Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close (2020)

Here are some highlights from this book:

* In the late 18th and 19th centuries, when it became common to marry for love, middle-class people began worrying that the couple would have no reason to stay married if their affections dissipated. With more men working outside the home, women were newly responsible for domestic life, and the idea of separate spheres developed. This was an early version of the notion that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, with different sets of inherent skills and social roles. All men were now supposed to be ambitious, hard-nosed, and interested in public matters. And women were supposed to be sexually pure, emotional, and nurturing. If men and women are two sides of a coin, the theory went, they must get married and stay married in order to access the supposedly innate traits of the other. You complete me . “So this led to this intense romanticization of the other,” Coontz says, “but also it opened the way for a real flowering of male/male and female/female friendships, because those were the people that you had everything in common with, supposedly.”
In letters to each other during the 19th century, some women refer to men as “the grosser sex.” Friendship, not romantic relationships, were a place where women felt free to be themselves and express their emotions. And intense female friendships, even those that might seem erotic to modern eyes, were accepted because women were supposedly so pure that they wouldn’t have sex with each other, even if they slept in the same bed all night. If a woman professed to have a crush on another woman, it wasn’t seen as commentary on her sexuality. “Men also had very intense friendships,” Coontz says. She points to letters in which men who identified as heterosexual “talk about falling to sleep with their head lying peacefully on the breast of their good friend.” But this idea of men and women as opposites had a chilling effect on friendships between men and women.
Toward the end of the 19th century, middle-class Americans began to recognize that these ideas made it hard for men and women to construct intimate marriages. Gradually, middle-class Americans adopted the practice of dating, which had already emerged in the working class. It became more acceptable for women to appear in public, even to work. This led to the rise of what was called “companionate marriage.” It was not yet the era of “I married my best friend,” but it became accepted that women and men should share activities—though emphasis was still placed on women adapting to men’s interests—and pursue a mutually fulfilling sex life. Ironically, this new emphasis on sexuality meant that same-sex behaviors that previously had been perceived as merely affectionate—like holding hands or falling asleep on the breast of your good friend—were now sexualized. This dealt a huge blow to close same-sex friendships, which suddenly became less acceptable as they came to be viewed as a threat to male-female romantic partnership.
“In the early twentieth century [there was] a huge campaign by the so-called experts to wipe out the idea of these girlish crushes that used to be considered perfectly acceptable and kind of fun,” Coontz says. “And men found themselves under suspicion if they walked down the street the way they used to, with an arm around each other’s shoulders.” Women in close relationships with other women could be labeled lesbians—and some of them undoubtedly really were lesbians. This was before the gay rights movement made it safer to come out. It can be really hard to tell which historical bestie pairs were indeed platonic pals, which were, in fact, romantic partners, and which fell somewhere in between.

* people prefer to make friends with other people who can help them achieve their goals. At the same time, they’re not even aware that that’s something they’re selecting for.

* William K. Rawlins, a pioneering scholar of friendship studies, told us that
there is little to no research concerning dynamics within friend groups. Most of the academic work around friendship is focused on one-on-one relationships, as if they exist in a social vacuum. Culturally, there are no default rules for dealing with extensive and overlapping friend groups. Few people actually talk through their expectations and insecurities before the inevitable problems present themselves: What do you do when two people you’ve introduced to each other have a disagreement? What level of responsibility do you bear for a friend’s behavior? When is it important to share information about what’s happening with your other friendships, and when is it destructive gossip?

* In a New Yorker essay published the year we met, the humorist David Sedaris wrote about the “four burners” theory of life priorities. He learned this metaphor from a woman he considered successful and happy. The woman explained that life was like a stovetop: “One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.” In this metaphor, your stove can’t run for long with all four burners going. In order to be successful, you have to switch off one of the burners. And if you want to be really successful, you have to pick just two to keep lit. Few of us have the luxury of switching off work. For many people, switching off family is unthinkable. And switching off health is unsustainable, to say the least. So, for most people, the “friends” burner is the first to go.

* The researcher William K. Rawlins puts friendships in three categories: active, dormant, and commemorative. The active ones are important bonds in your life right now. You are investing in these friends by spending time with them, you know about the day-to-day details of their lives, and you probably see them fairly often. This is the category that Big Friendships fit into. The dormant friendships are ones that were once active but for reasons of circumstance aren’t going strong in a daily way. With dormant friendships—which is probably the category most associated with the dim back burner—there’s the perception that they could be resurrected at any moment, when you’ll just “pick up where you left off.” Finally, there are commemorative friendships, ones that have ended abruptly or faded away, and you don’t expect to ever come back to. It’s easy to see how someone could feel lonely if they have friends only in the dormant or commemorative categories.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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