Anyone who has felt the pain of having a dear friend move far away, and I don’t think many of us make it into adulthood without that experience, would be able to relate to the underlying premise of the book Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close. Less relatable might be going to couples therapy to rescue a friendship gone awry.
Authors Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman first met early in their careers in 2009 in Washington, DC. Introduced by a mutual friend at a party, they immediately bonded over their shared love of the TV teen drama series Gossip Girl and quickly become each other’s go-to bestie. Their friendship coasted along swimmingly until a new job took Ann across the country, and long distance became the first real test of their bond.
The book traces the trajectory of their relationship, from the moment they met through the highs and lows of young adulthood, separation and ultimately podcasting fame and success as the co-hosts of Call Your Girlfriend. If you’re unfamiliar with CYG, as I was before reading the book, each episode features Ann and Aminatou’s witty conversations about everything from pop culture and art to politics. At the suggestion of their friend Gina Delvac, who produces their show, CYG launched in 2014 when podcasts were first starting to gain popularity. Among the few female hosts at the time, their style and choice of charged topics struck a chord with hundreds of thousands of listeners and often lands them on Best Podcast listings.
Every friendship is unique, and this one is noteworthy for several reasons. For one thing, they have different racial and cultural backgrounds. Ann is white and Midwestern, while Aminatou is originally from Nigeria. The book describes some of the friction caused by this fact of their friendship. Also, their relationship sprouted a whole new dimension as they became business partners in the podcast, associated merchandise, and now the book. Finally, most interestingly for me personally is the way they have handled some of the natural ebbs and flows of a friendship evolving over the years and enduring the physical separation of thousands of miles.
The book’s Prologue tips readers off immediately to a gulf in their relationship, which is not fully explained until much later. A chapter near the end describes the emotional distance they felt from each other a few years ago, despite their previous closeness and their intertwined business interests from the podcast, which, ironically, was built around showcasing their bond. This is the point when Ann and Aminatou decided to honor their business ties and deep commitment to each other by finding a therapist to guide them through a platonic version of couples therapy.
Reading about this journey, I understood why they resorted to therapy. This relationship was far more complicated than the typical friendship. With combined business interests centered around their mutual enjoyment of each other’s company, it was imperative on multiple levels that they fix this rift. Amintou and Ann’s friendship is a public platform with a huge following, so their choice of professional intervention in that context makes perfect sense.
I found it admirable that Ann and Aminatou were firmly committed to working out their differences. Given the success of the podcast, it would have been a shame to see two women with a successful formula chuck it all away because they were having a personal falling out.
Although I clearly value friendship myself—I’ve committed to writing about it with my own dear friend—I struggled to figure out if this concept of friendship therapy might work in my own life. I have a number of deeply meaningful and long-term friendships, but I have also had the hurtful experience of having to let go of friendships that had changed in ways that were no longer productive for either me or my friend. This book got me thinking whether I should have or could have worked harder at some of these friendships, but in my case, I can’t see that it ever would have happened or worked.
As you may remember from our story, Julia and I met in junior high school but our friendship took deeper root after we had left home for separate colleges. Distance has been an integral part of relationship since we were 18 years old. In the beginning, we saw each other when we were home in Kentucky on vacations, and we visited each other when we both happened to be living abroad. We overlapped in New York City for about 18 months in the early 1990s, but other than that, we have managed to maintain our connection in spite of the distance.
Before we were married and had kids, we used to regularly travel across the country to take trips together or to celebrate our birthday weekend, since we were born three days apart. But as our lives became increasingly populated with spouses, children and aging parents, plus careers, we no longer had the luxury of time or budget to jet off for fun girls weekends. At times, we even had trouble scheduling in a sane phone conversation with young kids and pets clamoring for our attention.
Yet, our friendship has aged with us over the decades, and any struggles we’ve had staying close have had a lot to do with simply other vital parts of our lives getting in the way. I believe that’s very natural. I’ve watched a number of my long-distance friendships wax and wane over the years depending on what’s going on in our lives at the time. I think the important thing to remember with any friendship is that they do require attention, and that’s true about any relationship.
In the case of me and Julia, we both recognize that our long-distance friendship has benefitted greatly from several advantages. I happen to live near Julia’s extended family and she visits my area frequently. I’ve been attending her family reunions on Cape Cod with my husband and kids for decades. And I have been able to find reasons to visit her in Chicago. Life has given us some paths for in-person connection, and we have mindfully chosen to take full advantage whenever possible.
Seeing our long-distance friends in person can be extremely difficult to orchestrate at times. Fortunately, technology can help, and it was especially important in keeping us connected during the Covid-19 Pandemic.
As for Aminatou and Ann’s “big friendship,” I commend them for the work they’ve put in, but couples therapy is not a practical approach for every friendship. Contrary to some of the reviews of their book I read online, I don’t think they meant to suggest that it would be appropriate for all long-distance BFFs who grow apart. I think the authors recognize that this is their unique story. The point is they were willing to admit their very public friendship had issues behind the scene and to share how they went the extra mile to make things work. I would give them extra bonus points for being brave enough to tell their story so that we can all see how a friendship sometimes requires work and understanding. The payoff comes from rekindling a spark with a friend whose company you may have sorely missed.