Why you need a 'big friendship' in your life

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

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

What began so magically after a mutual friend invited them to a watch party for the prom episode grew into a relationship that has helped define their adulthoods and careers. It hasn't always been easy, but their friendship has endured in part because of their ability to disrupt what linguist Deborah Tannen has called "the story of sameness," the way some friends -- especially women -- bond over their similarities. It turns out, these friends needed to forge a bond defined by their differences, and an ability to communicate about them clearly and repeatedly.
The casual observer might think something like this would be easy for two successful women already famous for being friends. Since 2014, Sow and Friedman have co-hosted "Call Your Girlfriend," their popular podcast with hundreds of thousands of listeners per episode, where they explore life, culture, politics and more through the lens of their long-distance friendship. (Though they both lived in Washington, DC, when a mutual friend first introduced them, Sow, a digital strategist born in Guinea and raised in Nigeria, Belgium and France, now lives in Brooklyn. Friedman, a journalist originally from Iowa, lives in Los Angeles).
Authors Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
They are also well-known as the architects of "Shine Theory," a term they've trademarked that entered common parlance through a column Friedman wrote for The Cut in 2013. Put simply, it's "I don't shine if you don't shine" -- an "investment, over the long term, in helping someone be their best self -- and relying on their help in return. It is a conscious decision to bring your full self to your friendships, and to not let insecurity or envy ravage them."
In their recent book, "Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close," the two friends bring new emotional and intellectual concepts to the table -- woven together with research from thinkers like Tannen and others to do exactly what their podcast does: try to understand the world outside their friendship by looking at the world inside it. They define the title concept -- "big friendship" -- as "a bond of great strength, force, and significance that transcends life phases, geography, and emotional shifts." As Sow told me, it's a term that describes "the person that you want to be there on the last days of your life."
Key to sustaining big friendships -- especially in a world that suggests friendship should be effortless and the grit and striving of emotional relationships is most applicable to the work of marriage, siblings and child-rearing -- is the "stretch," Sow and Friedman's extended metaphor for the ways that both members of a "big friendship" have to recognize that no friendship lasts on autopilot.
The core truth their book reveals is how none of this comes easy -- to them or to anyone else. Growth -- sometimes painful -- is required to keep up with individual life changes and evolutions in the relationship. Sometimes it can send you to therapy, an experience Sow and Friedman candidly and bravely invite their readers to share and learn from, as they describe seeking professional help to mend breakdowns in their relationship as besties and business partners.
Sow and Friedman's book is a powerful effort to forge a more robust language for what friendship means in modern life. They told me they wrote "Big Friendship" because it was the kind of book they themselves needed to read; with me and in other interviews, they balk somewhat at the idea that their book has more or less resonance because it happens to have dropped during an era when sustaining friendship across wide geographical distances and across racial lines has a greater sense of urgency and timeliness to readers struggling to cope with the ravaging isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic or to find more honest, less toxic ways to nurture their interracial friendships.
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Sow, who is Black, put it this way on a recent episode of "CYG," stretching entails asking: "How do you know how much you are supposed to give to a friend -- and when is it too much? When is it not enough? And that is something you just constantly have be in dialogue with yourself and with your friend about. There's not really a clear-cut answer." As Friedman, who is White, said on their podcast," "A lot of times when we get asked about this chapter of the book about interracial friendship, people are framing it in terms of 'this moment,' and I think it is very important to us not to frame it as in or of a moment." It's more than that, in friendship and beyond. But as she then points out, "There is not a huge body of work about interracial friendship."
That body of work is now just a bit bigger, and we are all the better for it. Big friendship is, as Friedman told me, "a choice that both people have to make in order for it to work." The point is that it is work, and the longer we all keep going about our days in a world defined by social distance, the more that work helps to keep us alive.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CNN: How did you decide to write this book?
Ann Friedman: I think this is a conversation we wanted to have publicly about the place of friendship in society and in all of our lives. It's also a book that we needed to read at various points of our friendship. One that reflects the difficulties of this kind of intimate platonic relationship um, as well as its joys.
CNN: To take the title concept: the idea of "big friendship" feels so revolutionary to me -- putting this kind of deceptively simple language to what is such a complex and rich experience. Not to ask you to reiterate the entire book, but can you explain what this term means to you and whether that meaning has shifted in the process of putting the book out into the world?