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3 Things to take away from Aminatou Sow’s and Ann Friedman’s book “Big Friendship”


Book cover of Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman. Orange and Purple circles overlap to create a small blue section, on a bright yellow background.

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2020 has been an interesting year to say the least. It has made a lot of us rethink our goals, our relationships, and our personal boundaries. But just because we are all thinking about these things, doesn’t mean we know what we need or should be doing for ourselves and the people we love. I am a fan of books like Big Friendship that talk about friendships, and in particular female friendships, because people don’t want to talk about friendship and the impact is has on our lives. We treat friendships like solid unmovable connections, but the reality is that we a making new friends, drift apart from friends, and fight with friends all the time. These interactions can be just as impactful as a breakup or a new romance.

Lock downs across the world have caused us to rethink the way we communicate. Depending on where you live, you might not be able to met up with friends the way you did before. Zoom chats, phone calls, and drive-by hellos have become fairly commonplace. These societal shifts will have an impact on every relationship you have. Obviously, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman did not have a global pandemic in mind when they wrote their book on friendship, but there are some things to take away from book that we can use and think about today.

Shine theory

Shine theory is described by Sow and Friedman as simply friends helping friends. It means helping out friends with work and life decisions, giving career advice, sharing resources, and stepping in sometimes as a ‘mentor’. The idea of shine theory relates a lot to work situations and I feel like this is such an important aspect of friendships we should nurture. Women are often told by society to compete with each other, rather than lift each other up. We are told there is a finite number of seats at the corporate table and only a handful are for women (this is even worse if you are not white, and/or have other intersections of oppression that impact you). However, Sow and Friedman subscribe to the idea that if we lift each other up, we all shine. Furthermore, the traditional mentor roles that we see men having in the workplace does not always exist in the same way for women. Of course men can mentor women, but there can be abuses of power and difficulties with that. I am sure it doesn’t take long for you to think of a woman you know who was accused of having relations with her male boss. That narrative is as old as the hills!

So shine theory is about helping other women in your life shine. This also includes your trans women coworkers and friends too.

Stretching

We are told that we need to stretch our bodies in order for them to stay flexible and to ward off injuries. You warm up and stretch after a run and other strenuous activities. But what does this mean for friendships? Sow and Friedman say that friendships need to stretch. You need to have flexibility and strength in your relationship for this to happen. Stretching in friendships can occur when someone moves away, gets a new romantic partner, has a child, develops an illness, and or gets a new job, etc. If the friendship doesn’t have core strength (yes, I am using all the sports metaphors!), stability, and flexibility. It will be difficult to make it last. Stretching is a natural part of friendships – because life is always full of ups and downs. The question you need to ask yourself is how much and for how long are you being stretched? Is there a give and take in the relationship that you are comfortable with? Are your boundaries being respected?

Over the years, I have seen many friendships come and go. Some have gone permanently from my life and some made me sad and some made me relieved. The friendships that have lasted the test of time were able to stretch and not buckle because there was communication, a strong foundation, and a mutual understanding.

Lower the bar

This last notion that I took away from the book has been extremely eye-opening for me. Lowering the bar is about knowing what your expectations are for yourself and the people around you. It means that you have to lower/adjust these expectations accordingly. I feel like this is linked a lot with stretching, but I also felt it deserved its own little discussion.

Sometimes friends won’t be able to be there for you like they usually can, because of big life events. This is a moment to readjust your bar. On the flip side though, it is important to note that you shouldn’t always be lowering your bar. If your standards for a friendship are so low and flexible – but that it only goes one way – it can lead to resentment and heartache. It is often how friendships can die.

Lowering the bar is a good way to check in with yourself and to ask yourself what you are willing to accept and not accept. If something happens that you don’t like and this is repeat behaviour, you need to ask yourself how you want to address this. Sadly, there are no easy ways to solve damaged friendships, although it does not mean they are not salvageable.

Sow and Friedman speak candidly of the struggles they faced/face in their friendship. This relates to race, living apart from each other, and navigating complex relationships with other friendships.

We humans are a social bunch and we love to have friends around us, but that doesn’t make it easy for us to maintain relationships. We forget that friendships are just as valuable as romantic and familial relationships. This is even more so for people who don’t have romantic or familial relationships in their lives.

What ways are you looking after yourself and the friendships you have? What would add to this list? Have you read Sow’s and Friedman’s book? As always, share the reading love.

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