Why you need a 'big friendship' in your life

Updated 7:02 AM ET, Tue August 25, 2020

(CNN)Even though their shared love of "Gossip Girl" sparked a friendship that changed their lives forever, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman are here to tell you that lifelong bonds don't have to be about what you and the other person have in common -- often, it's the opposite.

What began so magically after a mutual friend invited them to a watch party for the prom episode grew into a relationship that has helped define their adulthoods and careers. It hasn't always been easy, but their friendship has endured in part because of their ability to disrupt what linguist Deborah Tannen has called "the story of sameness," the way some friends -- especially women -- bond over their similarities. It turns out, these friends needed to forge a bond defined by their differences, and an ability to communicate about them clearly and repeatedly.
The casual observer might think something like this would be easy for two successful women already famous for being friends. Since 2014, Sow and Friedman have co-hosted "Call Your Girlfriend," their popular podcast with hundreds of thousands of listeners per episode, where they explore life, culture, politics and more through the lens of their long-distance friendship. (Though they both lived in Washington, DC, when a mutual friend first introduced them, Sow, a digital strategist born in Guinea and raised in Nigeria, Belgium and France, now lives in Brooklyn. Friedman, a journalist originally from Iowa, lives in Los Angeles).
Authors Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
They are also well-known as the architects of "Shine Theory," a term they've trademarked that entered common parlance through a column Friedman wrote for The Cut in 2013. Put simply, it's "I don't shine if you don't shine" -- an "investment, over the long term, in helping someone be their best self -- and relying on their help in return. It is a conscious decision to bring your full self to your friendships, and to not let insecurity or envy ravage them."
In their recent book, "Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close," the two friends bring new emotional and intellectual concepts to the table -- woven together with research from thinkers like Tannen and others to do exactly what their podcast does: try to understand the world outside their friendship by looking at the world inside it. They define the title concept -- "big friendship" -- as "a bond of great strength, force, and significance that transcends life phases, geography, and emotional shifts." As Sow told me, it's a term that describes "the person that you want to be there on the last days of your life."
Key to sustaining big friendships -- especially in a world that suggests friendship should be effortless and the grit and striving of emotional relationships is most applicable to the work of marriage, siblings and child-rearing -- is the "stretch," Sow and Friedman's extended metaphor for the ways that both members of a "big friendship" have to recognize that no friendship lasts on autopilot.
The core truth their book reveals is how none of this comes easy -- to them or to anyone else. Growth -- sometimes painful -- is required to keep up with individual life changes and evolutions in the relationship. Sometimes it can send you to therapy, an experience Sow and Friedman candidly and bravely invite their readers to share and learn from, as they describe seeking professional help to mend breakdowns in their relationship as besties and business partners.
Sow and Friedman's book is a powerful effort to forge a more robust language for what friendship means in modern life. They told me they wrote "Big Friendship" because it was the kind of book they themselves needed to read; with me and in other interviews, they balk somewhat at the idea that their book has more or less resonance because it happens to have dropped during an era when sustaining friendship across wide geographical distances and across racial lines has a greater sense of urgency and timeliness to readers struggling to cope with the ravaging isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic or to find more honest, less toxic ways to nurture their interracial friendships.
Get our free weekly newsletter

Sign up for CNN Opinion's new newsletter.

Join us on Twitter and Facebook

Sow, who is Black, put it this way on a recent episode of "CYG," stretching entails asking: "How do you know how much you are supposed to give to a friend -- and when is it too much? When is it not enough? And that is something you just constantly have be in dialogue with yourself and with your friend about. There's not really a clear-cut answer." As Friedman, who is White, said on their podcast," "A lot of times when we get asked about this chapter of the book about interracial friendship, people are framing it in terms of 'this moment,' and I think it is very important to us not to frame it as in or of a moment." It's more than that, in friendship and beyond. But as she then points out, "There is not a huge body of work about interracial friendship."
That body of work is now just a bit bigger, and we are all the better for it. Big friendship is, as Friedman told me, "a choice that both people have to make in order for it to work." The point is that it is work, and the longer we all keep going about our days in a world defined by social distance, the more that work helps to keep us alive.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CNN: How did you decide to write this book?
Ann Friedman: I think this is a conversation we wanted to have publicly about the place of friendship in society and in all of our lives. It's also a book that we needed to read at various points of our friendship. One that reflects the difficulties of this kind of intimate platonic relationship um, as well as its joys.
CNN: To take the title concept: the idea of "big friendship" feels so revolutionary to me -- putting this kind of deceptively simple language to what is such a complex and rich experience. Not to ask you to reiterate the entire book, but can you explain what this term means to you and whether that meaning has shifted in the process of putting the book out into the world?
Aminatou Sow: We were really looking for a vocabulary and a language to be really precise about the kind of friendship that we have, which is a friendship that is very deep. It is a friendship that transcends geography and ultimately, it is a friendship that we want to have for the rest of our lives. You know, the word friend -- it can mean so many things, and we wanted to be really, really clear that we were talking about this kind of friendship that is really rooted in the future. Not an acquaintance, not an old college friend that you don't see again, not the person that you go to dinner with once a year -- the person that you want to be there on the last days of your life.
CNN: In reading your book as a kind of argument for friendship, as a social institution, to get the same kind of language and support other social institutions (like marriage or family) have, it felt like the social and political history of feminism was everywhere in the spaces of what you were saying. Can you talk about the role feminism played in your researching and writing of the book?
Sow: That is a great question. I love it. I think that at the core of it, one of the questions that we were really trying to answer in this book is: How should modern adults be able to live their lives? And I think that feminism obviously is at the root of so much of our friendship, the two of us, and how we have really related to each other and the ideas that we have shared about how we can be liberated people in the world. And so I think that it was very natural that when we were writing this book, we sought out other voices that complemented a lot of the ideas that we had. And I have to say feminist scholarship has been really important to us, as has queer scholarship ... been very important in how we have thought about these ideas.
We spoke to Angela Chen who has a wonderful book out about asexuality later this year called "Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex." And that was a really eye-opening moment for me, talking to her. We also spoke to Stephanie Coontz, who is a marriage historian and someone who has really shaped so much of the conversation around how marriage in America was and how it is now. And I think that that was also very foundational to a lot of the thinking that we had. I'm sure Ann has a lot to add.
Friedman: No, that was great! Truly, that's what I would have said!
CNN: You spend a lot of time in the book describing your ongoing investment in each other. You talk about it when you talk about Shine Theory and you talk about it especially when you make this incredible decision to sit on a therapist's couch together (to sort out significant problems in your friendship). Why is it so important to you to disrupt this idea that friendship should be effortless?
Friedman: I think we were both raised with the idea that hard work is important. (Laughs). And working hard in whatever area of life that you could consider is super important. So working hard to advance your career, but also to be your best self, live in the place you want to live, have the people surrounding you that you want around you. That was sort of like an ambient part of both of our upbringing.
But it really was not said directly that friends are something you're going to have to work at. We also both come from families where our parents are amazing correspondents; they're really good at keeping in touch with people who are far away and are really invested in their communities. And so they were, in a sense, modeling this -- but the idea that friendship in particular takes a kind of emotional investment is something that we still hadn't fully absorbed. (We hadn't imagined) what that looks like.
It's silly to say out loud that we've had these inputs in both of our childhoods and yet, we kind of expected that our own friendship would just remain easy, frankly, would always feel effortless. And so we were really caught off guard when it didn't. I think part of the goal of this book is to say that human beings are messy. Emotions are complicated. And when you entangle your life with someone else, even if they are "just a friend," you are probably going to run into some problems at some point, even if it's just a minor communication breakdown. And rather than see that as a fatal flaw in the friendship, because friendship is supposed to be easy, (we have to ask) what if we just normalized it as something that can happen in any kind of close relationship?
CNN: To shift more into contemporary context for the book, I really found myself coming back to the subtitle: "How we keep each other close." As you describe in the book, you work to stay connected, especially digitally. And it's just so timely to see that, now that the pandemic has made so many more friendships into distance propositions. Has your understanding of digital connection -- or any other component of "how we keep each other close" -- changed since the Covid-19 pandemic began?
Sow: The reason we arrived at that subtitle in the first place is that we wanted to be really precise about the fact that this was not a book about how to make a friend -- even though that is a real problem that needs to be addressed for so many people and is such a pain point. The revelation of so much of the work that we had done in our friendship and of so much of the work of writing this book was that showing up for each other and keeping each other close is a choice that you have to make again and again and again and again. You are constantly opting into the friendship.