Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman Want to Expand the Vocabulary of Friendship
Each installment of The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with two friends who are also professional observers of friendship. Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow have been exploring friendship, among other topics, on their podcast, Call Your Girlfriend, since 2014, and in their new book, Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close, they tell the story of their own relationship alongside an examination of friendship’s role in society. In this interview, they propose expanding the vocabulary we use to talk about our friends, and discuss how they nearly lost their own friendship, and how couples therapy brought them back together.
Ann Friedman, 38, a co-author of Big Friendship, and co-host of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, who lives in Los Angeles, California.
Aminatou Sow, 35, a co-author of Big Friendship, and co-host of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, who lives in Brooklyn, New York.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Julie Beck: Let’s start at the beginning: How did you meet?
Aminatou Sow: We met in Washington, D.C., in 2009, at a Gossip Girl viewing party.
Ann Friedman: But we also met because a friend very intentionally wanted us to meet each other. Our mutual friend Dayo conspired to be the host that night in part so she could have both of us in attendance. So we were set up.
Beck: My meta follow-up question to that is: How many times have you told that story now?
Aminatou: My God, we’ve told that story too many times to count. When you tell the story of how you met, you tell this very superficial one line: “We met at this place, at this time.” That’s the meet-cute. But there’s another story behind how you meet. If that friend had not set us up, we would have eventually met somehow in the scene that we were in, in D.C. I don’t know that we would have the same friendship, but I think that we would have met regardless. There are a lot of things that conspire in the universe for you to meet someone.
Beck: I really like the concept of “big friendship,” which your book is named for, because one of the interesting and sometimes frustrating things about the word friend is that it covers so many different kinds of relationships—from a work friend you get coffee with, to someone you talk to every day and spend holidays with. Could you explain what a “big friendship” is?
Aminatou: I always make the distinction between someone who is my friend and someone who I am friendly with. I think those two things are very different. One of the reasons for writing Big Friendship was that a lack of vocabulary for what a friend is, or what a long-term, meaningful relationship with a friend is, was something that we had both struggled with. The key to figuring out what we meant to each other really lay in unlocking that vocabulary.
There is something about the words bestie or BFF or even best friend that imply that it’s an exclusive relationship that you have with one person. And it feels a little infantilizing to me. Even though I [use those terms with] my adult friends, there’s just this implication that it’s a person you met at camp, or when you were younger. I was trying to understand the complexity of friendship at this time in my life, in my mid-30s. This term big friendship was meant to define friendships that are complicated and nuanced, friendships that you have had for a long time and that you want to keep in your life for a long time.
Beck: How did your personal friendship evolve from being friendly into a “big friendship”?
Ann: Oh man, we had a very intense and short courtship. We went from zero to good friends very quickly.
Aminatou: Within a week.
Ann: Now that we have this vocabulary, I would not say we went from zero to a big friendship in one week. But I do think that feeling of wanting the friendship to last and feeling very invested in it, at least for me, was something that happened within the first handful of times that we hung out.
But we didn’t quite understand what it meant to really follow through on that. You can be really close with someone and want that person around for the long term, and also be totally blindsided by the problems that crop up in that friendship.
Our own evolution also includes this through line of working together. Even from the earliest days, we had weird blogs together. We have pretty much always been motivated to make things with each other. That was part of this initial attraction to each other as friends. I was just like, I want to know everything that is happening in this woman’s brilliant brain. I want to be in dialogue with it.
Beck: On the creative collaboration—I think Shine Theory is the first instance where something personal from your friendship got co-opted for a broader audience, is that right?
Ann: I think that's fair. In 2013, I was a columnist for The Cut. And long before 2013, we had a private meme in our friendship, where we would say to each other all the time, “I don’t shine if you don’t shine.” It meant that we are mutually invested in each other and not competing with each other to get the things we want in this world.
Anyway, in 2013, I wrote a column about this. It really was a very popular concept. It became something that we then wanted to protect [in part, by trademarking it] so that people wouldn’t use it for something that ran counterintuitively to how we actually saw Shine Theory working, which is deep investment over the long term, not a cute label for your conference or your networking event.
Then in 2014, our friend Gina Delvac, who is an incredible audio producer, had suggested to us that maybe we would make for good podcast co-hosts. We thought it would be fun and interesting. We came up with the name, Call Your Girlfriend, and in the early days, truly, we would just call each other and talk. It was intentional in the sense that we knew we wanted to work together, but in real time, it did not feel like we were going into business together at the time we started the podcast.
Beck: How did seeing those things blow up affect your friendship?
Aminatou: On its face, it wasn’t threatening knowing that something that we shared privately was being shared with the world. When it starts to become an issue is when we are not in dialogue about those things. For us not to say to each other, “Oh, that Shine Theory column is huge. How does that make you feel?”—a conversation that we would have about almost anything else—to me, that is the tell.
The same thing happened with the podcast in the sense that our lives were changing, we were participating in the changing of our lives, but we had a real inability to discuss it. The threats are never the things that you think about. [In the book], we write that there’s no friend equivalent of walking in on your husband with someone else—it’s never that dramatic.
The actual act of working together, that was really easy and seamless. Where it started to become apparent that there were issues in the relationship is that we were missing each other in these very big and small ways communication-wise. As our podcast got more popular, for example, we were having a great time making the show, but there were big and small changes that we were going through that we were just not discussing. Talking about feelings is hard.
Beck: So you went through this rough patch in your friendship, and you were clear from the very beginning of the book—the book that is your argument for friendship—that you had this dark period. Did that change how you tell the story of your friendship to yourselves?
Ann: One thing that was really painful and frustrating for me is it always seemed like there was some big thing that I was missing. Like there was one giant misunderstanding that we could source all of our problems to. And that just was not the case. In the early days of our friendship, we were just in sync. We knew what the other person felt insecure about. We knew intuitively how to interpret each other’s brief text messages. It was all those little communication things that I think slowly started to break down.
You’ll have that moment of looking at a text and being like, Wait, I’m not sure what she means by this. And then it snowballed and snowballed. This is a dynamic that happens in a lot of friendships. This is a dynamic that happens in a lot of intimate relationships, full stop. It really took an intervention—going to therapy together—to learn how to identify what had happened and to start talking about it again.
Beck: I was delightfully surprised to read in the book that you went to couples therapy to save the friendship. What was it like going to therapy with a friend? What did you learn?
Aminatou: For a lot of people, going to therapy already feels weird. I myself have been in individual therapy for years and years. Going to therapy with a friend though … it’s out there. If you do a Google search for therapists for my friendship, it’s not well populated.
Ann: There’s no Psychology Today directory for that.
Aminatou: But I’m so happy that we did it, because we needed an adult to hold our hands to be able to talk. In the buildup to going to therapy, we had tried a rekindle-your-romance type of trip, and it ended up being sad.
It was a meeting about work that brought that all full circle. It was like, If we can’t do work, then we have bigger problems. The friendship is on the rocks. It was the first time that we said to each other, “This feels awful.” And when we started looking around for a framework for repairing a relationship, the only framework that comes to mind is therapy. For us, it was really telling that once it was suggested, even though both of us were weirded out by it, we thought that was still better than whatever weirdness we had been trying.
Ann: That's how you know how bad it had gotten.
Aminatou: But hearing Ann be willing to go to therapy—knowing her as well as I did, that feels not like something she would do—that was a real indicator to me that, one, it was very bad and, two, that she actually might still want to be friends with me. That was a very concrete reassurance. We were really privileged to be able to afford it—therapy is expensive and not available to most people in this country, and that is a huge shame. It was a literal financial investment in the well-being of our relationship.
The goal was not to come out having the same friendship that we had had before. I actually went in very skeptical that we would be friends at all after this. I was pleasantly surprised, but also I have a renewed understanding of the amount of work that it really takes to talk to someone and tell them what you are feeling and for them to do the same for you.
Beck: I appreciate you being so honest about the difficult patches that you’ve had, because I think even as friendship has become more celebrated in the culture, it’s still talked about either as this universally positive thing that can sometimes feel a little bit superficial, or as toxic.
Ann: If you are only thinking of friendships in a superficial sense, where it’s all supposed to be great, you would never get to the point where you had long-running strife with someone. You would have just walked away before that happened. Part of understanding why we both wanted to stay invested in this friendship necessitated a new language around what kind of friendship this was. I also think that part of it is that humans are messy and intimacy is hard, no matter what form that takes.
Aminatou: Watching the culture catch up to this understanding that friendship is an important relationship for people is really exciting. It’s exciting to watch TV shows about it. It is exciting to see people be so open about the people in their lives that they love. But I think in that celebration, the complexity, and the nuance, is lost. Back to that point about it feeling infantilizing, the celebration also feels that way. Like, sure, my friendships are all fun and great, but I think that part of the reality of growing up is also understanding that difficult things can be celebrated.
Ann and I are very, very good friends. We will be very, very good friends. We have a blast together. She’s someone who has been part of the best moments of my life. But I think that part of having a visible friendship is also being really honest about the fact that it takes work. If you hear a couple say, "Our relationship is good, but it’s work,” everyone instinctively knows what that means. But with friendship, there is this expectation that it’s supposed to be easy, which contributes to infantilizing the lives of all the adults in the friendship and also is not an honest assessment of what any long-term, intimate bond looks like.
Beck: There are a lot of different layers in how you two have been looking at friendship. There’s your personal friendship, of course. There’s the examination of your personal friendship that you did in therapy. There’s your public-facing friendship on the podcast and in the book. And then there’s the fact that a lot of the collaborative work that you are doing together as friends is itself looking at the concept of friendship.
Ann: It’s a friendship turducken.
Beck: Has the combination of all those things yielded any insights that you’ve brought into your life?
Ann: I know it is such a cliché to be like, Oh yes, the personal is political. But really examining the choices that we both made in this friendship let me see how the broader social and cultural status of friendship seeps into how we all do it. Where we put energy is where we are putting importance in our lives.
Aminatou: This question of “What does the world look like when you let adults make adult decisions for themselves?” is something that has always been at the front of my brain. Ann and I are two people who really despise paternalism in every single shape that it comes in. Even in friendship, paternalism has a hold. What could the world look like if you just let people who do not want to marry each other and who are not blood relatives decide that they want to build a life together? So much of my friendship with Ann and my friendships with other people is having an imagination for that world, saying, “How can we organize society in a healthy, productive way where adults are happy to make decisions for themselves?” Friendship really is at the core of that question. I don’t have a solution, but when I think of a different, better world that I could live in, friendship is at the center of that world in a really, really big way.
On a personal note, the reason I care so much about all of this is that it’s been a really powerful lens to learn about myself and to learn about change. In some ways it is highly narcissistic—welcome to being a human being. We write in the book about Greek philosophers saying that friendship is a mirror that you hold to yourself and, as cliché as it sounds, it is true and it is very powerful. If you are interested in gaining self-knowledge, overcoming trauma, healing, and being a full person, you need to find ways to learn about yourself. Being a friend and having a friend is one of the most powerful ways you can do that.
Ann: I also want to echo the thing about self-knowledge. I have learned so much about myself through this friendship, and through the mirror of my friend Aminatou Sow, that I really, really cherish. We are literally different people than we would be if we hadn’t met.
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