Some parts of that still sound great, but perfection and ease are no longer our ideals. We’re more interested in resilience. You can’t stay truly connected without some level of misunderstanding or conflict, so the real Big Friendship goal is just to stay in it. Instead of pretending we won’t be challenged, we want the ability to bounce back and heal our inevitable wounds.
There is no autopilot mode for a Big Friendship. You don’t get to sit back, do nothing, and enjoy the benefits of a meaningful relationship—any relationship. But action is especially important to friendship, which carries no familial expectations or marriage license. If you don’t mark it as important and keep it alive, a friendship will not survive.
Just as there are conditions for creating a Big Friendship, there are also some ways to make sure it stays big over many years. Emily Langan, a communications professor at Wheaton College, told us that staying attached to a close friend can be boiled down to three main things: ritual, assurances, and openness.
[ Return to the review of “Big Friendship.” ]
The first, ritual, is because “we need commemorative experiences together,” Langan says. This is why families rely on holidays to bring them together and why wedding anniversaries have endured as a way of celebrating the years of investment in a marriage. “Friendships don’t have the hallmarks,” Langan says. “They don’t have the milestones.” So it’s up to the people in the friendship to create them.
Our friendship anniversary is marked as an annual recurring event on both of our calendars. In previous years, we’ve sent gifts, gone to dinner, and made time for long phone calls to mark the occasion. You’ll find effusive anniversary posts about each other in our social-media archives. We were so busy writing this book that we didn’t celebrate our milestone tenth anniversary, but don’t worry, we’ll do it up right for our 11th.
But not all rituals are big events. Sometimes it’s the smaller practices you have that remind each other of the importance of your friendship. Aminatou relishes waking up every day to a poem from her friend Sarah. It is a reminder of Sarah’s radical softness and kindness, her ability to find something beautiful every day, no matter what is going on in the world. She often tells Aminatou that “soft & lovely is a lifestyle” and now Aminatou knows it’s true. Whenever Ann visits her friend Josh—a bestie of more than 25 years—on her first night in town, they go to the same restaurant. And they order the same thing: two veggie burgers with bacon (Ann violating the terms of her vegetarianism is part of what makes this ritual a ritual) and two glasses of the house red. It’s a private tiny routine exclusive to that friendship, not just a story she and Josh tell, but something they do. Together.
Ritual alone is not enough, though. This is where assurances come in. Even the closest of friends need to assure each other that the friendship is important. Langan says that another key to staying attached is to find verbal and nonverbal ways to tell each other you plan to be there in the future. When the two of us joke about wearing matching caftans and sitting side by side on our Golden Girls–style lanai, it’s more than a joke. It’s an assurance that we plan to be in each other’s lives that long. This happens in shorter-term ways too, like when you pick up the check for dinner and tell your friend, “Don’t worry, you can get me back next time.” One of our biggest assurances to each other was the choice to get matching tattoos, which means we are permanently frog-and-toading. We might never share physical characteristics the way blood relatives do, but we can have matching tattoos, an external sign to the world and to ourselves that we belong to each other.