Big Friendships: how to make, maintain and mend them

As AMINATOU SOW and ANN FRIEDMAN release a book telling the story of their friendship, KATIE BERRINGTON speaks to them about how they define a ‘Big Friendship’ and ways to protect and nurture that special bond to ensure it survives distance and time

Throughout their 10-year friendship, Ann Friedman (left) and Aminatou Sow have supported each other through thick and thin

For Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, distance is nothing new. During their decade-long friendship, they have lived on opposite coasts for around eight years. They’re also adept at working remotely – they’ve co-hosted their hit podcast, Call Your Girlfriend, since 2014, in which they call each other weekly to talk everything from pop culture to politics. Distance was not supposed to be in the plan for 2020, though, as they prepared to release their first book together, Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close.

“We have used a lot of words for our specific kind of friendship,” says Friedman when the three of us meet via Zoom (she from Los Angeles, Sow from Brooklyn), as the pair embark on their virtual book tour. “Long-distance besties, best friend, at some point we’ve maybe even used BFF. But all those words felt a little cutesy, or too young, for the kind of investment that we have really made in each other as adults.” The pair coined the term ‘Big Friendship’ – defined as “a strong, significant bond that transcends life phases, geographical locations and emotional shifts” – from this lack of satisfaction with the existing terminology.

“We also wanted a term that was non-exclusive. When you say best friend, it implies that this person is at the tippy top of a pyramid and exclusively your number one,” she continues. “We’re both lucky enough to have more than one person in our lives who fits the definition of Big Friendship.” And why do they believe that defining this type of friendship is so important? “Naming something is very powerful. So perhaps [the reason] friendship has not been given the social and cultural respect it deserves is that the term ‘friend’ is so nebulous, and it doesn’t always imply the kind of bond we have. Creating a depiction of a specific kind of commitment felt very important to us, as we challenge the norms of how friendship is perceived.”

Their book, born out of their 10-year bond, navigates the highs and lows (down to the rock-bottom period for which they went to therapy together) of a life-affirming friendship. In intimate, entertaining and honest detail, it acts as both a celebration and a savior of the meaningful ties that are often the first to be overlooked by ourselves and society.

“I would like this book to empower people to start looking at their friendships as a source of really deep love and deep self-knowledge,” says Sow. “And to consider even as we are being pulled apart in every direction – to keep present at work and to be present in our families – that friendship is something that can be at the center of our lives. Friendship is a bond that is just as important as the ones we make with our families and romantic partners.”

I would like this book to empower people to start looking at their friendships as a source of really deep love and deep self-knowledge
Aminatou Sow
Sow (left) and Friedman concur that friendships are just as important as the relationships we have with our families and romantic partners

The book is full of frank admissions from their relationship, and the uncomfortable and difficult conversations it has taken to maintain and repair it. Has this honesty – with themselves and with their audience – become easier over time?

“I think the more we have done it, the more we understand why it is important to do, and that radical honesty is a muscle you really have to keep exercising all the time,” says Sow. “It’s also true that all the stories in the book are not things that are painful for us to share anymore. We have processed them separately and together, and together with a therapist, over a number of years. Part of the safety in telling those stories is that the issue is resolved and there’s not any pain or shame that hides behind them.”

They hope that their demonstration of honesty and vulnerability will make it easier for readers to recognize themselves in it, “so it’s less about how Ann and Aminatou do their friendship, but rather how much of our experience runs parallel to the experience of a lot of people,” says Sow. “Part of the problem we were trying to grapple with is that there’s no real societal support for how to make friends, keep friends and to repair a friendship.”

Friedman agrees that it would have helped the problems they experienced to have been more aware earlier on of what is required to maintain a friendship. “I think we both wish we had expressed to each other some of the feelings we were having when our friendship started to fall apart,” she says. “Things that happened between us would make one of us feel not great, and the other would be unaware. I think when we look back, we’re like, Wow, how much strife could we have saved if we’d said out loud: ‘That thing you just said landed in a really painful way.’ We spent a lot of time privately making meaning of the other person’s actions without checking that storyline with her.”

“At a place where a friendship starts to crumble a bit, that’s where you can intervene and maybe it won’t get so bad that it’s impossible to find a way back to each other,” Friedman continues. “If our book allows people to think, ‘Oh, that’s something I should vocalize in some of my own friendships’, to me that is the highest compliment.”

Has the intensive process of writing this book together altered their friendship at all? “It was a really deep immersion into each other,” comments Friedman. “We have a very examined friendship at this point, and I think some of that process is very healing – to put into words, and to define concrete moments, that have been important or hurtful or confusing to one or both of us.”

In one section, they examine the ways that race is a factor of their friendship. “Interracial friendship requires different skills from each person,” they write. “In our case, Aminatou has to remain flexible about when to educate and communicate. Ann has to own that her silences around racial issues have meaning and she has to push past moments of discomfort to stay accountable.” The discussion might feel particularly timely, but it is something they have been talking about for years.

“We started outlining this chapter probably two years ago or more,” says Friedman. “Racism is not new in the summer of 2020. Hopefully, we will all be more aware and working towards something better, but the truth is we make an assumption that race and racism will always affect the friendship we have.”

While they haven’t been able to be together in person to launch the book, the distance that 2020 has enforced has been a reminder of the importance of staying in touch and connected with loved ones. “It’s been really stretching to understand that you can have all these plans and intentions, and life just happens,” considers Sow. “You realize how precious and important time is with the people you have, and you also start to realize that life can be shaken by a lot of things – sometimes it’s a pandemic and sometimes it’s something else. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can communicate to the people in my life that they are very important to me – how do I tell them that? How do I show that to them every day in very concrete ways?”

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