann and I walked in different directions,” recalls Sow, 35. “I remember just the pang of… Ahh, when am I going to see this person again? That feeling. It’s such a vivid episode in my mind.” When Sow got home that night, she found a friend request from Friedman, now 38, on Facebook. She has heard other friends talk about that same feeling of excitement when it comes to the very beginning of a new, platonic relationship. “We just do not understand them to be an intense emotional experience on the same level that we would give to a romance, for example. But I think the excitement is the same, the butterflies are there.”
Those butterflies turned into a decade-long, and still going, best friendship. In fact, they like each other so much that they have written a joint memoir of their lives together as friends and colleagues (both are writers and have been co-hosting a podcast, Call Your Girlfriend, since 2014, “for long-distance besties everywhere”). You get the sense, though, that they are using their personal story, with its ups and downs – and there are such downs that at one point, they go to couples’ therapy to salvage their relationship – to sneak in a manifesto of modern friendship, and how to navigate big, emotional platonic relationships successfully. Anyone who has ever experienced the pain of a friendship break-up, yet lacked the words to describe it, will find plenty to take from Big Friendship.
We talk on Skype, Friedman calling early in the morning from Los Angeles, where she is at home, “combobulating myself”, and Sow from Long Island, accompanied by midday bright sunshine and birdsong. They are used to communicating from a distance – after the fated Gossip Girl party, in Washington DC, Friedman and then Sow moved to different cities, which means they have been long-distance friends for longer than they were in the same place.
On their podcast, they speak to writers, activists, politicians and celebrities; Hillary Rodham Clinton is a friend of the show, and has provided them with a glowing blurb for the book (she calls it “a wonderful and intimate portrayal”). They record it wherever each of them happens to be, but in order to write a book together, they had to meet up for long stretches of time, longer than they had spent together since the early days of their friendship.
They would talk through the anecdotes that might illustrate the points they wanted to make, about support, compromise, interracial friendships, how to cope with and help when a friend is ill, how to make a friendship last and thrive. They often found that their memories of certain situations were different, and would go back and check what they call “the email receipts” to see what had actually happened. “Sometimes the things were really low stakes, but other times the things were like, ‘Oh no, this is part of a huge misunderstanding that we’ve had about each other.’ There’s a part of me that wishes I could do this in all of my relationships. Get the receipts out and have a forensic examination of what the thing is,” Sow explains.
“This is the first in a series of books you’re co-writing with friends?” jokes Friedman.
“Sorry Ann, my forthcoming 17 other books…”
“Less Big Friendship, Slightly Less Big Friendship…”
It seems obvious to say, but the two are clearly very compatible. I assumed they had lived together, though they never actually did. “I have to say, Ann, we would have been very successful roommates,” says Sow. The key to this, they think, is a careful alignment of food shopping habits. They know each other’s snack requirements: salty crisps, popcorn, “a gummy element”, says Friedman. Sow picks up the list: “A spicy nut situation. A sriracha nut, if you will, is good. A lot of tangy dips. And a lot of things to make smaller desserts. We make a good guacamole in this family. We are very good at making a delicious breakfast for each other.” (The “in this family” tells you a lot about their closeness.) They make each other an excellent breakfast; Friedman recommends a frittata, and pre-chopping your vegetables the night before. “I honestly never processed that, Ann,” says Sow. “It’s so true. We do a good grocery shop, because we are organised in the same way in the kitchen. Wow. The galaxy brain explosion that is happening now.”
They value their friendship to such an extent that when it hit a bumpy patch, they went to therapy together. Did the therapist find that unusual? “If I remember correctly, she was very honest about the fact that it was not a usual kind of arrangement, but that she had worked with friends in a different context,” says Sow. That context is usually professional, a business relationship that has turned a friendship sour. But their business, the podcast, was doing fine. “I said, if the business is the problem, we’ll burn it to the ground, because what we really want is just to stay friends with each other,” Sow adds.
They interviewed two therapists for the book, who felt it was strange that more friends didn’t come to therapy together, given that most of their clients wanted to talk about friendship in some way. “If you’re someone who has the means and the access to be seeing a therapist to address issues that you have within friendship, the idea that we can make it OK to broach the topic of going with a friend, and doing that work with someone else present, is really exciting to me,” says Friedman.
The book is all about reframing “big friendship” and giving it the emotional significance that it deserves. Their “meet cute” in 2009 was a friend date, a set-up by a mutual friend, Dayo, who thought they would get along. But calling it a friend date, or a set-up, feels like borrowing the language of romance. “I think people use that language more often than not, but there is not an understanding that it feels the same,” says Sow. “The frame is the same. Where do we give people permission to say, ‘Oh, the excitement that I’m feeling about a new friend is a lot of times the same excitement that I feel about a romantic partner?’”
Sow and Friedman are good at finding the right words for neglected concepts. In the book, they write about navigating sprawling interconnected groups of friends as a “friendweb”. They borrow “chosen family” from the LGBTQ+ community to talk about the sustenance that good friendships can give. In 2013, Friedman wrote a piece for The Cut about Shine Theory, an idea that she and Sow came up with and practised. It quickly entered common parlance, as a way of describing how women can thrive by supporting one another. “Such a great concept that everyone from Victoria’s Secret to Reese Witherspoon has tried to co-opt it!” they write in the book’s intro.
It took on a life of its own. “I wish I could say that Shine Theory was some dastardly great marketing ploy, which is not what happened. We were private people, publicly expressing ideas that we have had, and it turns out to really resonate with a lot of people,” explains Sow. Someone unconnected to them registered it as a domain. Another company tried to trademark it. Eventually, after some legal wranglings, Shine Theory now officially belongs to them.
“Legal Wranglings, my other book,” jokes Sow.
“Big Legal Wranglings,” says Friedman.
“It’s just a picture book of everyone who has tried to do us wrong.”
“With Xs over their faces.”
Sow understands why Shine Theory exploded in the way it did, because it upended the cliché of how women work together. “It really is shattering the idea that women are all catty and fighting over scraps, while the rich male cats just run around and do other things,” she says. However, she is clear about why they set boundaries as to how it was used and who was using it. To monetise it ruthlessly would be counter to their values.
“There’s a reason this is a chapter in a book about friendship and not its own book that we’re selling at professional networking events. If we were market-responsive, we would be doing the Shine Theory Empowertising Conference with a bunch of big corporate sponsors who have a diversity inclusion budget to throw at us,” says Friedman. Sow starts to laugh. “I am shivering. I am shivering.”
When it comes to business and money, both are open about how much they earn, with each other, and with readers of the book. I found the honesty striking. “We have always been very candid about money,” agrees Sow. “I would not say that it’s something that comes naturally to me, but I understood really early on that dispelling the taboo around talking about your money is more powerful than feeling shy about it.” She knows that people are uncomfortable about talking about money, though she is not. “At this point, I’m actually quite rude about it. I think people see it as a very gauche kind of thing. But it’s a civility rule that is couched in, frankly, rich people hoarding information, and rich and powerful people hoarding information about how you become rich and powerful.” Also, she points out, money is likely to affect a friendship, whether you are open about it or not. Friedman sees their openness as a bit of low-level Shine Theory. “One way of showing solidarity with people is to be transparent with them about how you are doing the work that you’re doing and how you’re being compensated for it, and how you feel about it,” she says.Have they written, then, a guidebook for deep friendship? Is it a manifesto? “We’re both laughing, because one of the working titles for the book had the word manifesto in it,” says Sow. “So I think the answer is a resounding yes. Speaking only for myself, I wanted to tell enough of my story that it would make it possible for people to have conversations with other people in their lives about their friendships, about their money, about their anxieties. I was not really interested in oversharing about my life for the sake of oversharing about my life.” Friedman cuts in to joke that she really wanted to overshare, to tell the world about her upbringing. “Listen, as Joan Didion famously said, ‘Don’t trust writers’,” Sow says. “If we’ve done our job correctly, the story will be less about our own bond, because while it is fun and it’s exciting and it’s entertaining, billions of people have that relationship with each other.”
‘There was a lot of hurt’: an extract from Big Friendship
There’s an expectation that friendship is the easy part of life.
All support, no strife. If it gets hard? Well, it wasn’t meant to be. While there are piles of books to help you through a crisis in your marriage, not much guidance exists for best friends who can sense things falling apart but don’t know how to put them back together.
When two people entangle their emotional lives, it’s bound to be difficult sometimes. Not all friendships look the same for the long term, but one thing is guaranteed: any intimate friendships will face existential threats.
So when we found ourselves in a period of emotional estrangement that we couldn’t seem to get out of, we felt a lot of things. Shame. A desire to run away. A desire to just wait it out and hope it got better. Frustration. Confusion. A lot of hurt. We didn’t want to go to any of our mutual friends for support, because we didn’t want them to feel they had to take sides. That led to both of us turning things over in our own heads, spinning out over perceived transgressions without a reality check and feeling ever more isolated as we tried, alone, to figure out the problems that had grown between us. The fact that we worked together is what eventually created the opening for things to start getting better.
As NPR reported in 2015: ‘In Silicon Valley, business partners are looking for help before things go downhill — they’re signing up for couples counselling.’ Co-founders were seeing therapists to smooth out interpersonal conflicts affecting their business. Being colleagues gave us enough of an opening to push past the strangeness of going to therapy to save a friendship.
That’s right. We went to couples therapy. Sitting across from us, the therapist pointed out that we were both there because we still had so much love between us. The work, in the beginning, would be to figure out how we were hurting each other and what we weren’t telling each other.
The sessions began paying off as our therapist started to show us where the cracks in our relationship were. We couldn’t believe how many big, important things we’d never discussed with each other. 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. It still seems weird to say, ‘We went to therapy to save our friendship.’
But it doesn’t sound so ridiculous when the flip side could easily be ‘We didn’t do everything we could to save our friendship.’
What’s incredible about friendship is that it allows you to be intimately known by someone in a way that’s unlike the whims of sexual desire and the constraints of family. It’s a beautiful mix of independence and dependence.
We know therapy is expensive, and we don’t take for granted that this was even an option for us. At an earlier phase in our lives we definitely wouldn’t have been able to afford it. But this was our way of committing to actually doing the work with each other, not just saying we were open to it. It was our way of investing — literally — in our friendship. The good news is we’re still here. We’re still big. We just know how much work it takes not to fail.
Big Friendship is published by Virago at £13.99 on 14 July. Buy a copy from guardianbookshop.com for £12.17