Reclaiming Friendship

SOLO 197 | Reclaiming Friendship


Friendship is essential to a remarkable life. Peter McGraw believes it is time to elevate friendship, and in that vein, he invites Marisa Franco to talk about the topic. Marisa is the New York Times bestselling author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make–and Keep–Friends.


What do you think of the conversation? Join the Solo community and let Peter know: https://petermcgraw.org/solo/.

Listen to Episode #197 here


Reclaiming Friendship

My guest is a psychologist speaker and New York Times bestselling author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make–and Keep–Friends. Welcome, Marisa Franco.

Thanks so much for having me.

I am thrilled to talk to you. I am obsessed with friendships and especially their value to singles. This episode follows a SOLO thoughts episode where I talk about how my friendships have helped me deal with anxiety in part because I have someone to call in the middle of the night when I am sick or afraid. That was a big insight for me to know that a lot of the things that I worry about are unnecessary for me to worry about, especially because I have people that I can rely on and call on in times of need.

It makes me quite sad that there are people who don’t have that person or have those people to call. That’s why your work is special important. This is a perfect follow-up. I want to start with what might seem an unusual question. How do you define friendship? I find the definitions often to be unsatisfying in some way.

Me too. At least in the research, it’s usually things like it’s voluntary. You don’t have any formal ties involved, like a marriage certificate or blood. It’s non-sexual in nature. You have trust and loyalty to one another. I do find that unsatisfying too. My personal definition came from when I was at a friend’s wedding.

I was sitting with my friend and her husband. He was talking about how half his friends hadn’t shown up to his bachelorette party. They had to pay twice as much and he was living by this friend, but that friend would never be responsive to him. It got me thinking about the differences between good friends and good company.

Good company is someone whose company we enjoy, but a friend is someone who are committed to. A friend is someone we are invested in and we show up at their low moments and high moments. It comes with a responsibility to one another. Just because we enjoy each other’s company and we like someone doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re a friend. At least, a good friend for me involves some level of commitment and investment.

I appreciate you saying that. I came across these four levels of friendship that encompass a little bit of talking about intimate friends, close friends, casual friends, and acquaintances, and this hierarchy of commitment in a sense. I had a friend who said to me, “You’re the only person or you’re one of the only people who knows my public life, my private life, and my secret life.” That’s heavy stuff.

That’s juicy.

Vice versa. He knows everything and I trust him with that. He obviously trusts me with that. Not that we’ve done anything against the law. Don’t worry. There are no crimes committed. There have been no bodies buried but in your secret life, maybe the world doesn’t need to know everything about what you do, what you think, and who you are.

That notion of commitment, the idea that he’s going to know that forever and I’m going to know this forever, that you can trust that forever. The commitment is forever. You don’t let someone know your secret life if you don’t believe that they are completely 100% committed to the friendship. I want you to critique me, Marisa. We’re fellow academics. We’re used to critiques. We welcome them. We know they make us better. I talk in my forthcoming book and on this show about what makes a remarkable friend. In the anecdote that you started with, this friend doesn’t seem to qualify as a friend.

Not to me.

They’re an acquaintance. They’re a pal. They may be fun to hang out with and have a beer with but they’re not a friend. They’re certainly not a remarkable friend to me. I say a remarkable friend has three attributes or three qualities. The first one is consistent with many definitions of friendship. That is they provide value. They make your life better. Your life is better as a result of them being in it and vice versa. There is some level of mutualness that is ideal.

The second one that you’ve alluded to and certainly talk a lot about is that they are high integrity. They’re reliable, trustworthy, and show up for you. The third one I don’t think is talked a lot about. It is that they are anti-jealous. They practice what the polyamorous community calls Compersion.

They are not in competition with you. They are there to celebrate your wins and to commiserate your losses. Does that resonate with you? What might be missing from that? I think it’s important for people to have a working definition model of friendship if they’re going to pursue them and if they’re going to decide which friendships to keep, nurture, and maintain.

I like that list. Consistency, reliability, or you call it integrity is key to being in a secure relationship with anyone. When you mentioned they are there in the high and the low moments or their anti-jealousy, that reminds me of something I call diagnostic moments, which are the moments people use to diagnose their friendship and their overall satisfaction in it. Those moments tend to be moments of high emotion because we remember memories better when they’re high emotion.

That means a friend who responded in our highest moments and our lowest moments disproportionately affects how we perceive friendship. When I went through that divorce, had my kid, or got that promotion, how did a friend react? If they cut me down in those moments, it’s going to matter a lot more than how they reacted in moments of peace.

That tells us that in friendship, sometimes it’s not about showing up every day. It’s about showing up and supporting us in those diagnostic moments and those times that we need. That is a good list. If I have to add another one, I don’t necessarily think that this is always a part of friendship or definitional, but it can make a friendship a lot deeper. That is vulnerability.

If there is mutual vulnerability, that’s one of the most powerful friendship deepeners. There are 36 questions to fall in love study. It was conducted to build friendships between people. Some people who went through these 36 vulnerable questions with a stranger felt closer to that stranger than anyone they had known before. It’s wild how much vulnerability could play a role and the connection.

The last thing that I would add is something called mutuality, which means we as friends are thinking about both of our needs at the same time. I’m thinking about yours and mine. Sometimes I’ll set a boundary if I have something that’s urgent for me and I’ll let you down. If something is urgent for you, I may inconvenience myself to help you out. What does that mean? If you call me at 2:00 AM and you’re depressed, I’m going to answer because you’re a person of high need at that moment. Even though I’m like, “I don’t want to wake up and answer your call,” if I’m thinking about mutuality, I will. I would think, “Let me balance both of our needs. Who’s more urgent at this moment?” That’s what we find in high-quality friendships as well.

There is this reciprocity for that. Anthropologists like Alan Fiske talk about these equality-matching style relationships where people are tuned in to some balance. You and I may agree that friendships can have a communal sharing element to that of familial, give as you can and take as you need. Nevertheless, it’s easy to become sensitive when that gets too out of whack.

Certainly, it gets too out of whack. The complicated piece about friendship is if I was giving more to you for one year and I was going through it, then you’re giving to me more in another year. It’s less of an immediate reciprocity but more of a long-term one, it works out. If you’ve given to me those two years and I haven’t given to you, then that feels unbalanced. It’s more like when we are judging the reciprocity in a friendship that we look at it like a book and acknowledge that there are chapters where one of us will give more than the other, but overall in the book. We hope that it balances out. Rather than it being one-for-one like, “I invited you out. Now you have to invite me out.”

I agree. It’s when you ask someone for help and they say no is when it starts to show up. I have this thing with friends where I say, “Do you want me to do X or do you need me to do X?” If it’s want I might say no because it’s inconvenient or it’s not a good time but if you need me to be there, I will book the flight. To me that’s a reasonable standard, even to be able to be comfortable saying, “I need you to do this for me,” which is a vulnerable thing to do.

It is, but I like that because sometimes we miss each other or we hurt our friendships because we mix those two things up. You think, “I’m not going to show up because they’ll be okay,” but on their end, it’s like, “I needed it.” That’s a beautiful question to ask people.

This is all very top of mind to me. I had an incident in which I got very angry and disappointed in a situation. I sent a series of text messages, which was, “Can we talk? I need to vent.” I ended up through the course of the afternoon and evening having four phone conversations with the very four people that I texted. It was so wonderful having these folks validate my emotions and at times, point out how my anger wasn’t completely serving me but also understanding that it was also appropriate and they could see why. They were giving me very good, solid, and rational advice, which I needed some time to process.

I was able to be an ugly person on the phone with them. I felt a little embarrassed by how ugly my emotions were because I knew on a mental level that I was overreacting and I was not being rational, but it took hold of me. It was nice to know that they didn’t wake up going, “I’m not sure Peter is a good person.” They got it. They know me and they were there for me. It was wonderful.

I’m going to say their names. It was my friends Mark, Mary, Kim, and Julie. All of them were wonderful and I’m going to follow up with them to thank them now that I’m not filled with rage. Before we move on, you mentioned the study with the 36 vulnerable questions. I don’t think everybody is familiar with that. They haven’t read your book yet, some of them. They will now once they realize how wonderful you are. Can you talk a little bit more about that survey because it’s one of the more fascinating interventions that you can find?

I believe the researcher who conducted it with Arthur Aaron. He brought together these strangers and he gave them 36 questions of increasing intimacy. Things like, “When was the last time you cried?” for example. He had them reciprocally answer these questions together and afterward, report how close they felt. They felt stunningly closer at the end of going through these questions compared to people who had more shallow conversations. As I said, some people reported that the people they had talked to throughout the study felt more close to them than anyone else.

It’s incredible. In some ways, that last fact makes me sad because what it means is that these people are not having vulnerable conversations. They’re lacking. Some of the data on the decline in close friendships in the United States reflects that. There are people who are lonely because they don’t have important human connections. They don’t have someone to call in the middle of the night when they’re sick or afraid. That’s heartbreaking to me.

It is. When I study the research on connection, I see that most of the things that we do to feel more deeply connected also deeply benefit our own health. For example, there is a study that looked at 106 factors that predict depressive symptoms. The number one factor that protected against depressive symptoms was having someone to confide in. When you’re confiding in someone and being vulnerable, it brings you closer to the other person but it also is important for our mental health and well-being. When we’re not, it harms our relationships, but it also harms us.

This was at the crux of this breakthrough that occurred during a mushroom trip. Knowing that I had someone to call on who would climb on a plane as needed to take care of whatever was causing me anxiety had a stunning effect on these anxious thoughts that I was having in the middle of the night. If you don’t have that person, it’s quite upsetting.

The other thing about the vulnerability study that you cited that a lot of people don’t understand is the pervasiveness of love and human’s capacity to love. In some ways, we are taught from a media narrative that love is reserved for a small number of people. In particular, you’re immediate loved ones, family, children, husband, wife, spouse, and partner in that sense. You’re supposed to contain all your love in that little group.

I’m a big fan of Barbara Fredrickson’s work which dispels a lot of myths and points out that we can have loving moments with a stranger. Once you learn that that can happen, it allows you to cultivate love more generally in your life with your friends. I tell my friends I love them. Many of them reciprocate that. Not all. That doesn’t stop me from telling them that because it’s true. I have love in my heart for them. It opens up possibilities when you start seeing the fact that we have this capacity for love genuine in these small moments of time and with these other types of people.

It reminds me of Angela Chen. Her book Ace helped me understand love more deeply. She specifically says that romantic interest is different from sexual interest. Romantic love is like, “I yearn for you. I’m thrilled by you. I want to be around you all the time.” It’s a passion about someone and we can experience that with friends. That romantic love is not only experienced in friendship but it has been historically experienced more so in friendship than in marriage.

In the 1800s and before in the Western world at least, you married someone for resources. You married them for reputation and your family chose them for you. The genders are considered so distinct that you can only feel that level of intimacy with someone who shares your gender. It was the thinking at the time.

Friends we’re sharing beds, writing their names into trees, holding their hands, and going on each other’s honeymoons. This was all normal. Now some people are ashamed about having those deep feelings of intimacy, passion, and connection with their friends. That’s not abnormal at all and it’s been more typical in our history than it has been abnormal. Just because you don’t have a traditional romantic partner doesn’t mean that you don’t have romantic love in your life.

I’m glad you said that. I remember reading these stories of men sleeping in the same bed together. One of the guys is throwing his arm over his friend and almost cuddling with him in a sense. It’s this very brotherly close thing that you that you might expect from children, but not from grown men. At this time, this was something that was not unusual. Homophobia doesn’t help this in the present day, unfortunately. My question next is, with what you just talked about, did that perspective influence your choice of the title of this book? You call this book Platonic.

SOLO 197 | Reclaiming Friendship
Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make–and Keep—Friends

Maybe it should have because platonic love can be romantic as well. Maybe I could have called it friends. What I learned about the term platonic is Marsilio Ficino is an Italian scholar who coined the term based on Plato’s writings. He saw it as a love that was deep enough to transcend the physical. At the time, it was not like now where platonic love is romantic love with cruise missing like sex or “romance.”

In fact, through not having sex, there is a deeper form of intimacy that we can create with someone that we are pulled in fundamentally by their characters, by our deep level of compatibility and shared values with one another. I thought that was beautiful even though I don’t think that’s the way people relate to the term now.

You call friendship the underdog of relationships. I appreciate that. Why?

There have been so many societal messages around family and blood is thicker than water. I realize that the concept of family is a social construct and that different cultures apply the same set of expectations to friends. You can apply them to anyone in your life. You could agree that we’re going to live together or raise a family together.

Also, the messages we’ve received that inspired me to write Platonic is that I used to think I needed a romantic partner to make me complete. That it was the love that made me feel worthy, and I mean romantic in the traditional sense. It made me discount the love I always had around me which was my friends. I felt so close to them and they made me feel so safe but I acted like that didn’t count or was trivial or it didn’t matter.

That was to my great harm. It is to the great harm of all of us. As single people, we feel lonelier than we would have otherwise if society recognized the value of friendship because loneliness is a subjective experience. If you’re always told like, “You don’t have this form of love that’s primary. You’re going to feel lonely,” even if you have all the deep connection that you want. I also honestly think it harms partnered people who turn to one person to fulfill everything and are deeply disappointed. I wanted to be part of not making friendships and underdog relationships anymore and beginning to level this huge hierarchy that we place on love.

Thank you for doing that. Your SOLO, Marisa. I don’t know if you know this but I differentiate singles from solos. I don’t know what your relationship status is presently but solos transcend relationship status. They have these three qualities. One is their wholehearted. They see themselves as a complete person. Not incomplete until the one comes along. They tend to embrace their autonomy and self-sufficiency yet remain connected.

Lastly, they’re unconventional thinkers. They question the norms around relationships and don’t default to them. They tend to question the norms more generally. Someone who writes a book trying to elevate friendship to the status of romantic love clearly fits criteria number three. You’re in good company.

I like the framework.

A lot of the world doesn’t agree with us. If you said to someone, “Who has a more fulfilling life, someone who has a middling romantic partnership, or who has a rich vast vulnerable set of friendships?” A lot of people would choose the former, which I frankly don’t believe is necessarily more fulfilling. It may be more acceptable and maybe a goal that many people end up having. In terms of a fulfilling life, I’ll choose the latter every time.

The research is on your side. We see that getting married does provide a small bump and happiness but a well-connected single person is more satisfied with their lives than the average married person. When marriage does provide a larger bump over our happiness, it’s when we consider our spouse our best friend. Friendship is what drives these healthy marriages. For some of us, we’re experiencing the benefits of that outside of a marriage and it’s still profoundly beneficial.

The other thing that is often overlooked is that when you have that rich vast group of connections, you are buffered against the loss of anyone. I don’t think there are enough conversations about the fragility of the nuclear family. Especially for the men of the world who give up their social lives, and let their wives plan their calendars. Sometimes, they’re heterosexual men. We live in a world where 80% of divorces are also initiated by that wife, so he can be cast astray.

I know that’s the dynamic and I teach this class on loneliness. There is this one day where we do this poll and I asked them things like, “I would be comfortable telling a friend I love them. I would be comfortable holding a hand with a friend.” All these questions about how comfortable you are with intimacy within your friendships.

There is always such a stark gender divide and my students are Gen Z. They are all of our hope. What I see is that for women, there tends to be a lot more overlap between what you do with the romantic partner and what you do with a friend. I will hold hands. We say I love you. We’re deeply vulnerable. For men, there tends to be a stark difference like, “This is what I do with my romantic partner. That’s where I use love. That’s where there is physical touch involved. That’s where I deeply commit. With my friends, we’re hanging out. We’re not getting deep. We’re not expressing love directly.”

It framed my understanding of why men are so willing to give up their friendships when they get into these married partnerships. They’re fundamentally giving up a different type of relationship than a woman would be because of women can access all these forms of intimacy in our friendship. What I realize is that what would help men maybe not fall into that pattern would be developing relationships with greater intimacy before they find that romantic partnership.

The tough thing about it is there is not a conversation happening. There are no men modeling this enough. I’ve talked a lot about these libertarian right-of-center types who are talking to men. The manosphere types and so on. Some of the things that they say are quite concerning. Some of the things though are uplifting. They’re telling men to put aside pornography, the video games, improve themselves, and lean into life. Jordan Peterson talks a lot about this stuff.

These are not vulnerable men. They’re not modeling vulnerability. I have it. I don’t even know how I developed it. Some of it was that I saw my friendships as being the key to my survival and my success more so than any romantic relationship, in part because I got a slow start on those. I had plenty of female friends also early on. I friendzone myself a lot. I slowly developed it and recognized it. If anything, I saw my romantic partnerships as sometimes getting in the way of what I wanted to accomplish in life because they were designed to crowd out everything else.

I never felt like my friends would present me or even expect me to be available all the time and to do everything with them. They gave me a lot of leash, in a sense. I had such great affection for them in that way. Once I started being more vulnerable and more expressive, it came back to you. That’s the beautiful thing.

That’s what I tell men who want that deeper intimacy. You’re going to have to go first. You have to go first because most people are passively receiving the culture. If you’re not the one to go first, nothing is necessarily going to change. I also think of it as a Jenga game where you’re trying to knock each block a little and see does it moves a little bit. “Not this one. I have to go to the next block.”

It’s also key to find people who are ready for that level of intimacy with you instead of trying to force that onto a relationship with someone who’s not comfortable with that level of vulnerability, which might take some sifting. It might take you going through a few rounds of people until you can find someone who’s ready for the intimacy that you want. Keep in mind that if it doesn’t work out with one person or one guy, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to work out with everyone.

We dudes have the capacity. We know that we have the capacity because as you mentioned, for much of human history, that’s what people did. This is not an evolutionary or biological thing. This is a cultural set of norms. The nice thing about cultural norms is you can break them. You can bend them as you need to with very little cost. You’re not going to jail for these things. You may make things a little bit uncomfortable but for the most part, we get to live in a world that is built a particular way. The cost of going against those unwritten rules is worth it. The punishments are worth the benefits in a sense.

I think so too. We receive culture but we also create culture. If you are adapting to those very restricted rules of masculinity, you’re also creating them unfortunately because people are looking to everyone else to say, “What’s the culture?” What kind of culture do you want to be a part of creating? What values do you want to spread as we are all tiny cultural representatives in our own rights?

Also, I mentioned public lives, private lives, and secret lives. It’s not anyone’s business if I hug my guy friends and give them a kiss on the cheek. That’s for us. That’s our intimate moment. We’re right on the verge of talking about something that is important, which is the how-to prescription tips. The average person is already sufficiently motivated to have friendships, especially the solos of the world.

The singles who are thriving are more connected. They have more friends and are more connected to the community. They are naturally doing this. They would like to do it better, I suspect, and the people who are tuning in who weren’t able to answer the question, “Do I have someone to call in the middle of the night when I’m sick or afraid?” are sufficiently motivated to start to remedy this issue by creating some friendships, refurbishing some friendships, and developing some more connections. Where should we begin to get people thinking about the how-to side of this?

The first thing is do not assume it’s going to happen organically. That is a self-sabotaging belief. One study linked it to being more lonely five years later. Whereas, people who think it takes effort or less lonely five years later because they are making the effort. They’re showing up at places of worship. They’re showing up at volunteering and trying to connect with people.

For a lot of us, this assumption comes from childhood where it happened more organically. There is this sociologist Rebecca G. Adams. She says, “For friendship to happen more organically, we need proximity to one another. We need repeated unplanned interactions and seeing each other regularly and it’s planned. For us, we don’t have to plan it like school and work, but we also need vulnerability.”

As kids that was gym class and recess, but as adults, that’s nowhere for a lot of us. We’re not necessarily vulnerable with our colleagues at work. A lot of us are in a hybrid virtual workspace. What that means is that if you’re relying on the same set of assumptions you did when you were kids, then you’re going to end up lonely. You have to try.

You have to put yourself out there. A major reason why we don’t is because we’re so afraid of rejection but we see from the research that when people interact with strangers and predict how liked they are, they underestimate how liked they are. It’s called the liking gap. When people talk to strangers, they predict 40% of the time that strangers will be open to talking to me. It’s closer to 90% of the time that people are less likely to reject us than we think they are. If we put ourselves out there, it’ll likely go a lot more positively than we predict.

I love it. I say try. The magic word is try. I joke that I force my friendship on people. I’m like, “You’re going to be my friend.” I try and I keep trying until it becomes abundantly clear that they are not interested or not the potential friend that I thought they would be. It works. People love to be loved.

They do. I was going to say it works for you too because you get to curate your company now. If you’re so passive, you only get to choose from people that approach you. Now, you get to find the person you think is the coolest person ever and have a chance to be friends with them. I think of rejection as a consolation prize for finding your most actualized company, your highest quality friendship. Whenever I feel that spark of connection with someone, I always try to go for it and it can be as easy as, “I enjoyed talking to you. I would love to stay connected. Is that something you’re open to?”

That connects to the next one that you talk about which is vulnerability. That is you’re taking a chance for someone to say, “No, thank you.”

Let people reject you. Don’t assume you’re going to be rejected before you even try.

I’ll share a story. I know that I’m a freak. I host a lot of events. I bring people together. I’m not afraid to invite and to try to develop when I meet someone that is intriguing. To me, it’s not that much different than dating in a sense. I know if I don’t try in my dating life, no one goes out with me. It doesn’t happen. I don’t have women giving me their number saying, “Call me.”

That’s not my reality. I know that if I want dates, I need to ask for them. I know that if I want friends, I need to ask for them. There are a lot of possibilities. I was in New York City staying with a friend who forced my friendship on him. I met him professionally and was so impressed with him. I wanted to get to know him and seven years later, we’re still friends. He let me stay at his new place in New York City.

I pulled the group of three friends who I knew from three different stages in life. One is a guy I went to college with who was living in New Jersey. He’s doing the suburban dad life. He’s a listener of the podcast. Another friend who’s a comedian with whom we crossed paths 13 or 14 years ago and we are now very close friends. He’s been a contributor to my second book, then this third guy.

Instead of getting us together for a meal or a drink, we went to this Russian Turkish bathhouse. We did a Schmitz, cold plunges, and saunas. Every single one of them told me how special those two and a half hours were. In part because it was a curated group. They’re good people, at least in my opinion. I even did a thing where I said, “I want to set some ground rules for our time together.” It was funny because one was laughing, “That’s such a Peter thing to do.” Another one was like, “I love this.” Those friendships are stronger because we have this wonderful memory. Also, we had a great afternoon together. It was special and memorable.

The only way that you get there is by taking that risk and being like, “This is what I want. This is what I want to invite you to. It’s not conventional but this is something that I would like to do.” How much do we lose by avoiding rejection? We lose so much potential for intimacy.

This notion of vulnerability, is there a vulnerability hack that I don’t know about? Is there something I’m doing that I don’t even recognize them doing?

I talked to Dr. Skyler Jackson about vulnerability. He’s over at Yale University. He studies stigma and disclosure. Something that was Illuminating for me was he was talking about vulnerability as a social construct, like what makes you feel vulnerable. He says something about what your culture tells you that you should be ashamed of.

Not only that but also that we can have this packaged vulnerability where we’re saying things that sound vulnerable but they don’t feel vulnerable for us. Vulnerability has to feel risky for you. It has to feel exposing for you. You could be talking about your mental health issues, depression, and anxiety. That’s something you are well versed in and it doesn’t feel vulnerable for you. That’s not an active vulnerability.

If you’re tweeting about it, it’s probably not vulnerable. Is that fair to say?

Yes. To push ourselves in vulnerability, we have to pay attention to, “What makes me a little afraid to share? What am I nervous about? What am I scared of? What feels exposing to me?” For me, I could talk about going to my therapist. As a psychologist, there are some things that don’t matter to me and don’t feel vulnerable to me. For me, conflict does feel vulnerable in a friendship. Expressing needs can feel vulnerable. Initiating doesn’t feel as vulnerable for me. The takeaway here is to think about your own language of vulnerability and what feels vulnerable to you. Trying to lean into that and explore that edge of vulnerability and see what comes from it.

That is wonderful advice. It’s a little bit about your secret life in some ways. It’s about, “I wouldn’t tell just anyone this.” I could see how that is bonding.

I remember being on this podcast and I was talking to this guy. He was like, “I talked to my friends about all the problems in the world. Isn’t that vulnerable?” I was like, “Does that feel risky to you? Does that feel exposing?” It’s that active “This feels risky to me,” but it went well. That draws us closer to one another. They say trust is a risk gone right. When it does feel risky and it goes right, that’s what pulls you in more deeply to each other. I said, “The next time you hang out with your friend, maybe tell them something that you’ve been struggling with lately. What’s something you’ve been struggling with and share it with him.”

That’s wonderful. This is a perfect connection to the next practice that you talk about which is to pursue authenticity.

I had a tough time describing that for the book because they say it’s be yourself but how do you know when you’re yourself?

We have different selves for different relationships.

I ended up defining it as who we are without our defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms are those things that feel like they hijack us to prevent us from expressing a deeper layer of vulnerability. It’s your friend. My friend’s kid got into a good college. My kid didn’t get into their choice college. When she tells me, instead of me saying what’s authentic to me, it might be like, “I’m happy for your kid, but it’s also hard for me to hear because I know that my kid is struggling.”

You say, “Cornell isn’t the best Ivy. Good for them but maybe Harvard or Princeton would have been something to celebrate.” That’s an inauthentic act. It’s a defense mechanism to guard us against that deeper vulnerability that is more authentic to us. Instead of expressing our truth, we try to obscure the truth. We obscure our truth. Authenticity is about getting in touch with who we are when we’re not trying to defend or protect ourselves in some way.

I was saying in this incident, that I was not at my best. I was saying, “I’m a friendly dog most of the time. I’m an easy-to-get-along-with dog, but I still have some wolf in me. Sometimes that wolf comes out and it’s not pretty.” I was certainly being able to be completely authentic with them in those moments. I knew I shouldn’t have been behaving like that. The norms of the world say you should not say those vile things, be petty, and be vindictive, and all the things that were bubbling up inside of me. That’s great advice. The next one I don’t think is an obvious one, which is to harmonize with anger.

This one was my biggest growth area. Before I wrote Platonic, I was like, “Being a good friend is ignoring the problems and getting over them so you don’t have to create issues.” I was reading this research that people who have empathic conflict or constructive conflict experienced more intimacy in their relationships. There is this psychoanalyst Virginia Goldner. She talks about how you can have flaccid safety which is we feel safe because no one brings up the problems or you can have dynamic safety which is rupture and repair. We know that when there is an issue, we can talk through it.

I realized that I am missing out and it’s also toxic behavior on my end when I have an issue and let’s say I can’t get over it, then I start withdrawing. It’s like holding someone to be guilty before giving them a trial. For example, I was upset with my best friend because I had sent her a chapter from Platonic and I never heard back from her.

When I was like, “What happened with that chapter?” She said, “I had sent it to you.” Apparently, I didn’t see it in my email. Without bringing that up, I don’t give chance a chance for someone to offer their experience and perception of things which may fundamentally alter my perception of things. I just hold it against them prematurely. I realized that always getting over things often manifests in withdrawing from your friends. It is not an active love to do that. In fact, it’s harmful for people to feel abandoned and not know why.

What did you call it, flaccid?

Flaccid safety.

Your story reminds me of something I went through. I have a friend who I’m contemplating letting go of the friendship. I’m sending the friendship because there is an accumulation of disappointments that the person doesn’t seem eager to resolve. What was interesting about it was that I had heard secondhand about something that he had said or did that I was very disappointed with.

That was feeding this narrative in my mind. I ended up having a conversation with him through a call because he was in another country. I said, “This is what I understand happened and if that’s the case, I want you to know this is upsetting to me. It’s damaging.” He was able to clarify what happened in a way that was very authentic, wasn’t defensive, and reframed it for me in a way. I’m glad that I didn’t just withdraw and accept that was the reality.

I have to tell you, Marisa, that was a hard call to make. I wrote out a script to cover in the call, in which I talked about how I value his friendship and acknowledge that we’ve had some difficult times. To his credit, he’s a great communicator and he’s self-aware. He was very graceful in that conversation. I’m not sure what’s going to happen with us, to be honest, because there are other issues. It gives me some hope.

The other misconception I had about conflict was that it had to look like combat. It had to look like one person trying to win and the other person losing. It had to look like an attack. That’s why I tried to avoid it. From your conversation, it’s not just having conflict or being angry that can heal our friendship. I call it harmonizing with anger, which has a certain type of conflict, a conflict that looks like we still love each other when we have conflict.

It looks like some of the things you mentioned, which means first, you frame the conversation and say, “I want to have this conversation because you mean so much to me.” You help the other person interpret this as an act of love. You share your reality but you use I statements. You don’t tell the other person about themselves. You tell them how they affected you like, “I felt hurt when this happened.”

You ask them about their reality, “I was wondering what was going on for you at that moment and if there is a larger context that I might be missing.” You ask for what you want in the future and sometimes, it’s keeping that lens of mutuality like, “I’m not trying to win this conversation. I’m trying for both of us to win.” What does that look like? You can even put together both of your needs, like, “I need you to show up on time. You have a lot of trouble doing that because of schedule changes with your kids.”

What does it look like for us to move forward? You’re not trying to get your needs met at the expense of the other person or vice versa. You’re trying to make this an experience of teamwork. That’s also the type of conflict that heals friendships. I’ve struggled with this because seeing how conflict has benefited and healed some of my friendships has made me want to open up my friendships more broadly to us being able to talk through problems.

I’ve had friends who don’t know how to have conflict in a loving way. It makes me feel a lot worse. That’s why people withdraw because they associate conflict with, “You did this to me. I can’t believe you did this. You’re horrible. That’s awful.” That’s not what we’re talking about that heals things. It’s being able to have a healing conflict. Not just conflict in itself. Not conflict that’s an attack.

From hearing your story and reflecting on mine, One of the things is the sense of curiosity that is helpful like, “Help me understand.”

You want to understand them. Everything that you want from them, which is understanding perspective and taking accountability, you have to be prepared to give as well.

Two more, offer generosity.

In this chapter, I was working through this tension, which is being generous, going out of your way for people, giving them baked goods, buying them snacks, and picking them up at the airport. That’s going to make our friendships closer. Generosity is this tense act of connection because it requires us to sacrifice something from ourselves. I was exploring how you handle that balance because if we continue to be generous in a way when we’re sacrificing more, those people who do that have worse relationships than people who have a more balanced generosity because they’re resentful. They’re acting out and engaging in something called egoistic giving, which means they give because they expect something in return rather than altruistic giving.

What’s the balance here? I came across this concept that I mentioned briefly, which was mutuality. Mutuality looks like, “I’m considering your needs and mine in trying to work on the best solution for both of us.” I can’t be generous at times because, in the long run, that’s going to make our friendship function longer because I’m preventing myself from resentment.

If I’m going through a tough time, I don’t have a lot of capacity. Maybe my mental health is compromised. I can’t show up in the same way as I might otherwise. If you’re going through a tough time, I’m going to show up more if I have that capacity. It’s almost like thinking about me and my friend as a single unit.

A counter-example to this is I interviewed this woman. She was not able to go to her friend’s dance recital because she had come down with this mysterious illness. Her friend says to her, “You’re such a bad friend.” That is an example of botched mutuality. That friend is not considering their friend’s experience.

They’re only considering their reality and that’s going to harm our friendships. We need to have this bird’s eye view of generosity like, “Do I have the capacity to be generous at this time? Is this a time when this friend is in great need and I’m going to show up?” Rather than expecting us to always be giving and sacrificing for our friends.

I had a little visceral reaction to that so-called friend. Let’s put a pin in that because I want to talk in a moment about sunsetting friendships as well as strengthening them. Let’s finish with the last one and it’s a good one to end on, which is give affection. Give love.

There is this study that followed friendship pairs for twelve weeks to see which of these sustained or deepened. One of the most predictive factors was how much affection was shared. There is this theory I love called risk regulation theory, which is basically people evaluating how deeply to invest in a relationship based on their likelihood of being rejected.

The more we show affection to people, the more we show them “You will not be rejected by me,” which fundamentally gives them permission to invest deeply in a friendship with us. In other words, we’re cultivating a lot of safety through this act of affection and closeness. That being said, I interviewed Corey Floyd. He’s a professor who studies affection. He mentioned that affection requires us to feel warmth toward someone to share it and for them to receive it.

I have friends who hate being complimented and I needed to realize that my behavior of trying to get them to receive my love was not affectionate because it’s more about me. If they’re not receiving it, then what gift am I giving them? Be able to be flexible and how people receive affection. I even realize that if you for example have low self-esteem, affection feels very threatening. It feels like an identity crisis. It feels like this person sees me in a way that I’ll never live up to and I’m going to let them down. That fills me with anxiety. Also, make sure that we can cultivate the affection that people most value.

All of a sudden, everybody is talking love languages. I don’t know of any real research on that model per se but it is a useful tool to talk to. It’s used romantically, but it works as well with friendships. You like words of affirmation. You like to give people compliments and they may not be always good at it. Pro-tip for anyone, just say thank you. That’s the best response if you don’t know how to respond to a compliment.

I recognize that doesn’t solve the problem of feeling uncomfortable receiving it. Being aware of what your friend’s “love languages” are may help you decide the best way to express your affection to them, “Here’s a little gift. I was thinking of you. I saw this at the store and thought this would be perfect for your new place,” versus acts of service or whatever the other things might be. Physical touch, hugging someone, or holding their hands.

These six practices are not just about starting new friendships. They are also about strengthening existing friendships. I often say that’s the best place to start. If you already have a friend, you know the person already likes you. How do you take the friendship to the next level? Is there one of these practices that stands out to you as being especially good at doing that?

Vulnerability. Any act of vulnerability, but it’s a risk, so it could distance the friendship too. Research finds that more often than not, it does bring the friendship closer. Asking yourself what feels a little bit scary to share, and seeing what happens when you share it.

I had this insight during a mushroom trip. I haven’t nailed it yet, but it’s the difference between living and being alive. Vulnerability makes you feel alive.

I agree.

It’s like that’s a big day. We have a lot of days that look like every other day. You get up, go to work, go to the gym, sit on the couch, and watch some TV. You’re living. You’re existing but you’re not really alive. I’m starting to try to seek out those moments where I feel alive. Living on your edge and expressing vulnerability is a wonderful way to do that.

It also provides clarity. It’s good to know that this person is a friend but they’re not capable of seeing your secret life. They aren’t in the place. It doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. It means that they are not the right person to share your secret life with and that’s okay. It’s probably good because it gives you a chance to find that person who you can.

I love that because sometimes we could keep trying with those who hurt us in the hopes that it’s going to turn out differently. That is not something that I recommend because you’re inviting people who are emotionally unavailable into your life. Someone can’t handle your vulnerability. Walk toward someone who can. Don’t work harder with that person who can’t.

This is a perfect segue into a question from the community. You can sign up for the SOLO community at PeterMcGraw.org/solo. This was from a woman. She wrote, “What’s the best way to navigate friendships with the opposite sex or whichever gender identity you date without there being ambiguity about what it means?” One of the things that came to mind relevant to our earlier conversation is if you’re a man and you’re having trouble finding men you can be vulnerable with, it’s often easier to find a woman that you can be vulnerable with.

I have both men and women as friends, but three of the people I called were women. I don’t think that was a coincidence. I picked those people in part because of who they were, how close they were to me, and a variety of different factors. What advice would you give this person? I advocate this all the time. You’re only connection to the opposite gender or whatever that different gender is for you should not be romantic. There are great benefits.

It’s interesting that women tend to report that their closest friendships are with other women. For men, it’s mixed in the research. Sometimes, it’s with men and sometimes it’s with women. The funny thing is men are also more socialized to only want to develop relationships with women when it’s more sexual or romantic, even though they tend to benefit from these friendships.

I agree that these different gender friendships can offer us gifts. I think just being explicit like saying, “I enjoyed connecting with you. I’d love to see if we could build a friendship. Would you be open to connecting?” Adding in somewhere in your invitation for a relationship, friendship specifically, so you can create and establish that clarity in the connection.

Also, be gentle but firm should that person not adhere to that request. It’s like, “You’re wonderful. I don’t think of you that way. I don’t anticipate I ever will.” Give them an out. If being friends is not enough, then we should talk about whether we should be friends. Part of the reason that I have such great friendships with my female friends is I don’t sleep with them. I don’t try to.

I just don’t. With my friend Julie, I’ve known her for nineteen years. I say she’s my soul sister. It’s not something that was ever considered and it’s not something that ever will be considered. Some people find that perplexing, depending on their worldview. I think of her more like a sister than I ever could as a lover in that way. As a result, we get to be wonderful friends.

There is more safety. There is a level of safety that if Julie tries to love you so deeply, she won’t have to worry about that being misconstrued so she can feel free to love you.

In the circumstance where someone in this case doesn’t adhere to your desires to keep it platonic or in the case that I’ve been considering, a friendship of many years that I might need to sunset. What advice do you have about doing that because we live in a world of rampant ghosting, which is incredibly painful. I think that if you share the love of a friendship, it deserves the respect of some acknowledgment that it may have passed in some way. I’m curious. I don’t have any advice about this. I don’t feel well-equipped to do it.

It’s scary.

It’s incredibly scary. It’s easy to be they total chicken about it. What do you say about that?

You’re right. The ghosting is very painful. It triggers something called ambiguous loss, which is when someone still feels present with us emotionally but is no longer there physically. We have a lot of trouble grieving. They’re still on our minds, but they’re no longer in contact with us. We don’t have closure. Someone else ghosting us is like they avoided the discomfort, but we experience double discomfort.

If it’s mutual and it seems like both parties are fizzling and pulling away, then that’s fine. You don’t have to be like, “You haven’t contacted me in eight months, but I’m going to make sure I’m extra clear that I no longer want you in my life.” If this is a long-standing friend who seems like they still are invested in you and you’re not invested in them. I do recommend having that conversation.

It’s going to hurt the other person but it’s going to hurt them less than ghosting on them. You can establish something in that conversation called a commemorative friendship where you acknowledge all the good that has come from this friendship, “You did help me at that time or I figured out these and this about me but moving forward, we’re no longer aligned because of this reason. We no longer have shared values or there is this part of me that doesn’t feel understood that feels important to me.” Expressing that. Using some of those same conflict skills that we talked about before and acknowledging too like, “It sucks.” There are no ways to not hurt someone but there are ways to have integrity and how you hurt someone.

The last question again from a member of the community. This is especially relevant to SOLOs. What’s the best way to navigate friendship with married folks or those with significant monogamous relationships of the gender identity you would normally date? I’ve definitely been viewed as a high risk to other women before because they’re afraid I’m going to take their man away, which in turn, makes me hesitant to hang out with the man who I’m friends with.

This is hard because it depends on a variable that you can’t control, which is how your partner perceives your friendship. Some people think, “Once we’re married, you shouldn’t be hanging out with someone that has my gender anymore,” which is preposterous because having friends outside of the marriage benefits the marriage. It makes your marriage healthier. You’re harming your marriage if you’re trying to force your partner to not have friends outside of the marriage.

That’s not to say that you can convince your spouse to see things differently. There is this factor that you can’t control that can inevitably influence your friendship and that’s hard to accept. One good practice is seeing if you can establish a connection with both partners. Being like, “Can we all hang out together? I’d love to get to know them more too.” Once they know you more, you’re not this faceless projection of their insecurities or their sense of jealousy anymore. Hopefully, that can establish a greater sense of safety and openness while still maintaining your relationship.

I agree with you. I think this is a hard question to answer because of the cultural norms. Let’s be honest, within the average romantic partnership, the partner has some veto power. People aren’t very good at establishing some independence. Even saying, having a conversation with their partner to assuage their concerns about jealousy in order to be able to have that. In some ways, the crux of it falls on the married friend. Can they navigate this situation in a way that their partner feels heard, understood, comforted, and supported?

Maybe you could coach that person a little bit. You can say, “I’m noticing this friction,” and point them to this show and your work and see what they can do. With that said, Marisa, you are a fountain of useful information with regard to friendship. I’ve been eager to talk to you since I read your book, which is incredibly valuable. For people who want to seek you out for more information, I know you give talks, where should they find you?

My book is Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make and Keep Friends. I’m on Instagram at @DrMarisaGFranco where I share research back tips on friendship. On my website DrMarisaGFranco.com. You can take a quiz that assesses your strengths and weaknesses as a friend or you can reach out for speaking engagements related to connection and belonging at work or outside of work.

I could take a lesson from you about marketing. Marisa, thank you so much for sharing that. I appreciate your time. For those folks who want to talk more about this, you can join the SOLO Community at PeterMcGraw.org/solo. Thanks. Cheers.


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About Marisa Franco

SOLO 197 | Reclaiming FriendshipAn enlightening psychologist, international speaker, and New York Times bestselling author, Dr. Marisa G Franco is known for digesting and communicating science in ways that resonate deeply enough with people to change their lives. She works as a professor at The University of Maryland and authored the New York Times bestseller Platonic: How The Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends. She writes about friendship for Psychology Today and has been a featured connection expert for major publications like The New York Times, The Telegraph, and Vice. She speaks on belonging at corporations, government agencies, non-profits, and universities.