Do you have a friendship that is more important than your romantic relationship? In this episode, Peter McGraw is joined by Rhaina Cohen, a writer and NPR producer, to talk about her emerging work on friendship. They discuss how some people are elevating the status of a friendship to the level of exclusive romantic relationships. Notably, Rhaina notes the lack of good role models for this style of relationships, and thus people rely on fictional relationships (e.g., Golden Girls) as inspiration. They also discuss the challenges some men have with loneliness due to a lack of friends. They conclude their conversation with tips for making, maintaining, and ending relationships.
Listen to Episode #63 here
Making Friends The Center Of Life
This episode is part of a long series on making remarkable friends. I invite Rhaina Cohen, a writer and NPR producer, to talk about her emerging work on friendship. We discuss how some people are equating the status of friendships to the level of an exclusive romantic relationship. Notably, we discuss the lack of good role models for this style of friendship, and thus people rely on fictitious relationships like Sherlock and Watson or The Golden Girls. We also discussed the special challenge some men have with loneliness due to a lack of friends, a conversation that gets me quite emotional. We finish the conversation with some tips for making, maintaining, and ending friendships. Speaking of friends, please tell the single ones about this show. We are building a movement that de-stigmatizes single living. Also for yourself, please consider rounding out your team with more friends. I hope you enjoy the episode, I certainly did. Let’s get started.
Our guest is Rhaina Cohen. Rhaina is a producer and editor of Narrative Podcasts at NPR. She covered the Social Sciences for the podcast, Hidden Brain. She has worked on a number of stories about friendship and a feature for the Atlantic called What if Friendship, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life? She’s working on a book about deeply committed friendships and what the rest of us can learn from those relationships. Welcome, Rhaina.
I’m happy to be here.
I’m thrilled to have you. This episode is part of a series. I usually say mini-series but this is turning into a long series, given the importance of the topic on making remarkable friends. Solo readers know I have a saying, which is have a team, a group of personal and professional connections, ideally ones that are interconnected, and friends are a critical part of that team. There are three things I want to cover with you. That is the status of friendships in society in the present day. I want to talk specifically about men and the problems that they have with friendship and loneliness. Lastly and the juiciest part, some suggestions for making, maintaining, and ending friendships. How’s that sound?
Other than ending friendships, it sounds like it will be fun.
Relationships have breakups and that might be best for the two people. To be honest, I don’t think that ending friendships is a major problem that people have with friends, but it does happen. In your view, what is a friend? What makes a good friend? This is something I’ve been tussling with.
That feels the most basic but also quite a hard question of what makes a friend.
What makes a good friend on top of it?
A friend is somebody that you have chosen to have in your life who can range from somebody who you are in contact with three times a day, live with and is the most important person to you. One under the spectrum and on the other could be somebody who you speak to periodically. You have some shared interests or there was a period in your life where you were supportive of each other, and now you have a shared history that you can return to occasionally, and everything in between. Maybe the biggest part of it that distinguishes friendship from a family relationship would be the fact that it’s chosen. I am defining it in opposition to these other relationships that have clear definitions. There are no blood ties. I would say usually and almost always there’s no sex involved. If you’ve complicated that, I’m happy to complicate that as well. That’s the best definition I can come up with.
I covered this in an episode where I go into the dictionary and look at how dictionaries define friendship, and it’s surprisingly vague. I define friendships a lot like the Supreme Court defines porn, you know it when you see it. As you were talking and I said, “What makes a good friend?” It’s interesting because you talked about the difference in closeness. Someone you’ve talked to three times a day to someone you talked to occasionally. I had this idea that popped into my head that all friends should be good friends.
I don’t think I was even answering the good friend question because you can think about that in two ways. What is a good friend, a kind friend or a decent friend? Sometimes when people say good friend, they’re talking about a close friend, best friends or something like that. I totally agree with you. I sometimes feel a little bit of disconnect when I want to say that somebody is a good friend. We don’t talk that often, but I feel close to them and I feel they get me more than maybe people who I have more frequent interactions with. I am very much on board with the idea that there are different ways of defining what a good friend is, and that frequency of contact is not necessarily the defining factor there.
I’m going to nerd out as a scientist for a moment but these two orthogonal dimensions, closeness like frequency closeness, distance and so on, then goodness, quality. It would be fine to fill the close and far part of it as much as you want, but you want to avoid the bad sections of that. Always good but close or far, frequent or infrequent is fine. I’m going to run by what I’ve been working to assess the goodness of a friendship, not the closeness. One, the person is appealing. There’s something about them that draws you to them, a goodness and positivity about those interactions. That could be a lot of dimensions I suspect.
Trustworthiness, this is someone that you can trust with most importantly your secrets, your most intimate types of thoughts, and backstage life. Reliability, these are people who are there when you need them. They show up for you, not at their convenience but for yours. Lastly, this is a word I’ve stolen from the Poly Community, this notion of compersion or anti-jealousy. Good friends aren’t fundamentally jealous of your successes and they don’t want to outdo your failures. Those are the four criteria that I invite people to think about the goodness of their friendships. I’m curious as someone who’s thought even more about friendship than I have, what are your reactions to that?
Even before you said reliability, I was thinking that’s something I keep returning to as so important certainly in making friendship or a more serious one. I can think of a time where I was becoming close with two people. One who I had a thrill of excitement over the meeting. She turned out to be extremely unreliable and it was hard for us to become close. I had another friend enter the picture who I didn’t have the same intensity of feeling immediately, but I felt like she has many of the great qualities that this other person had. She was reliable and we could see each other consistently, and build a close relationship there. Reliability is something that’s underappreciated and it feels related to a term that the same friend has told me about. That the sixth love language could be operational competency, which is partly about reliability, but also if you’re planning a trip, can you get that person to organize things?
People who can remove the friction in all sorts of interactions, I find to be important. There are people who I adore and whose company I find exciting, but I don’t see us getting to a place where we are relying on each other in a meaningful way because they don’t have those basic qualities. Compersion is such an interesting idea to bring into friendship. There’s a Yiddish term for the feeling that parents have when they’re happy on behalf of their children. It’s something similar there. When you can get vicarious pleasure through friends’ happiness and successes, and feel burdened by their burdens. If a friend of yours is having a hard time, it’s in the back of your mind that you’re trying to work through and try to figure out how you help them deal with that. Those things seem incredibly important. Having related to trustworthiness and real openness of communication is important. A lot of the very close friendships that I’ve encountered through the interviews I’ve done, people have an unbelievable level of earnestness and openness in talking about what they’re feeling. Those might be the things I would add to what you were saying. Those factors all seem very important.
The previous episode is on Nietzsche and his view on friendship. He believed that friends make you a better person. They make you a better person for the reason you discussed, which is they’re honest with you. We’re not often honest with strangers because we don’t want to hurt their feelings, but that of a friend, you want them to be better. Honesty is an important part of it. The other one is that they have insights about you because they know you in a sense. Good friends make you better and you make those good friends better. Your point about communication is connected to that idea. Let’s talk a little bit about the relationship escalator. Frequent readers know this term and this idea that there is this one idealized type of relationship in the world. It has these criteria.
I’m using the words of Amy Gahran, a journalist who wrote this book, Getting Off the Relationship Escalator. This idea of there’s consistency. It starts at some particular time ideally, and it’s only truly successful when one of the members dies. Monogamy, there’s an intimate connection between two people. Merging, you bring your life together financially and your living arrangements, and then related to our conversation, it’s given special status. It is more important than any other relationship, your life partner, husband, wife and so on are given this thing. It’s given such special status that some new person in a person’s life can suddenly crowd out lifelong friends. That person can disappear from their friends’ lives as they cultivate this relationship, perhaps never returning or only returning when the relationship falls apart. We’ve all had that experience there. I was struck by your story in the Atlantic about a couple of friends who instead place that special status, that number one status on their friendship. I’m wondering if you could kick it off and talk about your view of the status of friendship in society these days.
I start off the piece with this scene. One woman, Kami West is talking to this man who she has started dating and says, “You’re not my number one and you’re never going to be. I have one in my life. If you think that you’re going to change this and that somehow you’re going to come into the picture and be my number one, you’re wrong. Get used to it.”
Did she put it that bluntly?
Yeah, she put it that bluntly. She even put it more compactly than I described it there. She said that talking about her friend nicknamed Tilly that, “She was there before you and she’s going to be there after you.” Speaking to exactly what you were talking about with how friends will be the ones sticking around even if you don’t spend time with them. I didn’t get into the speech in the story but the man there is now Kami’s partner. He is around and so is Tilly. The line that ends up in that section is Kami reflecting on what everybody else expects, which is to put a boyfriend or a girlfriend first and for her and Tilly, their worlds are backward.
They very much recognize that they have chosen to invert this hierarchy where a romantic relationship is the most important one and everything else will come to the side. It’s interesting as you’re describing the relationship escalator because I can see Kami, Tilly, and some of the other people in the story having something that’s similar in the sense that they have decided to orient their worlds around each other and in some cases, they live together. There was a sense of growing intensity, but there are also differences. It’s not exactly a repeat of the relationship escalator. There are no expectations that you’re going to have like, “First comes this, then comes this.” That doesn’t happen.
To me, what’s incredible is that these people who have no steps telling them what to do are escalating their relationship. For them, it is more like climbing the stairs or something that’s a little bit less passive that’s happening. Even though Kami and Tilly are talking about themselves in this hierarchical and exclusive way, they are also at the center of a network of friends, and they are relied upon by other people. It’s not as if there’s a hermetically sealed relationship and that no other relationships can compete or co-exist and still be meaningful. It presented initially an inversion of the norm. What they’re doing is presenting a different model of what friendship and romantic relationships can mean in our lives.
I love the story. It’s funny because when I meet a woman, one of the things that I tell her is I’m not having children. I do that right off the bat. I used to do it much more bluntly like the way that she did. I’ve learned to not even assume that that’s the case and to be able to address that. That expectation setting is important especially if you are deviating from convention in a world where people don’t even know that it’s a convention, and they don’t even think. As you were saying earlier, it’s hard to define friendship independent of other relationships. It’s hard to do a lot of things and to find a lot of things about single living, independent of non-single living. That’s a striking fact about these ideas.
You had mentioned the lack of scripts and you have to seek them out. You had mentioned Sherlock and Watson as a possible exemplar of a friendship. I have watched the most recent version of Sherlock on Netflix, the BBC version of it. It’s funny that these two men are different in many ways but supportive of each other. They’re both better together than they are separate, and yet everybody thinks they’re gay and they’re together in some romantic way, which Watson clearly shaves that because he’s a little bit of a ladies’ man. Are there other exemplars? In the folks that you’re talking to about friendship, where are they learning this other alternative script?
This Sherlock and Watson thing, there’s a term for this that’s shipping. I think it’s short for relationship. It’s looking at fictional characters or people in TVs and movies who appear to be friends and then assuming and writing a plotline in your head that they’re in a romantic relationship. I understand why there’s a desire, especially among queer people to seek relationships where maybe they were not able to be made explicit before or even now. I do think there’s another way of thinking about the urge to see romance whether it’s between people, the same gender or different genders, that we don’t easily understand what very close friendships can look like. Some exceptions and some of the role models that I heard again and again were Oprah and Gayle King. They have an extraordinarily close friendship. Gayle has a wing in Oprah’s house. They talk four times a day. They’re one public model. The Golden Girls is important for a lot of people in thinking about, “When I get old, I want to live with a bunch of my best friends.”
There are different TV shows like Broad City that have come up. From Grey’s Anatomy, there’s Cristina and Meredith. There’s a scene where Cristina was telling Meredith, “You’re my person.” That’s where that language has come from. There’s another show like Insecure that has a couple of extremely close friends. There are places in popular culture that people are able to look to, mostly fictional with the exception of Oprah, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman who have a podcast called Call Your Girlfriend. For the most part, these are limited models and they don’t have them in the real world, people that they know in flesh and blood who have these sorts of friendships.
It’s striking as you give these examples, they’re mostly women, and there’s a lack. We’re going to get back to that in a moment, but that’s worth noting that we don’t have as many examples in fact, in nonfiction and fiction of men doing this thing. What’s striking to me is the lack of good words and language. I constantly bump up against the limitations of language when it comes to issues of single living. You had mentioned the big friendship women. That’s their term for that special status of friendship. What are some of those terms? How do people navigate this beyond the obvious bestie?
I interviewed a woman who told me about a period where she was going to a lot of doctors and had to put down an emergency contact, so she put down her closest friend. She did want to put down her best friend because that didn’t seem quite right to her. She kept changing it. She has three different doctors and three different terms for the same person. One was a heterosexual life partner. She kept coming up with different terms because none of them pop quite right, but that illustrates how hard it is to find language that’s lucid to other people that don’t need a whole explanation, and also the desire to feel seen in these relationships, and that best friend doesn’t cut it for a lot of people because they feel like it’s juvenile or it doesn’t illustrate the intensity.
One thing that I heard was from a woman who was trying to put her friend in her will and was trying to explain to her lawyer, “This person isn’t my girlfriend. Think of BFF times twenty.” That’s how the woman described it. Platonic life partner or platonic life mate, ride or die, platonic soulmate, those are all terms that I’ve heard from people that have mostly been things that people have created taking pieces of language that already exist and matching it up with other things to make it a little clearer to other people, especially that this is not your standard-issue of friendship and that it is there for the long haul.
It has that special status and consistency. One of the striking things that I have found as I’ve been working on this series is that friendship was the most prominent. The ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle talked about friendship in the way we talk about marriage these days. A good friend, one of you was going to die that at the end. You’re going to be friends for life in that sense, the decline of friendship. Perhaps, the rise of friendship in contemporary times in part because of delaying marriage. They’re not getting married. More and more people are being divorced, and the critical role that friends play. The problem is we don’t have the right language in that sense.
The language issue can cut both ways. I’ve heard different things from different people. People would be happy to have a language that feels more suitable. Your question at the very top was, “What is a friend?” It is such a capacious term that it can mean almost anything, and even best friend. I’ve heard people talk about their best friend and it is different from what other people think constitutes a best friend. The flip side of adding more languages is there are going to be people who don’t feel quite right, and that they want something slightly different. Instead, the bigger thing that the people in these relationships are asking is for us to be able to imagine relationships that don’t fit into a neat category. It’s a very hard thing for us to do. I personally think that having some language is helpful on some level. If every relationship has no lines around it, it creates issues for forms of social and eventually legal recognition as well. The language thing is very important but it might not be the be all end all. The bigger ask is for people to be more imaginative about what relationships can be, and how the most important relationship in someone’s life might not be a romantic one or a child.
Do you have a particular term that you personally like? Do you have someone who has surveyed lots of people around this?
The term I have come to use is platonic partner.
That is boring.
The issue is the connotation of the word platonic now is different from what platonic meant in the past. The way I started down this path was reading about romantic friendship, which is a term that’s referring to intimate and affectionate friendships that have existed for about a millennium, but were prominent from around the 1700s to the turn of the 20th century. I was looking for modern-day romantic friendships, and then I found that a lot of people didn’t feel like their friendship has those elements like the butterflies of romance. Instead, it felt more akin to a sibling relationship. I thought that reviving the term romantic friendship might be confusing to some people who feel like overall, they fit into this broad category. That’s the provisional term I’ve been using so far. If you have better suggestions, let me know. Nothing is set in stone.
I’m not trying to be critical, I was trying to be comedic, but I think it’s a real problem. We should add one to this idea of sexual friendships. The idea of two people who are primarily friends but they also happen to be physically intimate. They don’t think of themselves as partners, and in that traditional relationship escalator that’s there. We’re not talking about those types of relationships per se, although they do count more as friendships than they do in the way. Sexual friendships, from the get-go, assume that consistency is not going to check that box. That’s a natural deviation from the relationship escalator. This idea of historically friendships being so prominent, you talk about Frederick Douglass, and that was such a striking example. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Frederick Douglass writes in his autobiography about his decision to escape from slavery. One of the hardest factors to make that escape was leaving behind his friends. He talks about the abiding love that he has for these men in his life. I came across this through a book that’s about men’s friendships and slavery. His was one vivid example of that. My guess is that is surprising to people these days or they might imagine somebody being concerned about abandoning a child, spouse or lover. He said that he almost didn’t do it because of his concern over his relationships with his friends. There are a few more important things or decisions you could make that would ride on a friendship than deciding to not escape bondage.
That was striking. It’s a testament to how powerful these relationships can be and how important they can be especially for someone who’s going to go out there on their own. I always talk about how solos are more mobile. They’re able to make choices and they have options, but to have that constellation of people around you, whether they be close and far in terms of relationship or close and far in terms of distance is a support system buffer. Back when Frederick Douglass was escaping slavery, there was no text messaging and Zoom. Let’s pivot into talking about men per se. One of the things that I have noticed in general is when it comes to being single or even this topic of friendship is that women, at times, are faced with the challenges more. They’re also good about getting help and finding support. A lot of men may be suffering, struggling, but they don’t either find it or don’t have the skills by which to reconcile and to fix these things. You were a producer of an NPR episode about men and loneliness. I read it and I cried as a man.
It means a lot that it touched you in a way. I’ve gotten emails from people telling me that it made them cry for men.
There’s a scene in that story about a middle-aged man who found himself hugging a post in his apartment. I think that men are unpopular these days and they do a lot of damage in the world, but many of them are kind, decent people who are trying to make their way, and there’s not a conversation to help them. In that article, it talks about research asking people, “Who would you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or afraid?” The challenge is when someone can answer that question to their health. That term afraid affected me. The idea that men aren’t allowed to be afraid might inhibit them from picking up the phone even if they have someone. I should let you talk as I compose myself.
I think that men or heterosexual men if they’re in a relationship with a woman, that might be one space and maybe the only space where they are allowed to be vulnerable.
Even then at times, they’re not allowed.
We’re used to men expressing negative emotions in the form of anger rather than sadness. I’m not privy to all-male spaces by the nature of who I am. I imagine that there were some all-male spaces, maybe in the military and elsewhere where there’s a possibility of being vulnerable, and the fact that there are norms around that. For the most part, it’s very much not, and that men who are friends with one another don’t expect to be wrapped up in the other person’s arm and crying with them in the same way that I would expect that of any close friend of mine. That’s not to say that every friendship needs to look the same, but I do think that men should be able to have access to the full range of emotions and possible support that women are able to have access to as well.
The moment that you described where this man who by this point had been divorced twice. He didn’t have friends in his life. He wanted that physical connection, had sought that in romantic relationships, and now just wanted a friend. It is so much easier to go out and find someone to date and sleep with for a night than it is to find a friend. This is not an example of a man, but one of the women I profiled for the Atlantic story whose friend died was heartbroken afterward. She thought, “I can get intimacy in the form of dating if I want to, but that’s not what I want. I want somebody who I can talk to at all hours of the night who completely gets me, and I don’t know how to find that again.” She’s going to have trouble finding that person again.
I think about men who probably didn’t even have the chance to find a person even close to that relationship who deeply understands them because there is a cutoff point at which it is no longer acceptable for what men can say and do in their relationships. The American Psychological Association, if I’m remembering correctly, talked about the harms of American masculinity to men’s psychological wellbeing. Friendship is one way that the structure is manifest that men don’t have the full range of relationships that they can.
I’m going to leave that in because it’s important for people to know that it’s okay to be sad as a man. I think a lot about these things because I interact with a lot of men. They are my friends, students and business partners. I see the full range of this. We’re lucky we’re quite elevated. I tell my friends that I love them. I hug and embrace them. It took me a long time to get to that space. I’m also good at making and maintaining those friendships, male and female. Part of the reason I thrive is because of those friendships. To hear men who are either in relationships where they would not have a social life, if not for their wife. When they depart those relationships, oftentimes it’s the wife divorcing the man. For good reason, that man is left on an island and doesn’t have the skills to bounce back from that. It ends up jumping into another relationship because of the ease. You start swiping and there are lots of options.
Heterosexual women have a role to play in trying to make men feel more like they can have friendships. In many cases, they are pushing the men in their lives to have friendships. It is not in women’s self-interests being emotional gold diggers of women and having to rely on them so much. For a lot of women, they feel suspicious and uncomfortable if a man has an extremely close relationship with another man that is born of some homophobia. The women should be conscious of their own behavior and how they joke about men who seem especially close, how they see those Sherlock and Watsons who are out there. I am thinking of a couple of men who I talked to in North Carolina who are in their 30s and had been best friends since they were in high school.
They’ve heard every single gay joke that you can imagine and joke like, “Have you left your wife yet?” In terms of keeping the friendship. They’re compared to every romantic couple that you can imagine. They are able to get over it because they’re secure in their friendship and who they are as people. Nobody should have to put up with that. The friends around them, men and women, think that they’re gently ribbing them, they admire their friendship, and they don’t know how to express it. All of us should be thinking about what we do to enable or restrict the kinds of relationships that particularly heterosexual men are restricted in being able to have.
I certainly don’t blame women per se. These are systemic problems, but we’re forced to cope with them at an individual level. I have a close friend and when we go out, we’re well-groomed, well-dressed and fit. He’s much better looking than I am, but nonetheless, people will often think that we are a gay couple. That’s never been a problem for us. We have never seen it as threatening. If anything, we like it because it made it easier to talk to women because the defenses were a little down. It was an easier way to say, “Hello.” I want to get your reaction to an idea about that gentle ribbing. It’s well-meaning.
When someone says, “You’re so great, why are you single?” That is well-intentioned but can be painful and hurtful. In the same way that joshing around and saying, “When are you two going to come out of the closet and let us know?” A previous guest, Chris Mar, said in the case of, “You’re so great, why are you single?” What is the perfect response to that? She says, “What do you mean by that?” In some ways, that reaction or that response to that ribbing of, “When are you guys going to let us all know?” You say, “What do you mean by that?” It’s a way to catch someone in terms of the assumptions they’re making about these kinds of relationships. I’m curious what you think about that. This is about language and we don’t have proper language and ways to talk about these.
With the men that I was describing, both of them are married to women and have been for a long time. It’s not even that they’re single and that people are speculating that maybe they were in the closet or something. It shows that even they aren’t free of it. When people are asking a question that has judgment underlying it, asking them what they need, and responding to the question that forces them to articulate maybe the things that are not so great that are behind their words. It seems like almost always a good method whether for the single question or this one.
I do like this term. I toss around the term bromance when there’s excitement. As an adult man, sometimes I meet another man and I am excited to meet him because in the same way, it might be hard to partner up romantically. It’s oftentimes hard to partner up as friends, especially as middle-aged men. I want to tell you, I was moved by that episode. The other thing in it that was both concerning but also a little bit uplifting were the conversations that you had with young boys. That’s why I say it’s systemic because young boys already have this. There’s this 1, 2 punch of homophobia and hyper-masculinity that make it difficult for men to be vulnerable enough to develop those friendships. Hearing these young boys talk once they were licensed, that it was okay to have friendships, to have these dear male friends in their life, and how they reacted to that.
The work that I was drawing on there was from Niobe Way. She’s interviewed hundreds of boys. I’ve gone to some of the classrooms that she taught in. The thing that she found in these interviews was that you talk to boys who are 9, 10, 11, and they talk about their love for their friends, not just like, “I love you, bro.” They care so much for that person. They started hitting their teenage years and it becomes less acceptable. She finds that the same boys who were talking affectionately are suddenly saying, “It doesn’t matter to me.”
Part of it is that the boys start dating and then the romantic relationship that they’re interested in ends up taking the place of the friendship. This emotional distancing in order to appear masculine starts early. The hopeful part is that this is not a deeply ingrained thing from that is unerasable, that starts when boys are two, that so much of this is socialized. She also talks a little bit about some of the other countries that she had spent a good deal of time in where boys will hold hands and show a lot of affection. You can look both across time and culture to see that the way that men behave in the US and the West, and how limited their means of affection and depth of connection are, it’s not innate.
The sad part of the story is how early boys are getting these messages and therefore, how much work we would need to do to unravel that. You have a 40-year-old man who’s has gotten many messages. I was sent a clip from a modern family where the father who’s in his 60s or something around there, his wife makes fun of him saying, “You can’t call your best friend, your best friend. That’s not manly enough.” It’s fictional but it’s speaking to something in the culture. If you’re getting those messages for decades upon decades, that’s a lot of work that individual person needs to undo, and that collectively we would need to undo to get men back to the point where they were boys, loved their friends, and could say that.
I have two reactions to this before we turn our attention to the making and maintaining part of this. Whether you’re a male or female, this can be useful. The first reaction is about that idea of intimacy. I’m going to tell a personal story. This was many years ago, I went on Semester At Sea, and I was 26 years old. This was not pre-internet, but this was a time where you communicated through calling cards and letters. I had a dear friend from childhood and my roommate freshman year, his name is Todd, and he’s still a friend today. He’s a good friend but we don’t see each other often. I gave him my itinerary and he said, “I’m going to meet you in Egypt.” We were going to meet in Egypt, which was not an easy thing to do because there are no cell phones. The day the ship arrived in Port Said, I waited on the dock for him and he didn’t show up. I waited the entire day.
I ended up making friends with these Egyptian guys who had a leather shop that was there in the port. We became fast friends. They were fascinated by me. These were the first Egyptian people that I had ever met. I ate lunch with them and so on. At one point in time, we went on a walk to go get dinner or something like that. One of the guys took my arm in his arm. That has never been something that I had ever experienced before. This is part of Egyptian culture. Men will hold hands and embrace as they walk in public. I had been told that this is part of the customs and culture, so I was prepared for it. I remember simultaneously feeling uncomfortable because it was out of my experience but also touched. I was like, “This man is showing true brotherly affection in a way.” That’s a nice example of how these things are determined by culture. That’s the first thing.
A lot of cultures in that region of the world have had this norm around men showing physical affection. One of the complicated things in thinking about this is that a lot of the cultures where it is permissible are ones where there’s a lot of sex segregation and homophobia. Homophobia to the extent where it’s beyond the pale to be a gay. You might imagine that in the US where homophobia is much milder in general, that it would be easier for men to show physical affection. It is hard to speak to the latent homophobia that exists even in people who think about themselves as progressive.
With the gender segregation part, if you’re a man and you’re cut off from women, then it makes sense that you have to find some intimacy with somebody. There are different expectations around marriage in a lot of cultures where it’s not necessarily that the person that you’re married to is going to be the person who understands every part of you. There are economic imperatives around marriage. It’s a merging of families that there are different expectations there. What I would like to see is for us to get to a world where it is possible for men to have these close friendships and to take each other’s arms. Being in a world where there isn’t homophobia and where different genders can mix freely. That’s closer to the world that we have in the US.
I wouldn’t want us to revert back to more homophobia and more sex segregation to make these friendships possible. It seems like there’s one extreme or the other that’s necessary to make these friendships possible. Going back to what you were saying in ancient cultures, one of the reasons why Plato and Aristotle and so on thought about friendship in this high-minded way was that they didn’t think that their relationships with women could be as meaningful, as cerebral as a friendship with a man, assuming that they were going to have these heterosexual romantic partnerships. They talked about how only men were capable of friendships. The status of different genders comes into play in friendships. It’s complicated. It’s not that we necessarily want to go back to the world where friendship was more significant if that means that you have to deride women in the process.
I ended up flying to Luxor the next day and meeting up with my friend. We were united and I have fine memories of my time in Luxor with him. The other thing is we were talking about exemplars. It’s getting a little dated but it’s still relevant. It’s the movie, Fight Club, as we talk about men. How that resonates with many men in part because it’s a fascinating story. Also, this connection not only between Tyler Durden and the Narrator, but also this community of men who come together. I’m curious, have you thought about that considering this as you have been thinking about friendship?
You were revealing my cultural incompetence. I know what Fight Club is but I haven’t watched it, so I’m going to add that to my list of things that I need to watch. It hasn’t come up in conversations that I’ve had so far, but if it spoke to you in the way that it did and made you think about friendship in this way, then I’m sure that there are plenty of others.
You’ll see some of the topics that we’ve been talking about the issue of hyper-masculinity and so on that’s there. We’ll leave that and put a pin in it. The last thing is I want to pivot us to this idea of making, maintaining and perhaps ending friendships. As I listened to the article about men and loneliness, it was like, “There are people who are deficient.” I believe this is a skill that can be developed. What would you say to readers who are inspired to make their team?
I’ve been reflecting a lot about this during the pandemic and learning things along the way. We talked about reliability and being able to see people frequently. We have quite an opportunity to deepen friendships or build them because many people are craving any structure and ways to mark time. Finding some shared activity where you can see somebody regularly is valuable. I had a writing session with a friend of mine. We do virtual writing sessions two days a week, which started in the midst of the pandemic. I’ve started other kinds of regular calls with people. Some of which are short, but they are ways of making sure that we are constantly in each other’s lives and not always at a place where we have to summarize what has happened before.
Once you get used to seeing someone’s face on-screen or hearing someone’s voice that often, it lowers the barrier to having longer conversations. There’s a friend of mine who we’ve never lived in the same place and we would catch each other in person when we were in the other’s town. Because of the pandemic, it became not that big of a deal to ask you when I have lunch. Now we’ve done that pretty regularly. I feel like I know so much more about her as a person. The combination of people’s craving for social connection and structure can get people to get past their nervousness around trying to ask a new friend to spend more time together or to start to deepen an existing friendship.
As we think about you want to make this team, there’s the starting friendship and that’s difficult. There is this thing like we all have old friends. Why not start by dusting off some old friendships in a sense as a good starting point? You already know that person was a friend. They have an appeal that might still be there. They’re likely to be reliable, trustworthy and anti-jealous. What’s wrong with picking up the phone and giving an old friend a call? I like your idea of frequency or regularity there. That seems like an easy place to start. That’s a good tip in terms of scheduling. Get it on the calendar.
Some of the people who I’ve gotten to spend more time with over the pandemic, they were existing friends. We started to find ways to be in each other’s lives in more frequent ways. I don’t think that frequency negates the need for depth. When you’re seeing somebody that often, then it’s reminding you like, “How do I know about what’s happening in their life?” I’ve been trying to get a meditation practice for years and finally it was like, “I’m going to rope people in, whom I know also are trying to do the same thing.” I have three friends who meditate. We do a short meditation three times a week. We get a little bit about what’s going on in each other’s lives. I know that’s not enough, but it spurs me to try to know more. How are people doing, we can’t get into it and I want to get into it at a different point. That feels like something is doable for a lot of people.
I taped that Nietzsche episode. Nietzsche believed that there was an optimal distance for friends. The benefit of a friend is you don’t necessarily live with the person. As a result, they have enough distance to let you have your individualism, your time and your space but also, they’re close enough that they have this recognition. He was always worried about friends getting too close. In contemporary times, I’m concerned that friends are too far. If you spend all your time with one person, you don’t have anything new to talk about because you’re both experiencing everything. If you never spend time with someone, all of the conversations are about these big abstract things. There’s something about the regularity of seeing Rhaina every week and saying, “How did that conversation with your boss go?” because it’s detailed enough.
What you’re pointing out about distances is important. One thing that reminds me of is a couple of friends, the men I was referring to earlier who get ribbed by the people in their life about, “When are you going to go leave your wives for each other?” Every Friday for many years, they’ve had a call with one other friend where they say they’re high and low. I think it’s what they’re looking forward to. Other people in their life know about that and have a lot of envy because when you count up, those might be brief calls and only talking about a few things, but that means that they know what is happening in each other’s lives.
Those 500 calls, when they’re accumulated, tell you so much about a person. Even those short catch-ups can keep us from being constantly in a catch-up mode rather than being in someone’s life in real-time. One thing that I love are voice memos for this exact reason, which I know a lot of people have not tested out like on WhatsApp, Signum or iMessage. You can record something. I had a thought that I wanted to send my friend at 11:30 PM and I wasn’t going to call him about it. It wasn’t that important but I told him about a virtual event that I’d been doing something that had made me think of him. That wasn’t me even telling him that much about my life, but it was a way that I could indicate with my voice, which is intimate more so than writing. He’s somebody who’s in the back of my mind and it will start a conversation about how he thinks about fiction and poetry.
In addition to the technology I was talking about with Zoom and ways that we can check in with each other, there are other things that are pretty low lift that allow us to reach out and have these experiences. Instead of saying, “In the last six weeks, these are all the things that happened.” You have these shorter spurts where you’re working through some problem or you’re making some observation. That makes you feel like you’re in the middle of the person’s world and not just receiving the narration after the fact.
Voice is more important than writing when it comes to relationships. With this focus on texting, the careful curation and choice of words, you do lack something that comes from voice, nuance and hearing someone. You’re right, you’re pointing out some easy, low lift ways to develop and maintain relationships, but it is going to take work. There is an investment because of how important relationships are. Anything worth doing is going to be difficult, and a friendship is worth doing. There’s going to be the cost of investing in it. People seem willing to invest lots of time and energy in finding a life partner. Why would they not do this in terms of potentially a life friendship?
They’re like small hacks like, “What is the shape of your thinking about your relationship?” I would like people more to be in a place where they are imagining that this is a relationship that is going to involve work and there are rewards from working too. It’s not just that you have to spend a lot of time and emotional energy on somebody, you get that in return. When I edit my friend’s applications or I help them with something that they’re having a hard time with. I then see when they have a triumph. I’m excited on their behalf or I’m having a lot of trouble with something and they come and help me.
The idea that friendship is supposed to be easy and that if it’s not easy, something is wrong, it’s pervasive and not helpful for developing closeness. We don’t expect that of any other close relationships in our lives. It’s not to say that people should put up with somebody who doesn’t treat them well but people have highs and lows. As we’ve all learned especially during the pandemic, not every friendship is going to be 100% always fun. It’s working through those difficulties with somebody that you care about, that makes the relationship matter and feels like somebody will be there for you in the hard times. With that question that you brought up, that was in the Hidden Brain episode that like you can call somebody in the middle of the night when you are alone or afraid. If you want that support, you will have to give it at some point.
As we emerge from COVID, there are going to be possibilities. People are going to start going out in the world and there’s a little bit of a fresh start. This is a good time to start thinking about maybe starting some new friendships. You said something about friends that are not good for you. This idea of sunsetting friendships, is that something that you’ve thought about or you’ve come across in your research and your thinking?
I’ve come across this. I worked as an editor on an episode that had to do with the life cycle of friendships including ending them. The idea of having a conversation with somebody about ending a friendship sounds incredibly hard for me. One reason for it is that with a romantic relationship, which is for a lot of people are monogamous, just telling somebody, “I don’t want to date you,” is saying like, “I don’t want you to be the most important person in my life essentially.” To tell somebody that you don’t want to be friends with them is to be like, “I don’t want you to be among the 100 closest people to me.”
In some way, that might be more painful for that person to hear. It’s also more difficult because we don’t have a norm of friendship breakups. We will hear of a falling out with a friend, that’s the closest event that we’re aware of. Even falling out, there’s not a sense of agency it. It’s like everything combusted, not that one person decided they were going to tell this person how their relationship was changing. It’s helpful to be talking about expectations in friendships so that you can be there for each other at good times. It also makes it easier if you want to downsize the friendship. It’s not a matter of, “Do you never want to see each other again?” In some cases, friendships that were very important can become less important or they can change.
With my closest friend, when she moved abroad and then has been in a romantic relationship, we’ve had conversations about what do we want to be to each other now. It’s not that we still want to be very close but how are the ways that we’re going to communicate? How do we want them to change as opposed to observing that they’re changing and not doing it with intention? Whether it is a scale down, a shift or try to be kind to each other by behaving with intentionality rather than fading and never saying like, “What’s going on in your life?” That means that maybe the relationship isn’t going to be that important, particularly for close friendships, it’s something that’s a little bit more marginal, then those conversations aren’t always necessary.
I don’t have a good answer to this, that’s why I’m asking you. There is a little bit of this. If you stop trying, that is also one of the ways that a friendship becomes less prominent. There’s another situation that pops into my head before we bring this to a close, and that is when you have a friend that you’re losing to one of those relationship escalator situations. I’ve seen the full gamut in my life. I’ve seen friends who work very hard to maintain it through their marriage and so on. I’ve had friends disappear and then come back from the divorce. I tend to be rather accepting of these people and not resentful of it because I understand the system by which they’re working. There are times where a conversation redefining might be in order. I’m curious about your thoughts about that.
I have seen early on in my adulthood or even childhood how friendships became significantly less important once they’re in romantic relationships. It made me not want to reproduce that and trying to find people who would not do that to me.
The term disposable comes to mind. You were being used and then thrown away once something more important comes along.
There’s a sense of like a boomerang that when you need them, they’ll be back. I’m thinking about one woman I interviewed who they were extremely close, and then the best friend had found a boyfriend and completely disappeared. When they broke up, she was back in the friendship and is excited as ever. The expectation was that person was going to wait around. My ideas are predicated on having some openness before that starts. It reminds me of the same friend who I was referring to. We have had a real exhilarating beginning to our friendship. She’s ever the practical almost like, “We’re going to have to practice difficulty in our relationship.” We couldn’t imagine what that would look like even though we knew that it would likely happen at some point.
I don’t think we ever practiced having hard conversations in the way that she did. We had a conversation where she was like, “My partner is now the photo on the cover of my phone and it used to be the two of us. How do you feel about that?” We’ve had different conversations about how we’ve each felt about the friendship. The reason we were able to do that is we set the groundwork early on. We had set some level of expectations about how important we were going to be in each other’s lives. If there was ever a feeling that there was a deviation from that, we could then have a conversation about it.
The main piece of advice is if you haven’t gotten to that point where one person is about to enter a romantic relationship, try to set that groundwork so that you can have those conversations when life changes happen. It might not be a romantic relationship, it might be moving or something like that. If you’re in the midst of it, many of us are inclined to complain to the other friends in our lives rather than do the hard thing, which is to tell the person, “I care about you, and because I care about you and our relationship, this is extremely hard for me. I’m excited for you. I’m excited that this friendship can exist. I also believe that you’re enthralled with this relationship but that doesn’t mean that our friendship can’t still be a prominent part of our lives.”
Part of it is helping that person interrogate their views about what a romantic relationship is and should be because that person is not operating purely on their own hopes and choices, but within a world that tells them, “This is what a romantic relationship should be. In order to become close and have a successful romantic relationship, you need to dedicate a ton of time to it, which means it’s a zero-sum game.” I’ve written about this topic but I’m not the only one who’s written and thought about the expectations we have around romantic relationships, how historically recent they are, how damaging they can be to the other relationships in our lives and to the holistic support system that we would want to have, to the team that you’re talking about. Maybe situating that conversation about the particular relationship and how they think about the other relationships in their lives, and what makes a successful romantic relationship could be helpful. It’s hard. I feel for the people who are dealing with this situation.
With the loss and the grief of it and the potential for resentment. Also, there is an empathy gap. People forget what it is like to be in love and how love bonds you in a way that crowds out a lot of relationships. For better or for worse, the intensity of love is fleeting. It doesn’t last as long as we think it will or as the fairytales have told us that it will. Rhaina, this is great advice. I’m glad we’re ending on this note. It feels like there is a potential impossibility.
If I could try to recap a few of the ideas for the readers, this idea of if you’re looking to lean into friendships, this idea of starting with the old is not a bad place because you have that foundation. The value of voice of being able to talk, whether it be in these snippets or a real deep conversation about even the value of the friendship, and what are the hopes and expectations of it. You used the word intentionality that you need to try. Oftentimes, starting is the hardest part. This came up in the episode on men and loneliness in the research that people think that starting is harder than it is, and that people are often quite receptive to invitations, conversation and so on.
As a social scientist, you might appreciate that one of my favorite all-time concepts is a higher-order belief. It’s what we believe about what other people believe. This comes into play in this particular study that people are asked like, “Do you think if you sat next to somebody on the train, you started a conversation with them that they would want to talk to you and would they enjoy it?” There’s this gap where people think that people are less interested in talking to them than they actually are, and they hold back as a result of that. If everybody understood that people are open to having those conversations begin and not assuming that the person next to you doesn’t have any interest in getting to know a stranger, then we might be able to reach out more. It’s an error in our judgments of what other people think that hinder our ability to connect.
The one thing I wanted to underscore in the summary that you gave that capture things well is that if we think about our understanding of how romantic relationships work, we expect that you will have conversations on the regular about the relationship, that it’s not normal for things to go completely unsaid. Whether that is on your first date saying whether you want to have kids or not. Are we going to be exclusive? How is the relationship doing if you’re having arguments? Are you arguing well? We expect to have conversations about the relationship. In friendships, we expect everything to go without those meta conversations. If people could get used to that, that could enable a deeper connection.
I think about one conversation I had with a couple of friends where I asked them if they wanted more physical affection in their friendships, and they looked and said yes. I said, “Would you feel comfortable initiating it?” They both said no because they would feel too awkward. They would want some understanding and the other person wants the same thing that they do. The only way that you know that is either you initiate or you have a conversation about what is it that you want or need, and what can this relationship do for you? We don’t expect to have that level of openness and conversation about the relationship when it comes to friendships, but we practiced in other areas of our lives so we can bring those skills into friendship.
I want to give people a tip if they want to start to do that because that’s hard. It’s a big ask to have someone say, “Rhaina, let’s talk about our friendship and how it’s going.” A nice entry point into this as something that I have done. I called an old friend and I simply said to him, “I feel so lucky I met you,” and then I told him why. He said, “That touches my heart.” I think that’s a good place to start to initiate those conversations that are there because I felt as close as I ever had to him at that moment.
Without a doubt, the people who I’ve talked to who are in these platonic partnerships, extremely close friendships, they tell each other so much what they love about that person and how great they are. I get to bear witness to that, which is lovely. I don’t know that we do that enough and we assume that the people in our lives know in what way they matter to us and how they affect us. I hope that more people can tell somebody how much that person means to them because if you’re on the other side of it, you can imagine how important that would feel and how much that would make you feel connected to that friend.
Rhaina, I appreciate your time. This is a wonderful and important conversation. It’s one that I hope more people will have.
Thank you for your questions. Thank you for being vulnerable. I think you’re modeling the exact behavior that people need to have relationships that matter and are meaningful.
Thank you. Cheers.
- Rhaina Cohen
- Narrative Podcasts at NPR
- Hidden Brain
- Getting Off the Relationship Escalator.
- Call Your Girlfriend
About Rhaina Cohen
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor of narrative podcasts at NPR and previously covered the social sciences for the podcast Hidden Brain.
Rhaina has worked stories about friendship, most recently, a feature for The Atlantic called “What if Friendship, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life?” She’s currently working on a book about deeply committed friendships and what the rest of us can learn from these relationships.
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