clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why friendship is different than any other relationship we have

As its role in society recedes, Vox asked six people to tell us why their friendship matters — and may just be the most meaningful relationship of their lives.

Hanna Barczyk for Vox

Part of the Friendship Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

Ask anyone who has studied friendship — or anyone who’s had a good friend — and they will tell you: Friendship is an essential ingredient in the creation of a good life. Having friends helps us feel more connected to our communities, increases our feelings of self-worth and belonging, and even helps us live longer, healthier lives. The really good ones provide something that other types of relationships can’t. They offer spaces where acceptance feels unconditional and unbound by the more formal obligations of family — in a good friendship, companionship and care are given freely and imbued with the sense that each person gives love because they genuinely want to do it.

That lack of formal connection, though, also makes friendships uniquely vulnerable to disintegration. And friendship, an underrecognized bedrock of life, has quietly been on the wane in the United States over the past three decades. Last year, the American Perspectives Survey reported that 12 percent of Americans now say they have no close friendships — compared with 3 percent in 1990. Nearly half say they have three or fewer close friends, and the same number report being either somewhat satisfied or dissatisfied with the number of close friends they have, while Americans with more close friends tend to report greater levels of satisfaction with their relationships.

Why are friendships receding from the foreground of our lives? The reasons are myriad. Americans are working more hours, and jobs are increasingly taking up more of our time. Parenting has changed dramatically, requiring more of adults’ time and resources, and making families more insular. Some Americans are more mobile, moving for their careers. And the institutions that used to make up important social gathering spots, such as places of worship, local businesses, and recreational centers, are becoming less and less central in our lives. Increasingly, we’re a society atomized — working, shopping, and socializing online, our phones the primary portals through which we view the outside world. The pandemic only intensified those antisocial trends and put further strain on our relationships: Nearly 50 percent of Americans reported losing touch with friends during the enduring pandemic, and a recent report by researchers at Harvard University found that loneliness increased substantially during the pandemic.

And yet, not all of the changes brought on by the pandemic were bad. Nearly half of Americans reported making a new friend over the course of the pandemic. For some, the period was an opportunity for reflection, for figuring out which relationships really matter and letting go of the ones that weren’t serving them. The wonderful thing about friendship is the promise and possibility new friendships hold: You never know where a new friend might come from, or what they might add to your life.

Vox asked several friends from different walks of life about their own friendships and what it means to make and preserve one in the modern age. We asked how they navigated challenges, how friendship can wax and wane, what role technology plays, and what makes friendship different from other relationships as we searched for the answer to a deeper question: What is the role of friendship in contemporary American life? Read on to see what they said.

—Marin Cogan

The long-term friends

Gail Wides, 65, Silver Spring, MD

Sue Findley, 64, Madison, Wisconsin, and Boone, North Carolina

Gail and Sue met in college and became roommates. They married their college boyfriends, who were also friends and roommates.

Gail: It was September 1976, at Indiana University. Sue was coming in as a freshman, and her boyfriend and his twin brother, who I was also friends with, were asking me if I would befriend her. Little did I know she was going to become my soul mate.

Sue: We just started going for meals together, and then we’d start walking to class together. We started spending all this time together. We weren’t majoring in the same things, but we would find routes where I could walk her to class and pick her up on the way back, maybe because of her sense of direction initially. [laughs] But after that, just for the ability to talk.

Sue: Gail and I had a ritual where if one of us broke up with a guy, or somebody was feeling something — day or night — we would call each other. I had a little Chevy Vega, and we would go to this restaurant on the outside of town. I remember once she called me at, like, 2 in the morning sobbing, you know?

Gail: We just would put our overalls over —

Sue: Our pajamas, and we would go to this restaurant and we would always order —

Gail: Tuna on toast —

Sue: French fries —

Gail: And chocolate milkshakes.

Sue: And we would just sit there and binge-eat and cry it out and then go back and go to classes the next day.

Gail: They were intense times, but they were some of the happiest of my life, you know?

Sue: She is the most supportive person you could find. So even when I was kind of moving away from her good friend as my boyfriend, and looking at a different boyfriend, she was really just — whatever she thought I wanted, she’d be like, that’s the right thing to do. And that’s who I ended up marrying. That was 41 years ago.

Gail: She wanted to introduce me to his roommate. He’s now my husband.

I always feel like she’s the one that gets me to spill my guts. And sometimes I feel like I haven’t really spent a lot of time delving into what’s going on with her. We both enjoy a good laugh, and she’s just so much fun. She’s just the most deep-hearted person. She just has this bottomless well of unconditional love. That’s why we love each other so much.

Sue: I can do really stupid stuff, and you’d just be like, All right, it’s all going to be fine, and you’re great.

Gail: You do the same for me.

Sue: Okay. So I guess that’s something.

Gail: We moved out of the dorms and Sue and I had a place together, but the guys [Barry and Keith, their future husbands] would be there, and basically it was the four of us.

Sue: We got married first. And then the following year, you all got married.

Gail: At the end of it, they were all graduating, I was in grad school. So it was like: How many emotional things can you pack into one month? We were leaving to go to DC, which is where I grew up, and my husband got a job with the government.

Sue: We went to Madison.

Gail: I cried all the way to Indianapolis. And then I think I was just catatonic after that. It was quite emotional. But I was her maid of honor and my husband was the best man. So they had a lovely wedding.

Sue: And I was in your wedding.

Gail: She was my maid of honor. And Keith was Barry’s best man.

Sue: After that, we wrote letters. Long, long letters. I’m not kidding, like 12-page letters, on both sides. We would call and we’d look for opportunities to get together here or there. We started on trajectories that were very different, kind of the farm life and the city life. Gail was big on DC, and at that time, Madison was kind of a smaller town. We move through our worlds very differently. I would be out mowing the lawn and weeding and knocking down a wall in the house. And Gail would be reading a really good book — and I would read that book after Gail read it, and it was great, but I would also be out hiking, just living a more country life.

Sue: Any time we would talk about another friend, like in our letters or phone calls, we’d always say, But they’re not really a good friend. We’re passing time with them until we can get back together.

Gail: I still feel that way! I have an illogical jealousy of every friend she has, even though I have deep relationships of my own. It was wrenching, really, to be away from this person, who, you know … Barry always said it with a little bit of bitterness, Well, if Susie said it, you would believe it, or you would do it. And he’s right. I had this sort of weird feeling of like, oh, my God, what am I doing here? I’m living with a man, and I’m a grown-up. I started teaching and I felt like an impostor. I would call Susie and say, What the hell am I doing? Do you remember? You came to visit one time and we went shopping for my first teacher clothes. I was like 22.

Sue: To make you look grown up.

Gail: When they moved to New Haven, it was such a gift because we could drive up or I could take the train by myself and go up all the time. When Susie had her first child, you know, that was my first baby that I ever felt close to. I can remember sobbing when I left you guys.

Sue: We shared having two children each, and they’re approximately the same age. And so probably we saved each other’s children’s lives, because we were like, They’re driving me crazy! We’d talk to each other down.

Gail: Susie had two boys and I had two girls. But she went first, and she was the first person I told, after Barry, that I was pregnant.

Gail: We would meet in the summertime, and we made it work. When the kids got older, it was harder. There was a period when they were in middle school and high school where we didn’t get together as much.

Sue: Because they had things they wanted to do.

Gail: But we always kept in touch with letters and stuff like that.

Sue: Each time we get together, it’s not like we have to really go back and reinvent the wheel. We just take off like there hasn’t been months or years since we’ve seen each other. There’s just no lag time.

Gail: Neither of us have parents anymore, and other than our siblings and spouses, there’s no one that has known me for as long and has seen me in all my guises and extreme joy and extreme sorrow, and illness and health, and parenting and grandparenting, now. It’s amazing. I don’t have to explain one thing about myself because she knows everything, you know? She knows everything. The good stuff and the bad. There’s such a comfort in that.

Sue: We have traditions that we do together. We don’t go to the other one’s house without having peanut M&Ms. You’ve got to have a bowl of peanut M&Ms. That’s how we get things started.

Gail: We have jokes that have been going on for, like, 40 years that no one else would understand if we said it.

Also, she knows how to take care of my mother-in-law, and I know how to take care of her mother-in-law.

Sue: That’s how good this friendship is!

Gail: And now I have a 2-year-old grandson and she has a 1-year-old grandchild. And it’s just so surreal. But it’s just a joy to be able to share that with her.

Gail: She gives me confidence because she just believes in me so much. And there are times when I feel — I’m going to cry — but if there are times when I’m at sea, or just down, she always knows and she makes me talk about it. I just feel so loved, you know, unconditionally loved, and it’s such a gift. It really is. She’s helped me any time that I felt that I needed confidence and reassurance that I could get through something. I’ll talk to her and she’ll say, but what about you? I’m not sure there’s anybody else in my life that I’m — my husband is a very loving person, but I just think there’s no one else in my life that’s always saying, But what about you? So it’s everything in my life. From the moment I met her, she’s helped me celebrate the things that were wonderful and get through the things that weren’t.

Sue: That’s really sweet. I wish this friendship for everyone. I think it would make a world of difference for anybody’s life if they had this kind of longevity and unconditional support and history that allows, as you’ve said, Gail, that we don’t have to back up and figure each other out. We know.

My mother died while I was in college. And coming back to college was hard. Everything felt so trivial. People would be talking about, Oh, should I wear the pink pants or the white pants? And I would just think, Who cares? Why does this even matter? I think I was developing an edge of, like, I can’t even stand to be around people. And Gail hung in there with me, and she also kind of let me have the time and space to normalize what this meant in my life. And that was incredible. Because I don’t think I could have done that without her.

Gail: I’m so glad to have heard that, because I remember that time. It was scary for me, too, because I felt like she was receding and I couldn’t — she was hard to reach sometimes. And I was always, you know, doubting myself and asking myself if I was doing the right thing or if I’d said the right thing or too much or whatever. I’m glad to know that you found it helpful.

I think we went through a lot. Getting married, having kids, watching them grow up, going through these stages, having a grandchild. We’re lucky that we were going through these stages together.

—Marin Cogan

Hanna Barczyk for Vox

The queer, platonic friends

Stef Spina, 55, New York City, New York

John Pfeiffer, 54, Honolulu, Hawaii

John, who is gay, and Stef, who is a lesbian, met through their significant others, who both were working at the New York City bistro Pastis in 2002. Stef went on to marry her girlfriend, Julie. John would stop seeing his boyfriend, but Stef and John remain friends to this day.

Stef: I can name the date. September 11, 2002. What happened that day would have to go through HR. John was with Andy back then. Andy got off work at Pastis at whatever time, and he and I ended up at Tortilla Flats.

John: It was 2 in the afternoon, right?

Stef: 2 in the afternoon and there were pitchers of margaritas. We rolled into Pastis at, like, 6, and Julie, my now-wife, had been working. She and I were meeting John.

John: I was stone-cold sober.

Stef: I think your hair was the first descriptor. Like a long, sort of a blowout — he was working “fashion” hair.

John: I was just fed to the wolves.

Stef: John actually was like no one I’d ever met before. He was somebody in fashion, and he wasn’t a nightmare. He had this really fun, sexy job as a casting director, but he wasn’t self-involved. He’s just so good and kind and treats everybody kindly. He tames all the beasts. He’s a deeply caring person that just, like, shows up.

When I’ve gone through bad times, like very low points in life, John is this person that took me in and really took care of me.

John: The secret to Stef is that Stef is actually a gay dude.

Stef: I don’t disagree. My first exposure to being gay was pre-AIDS, gay men on Fire Island and Studio 54. And that to me was very exciting. I do have more of a gay male view on a lot of things — not everything. [laughs]

John: With Stef, the boundaries are wider.

Stef: I think queer friendship is about a shared experience. There’s a heightened awareness of who you are and what you’ve gone through, you know, especially for our generation. Growing up in a time of AIDS, and having really very few rights, and fighting out in the streets so as to see where we are now.

What I find really important, if we’re talking about queer life, is that I don’t want to lose the “sexuality” part of it. Sometimes I think something that’s been lost with the acceptance and the “we’re just like you” is that we don’t talk too much about sexuality.

Sex is an important part of being gay and being lesbian, and I don’t feel like losing that. Gay, lesbian, queer, whatever identity — sex is part of your life. And embrace it and celebrate it. Because I have kids, I’m stuck with a lot of straight people now and it’s different. It’s much more, like, one-dimensional.

And with John and in my queer friendships, it’s 3D.

John: In life, there’s always a lot of subtext, and with Stef, all that is always understood, right? You don’t have to waste time explaining. I know she gets everything, and I know she will understand every reference. She will understand where I’m coming from in a bad time.

For all the joy and laughter and happy times that we do have, we can be very serious with each other also, and can support each other through hard things like my mom dying, Stef’s mom dying, and on and on.

I think about the concept of the highest of highs being as deep as the lowest lows. And so you need that for contrast. Hopefully you’ve built up the relationship to withstand such moments.

Stef: There was a time when Andy was unhappy in the friendship and sort of went dark without letting Julie and I know. John and I were a little bit collateral damage in a way. And that was heartbreaking, because it’s like losing your best friends. I think it was like ghosting a little bit.

Julie and I had little kids, and my mom was sick. There was a lot of stuff happening, I remember, like, really mourning. I don’t have the same relationship with Andy these days that I do with John.

John: But ultimately, a new relationship came out of that.

Stef: We talked about it; we really talked it through. We came out the other side. And it’s just not this weird elephant in the room. I’m just very grateful that we did. I’m very fortunate and thankful — very thankful that it came full circle. I don’t get to speak to him or see him as much since he moved to Hawaii [in 2020]. But I think about him daily.

John: And I her.

—Alex Abad-Santos

Hanna Barczyk for Vox
Hanna Barczyk for Vox

The intergenerational friends

Rachel Katz, 55, San Francisco

Teresa Kennett, 73, San Francisco

Despite a 20-year age gap, Rachel and Teresa shared a passion for spirituality. They’ve since faced many of life’s big challenges with the other by their side.

Teresa: We have a mutual friend John, who’s my longtime meditation teacher. Rach and I have been at retreats together with John. Rach told John she wanted to meet like-minded people who were spiritually oriented and have more community in San Francisco. He said, “I’ve got just the person for you.”

We just hit it off right away, and we’ve been getting together at least weekly ever since then.

Rachel: Even though Teresa is in her 70s and I’m in my 50s, I never look at Teresa as 20-something years older than me. I look at Teresa as one of my very dearest friends. She’s like a mother, a mentor, a best friend. … The only time I see the difference is our age is when she talks about things she’s done in the ’60s or ’70s, and I start laughing, like, “Wait, I was 5 years old.”

Teresa: I feel the same way. I don’t think about our ages most of the time.

Rachel: In my world, everyone’s like “Oh, T.” Everyone just knows we’re really close. Never once has anyone brought up, “Is it at all weird? Do you ever think about the age difference?”

Teresa: Rachel is an old soul; She’s wise in ways that I’m not. She’s in a long-term relationship; I’m single. She has a perspective as who she is that makes me aware of things that I’m not always aware of. It’s possible that some of my experiences going through a longer lifetime at this point, they might be of interest to her.

Rachel: Totally. Yes. I learn a lot from Teresa because she’s lived a longer life than me, and she’s experienced things that I haven’t because I’m younger. She’s a big activist, and I learn about what she’s done. I’ve always been inspired by Teresa.

I’ve had challenges with my mother over the years — we’ve reconciled, thank God, and it’s beautiful now — but for much of my life, it was a bit of a challenging relationship. And to talk to T, and see it through the eyes of a mother … she will often share her experiences as a mother to give me the other side of things, and that’s really helpful for me.

Teresa: I had a challenging relationship with my daughter for a period of time, and had sadness and guilt about not being the perfect mother. Rach has been a compassionate friend and helped me work on accepting myself as I was and as I have been as a parent. I have gotten much closer with my daughter over the years, and Rachel has really helped me to develop tools to be with my daughter. It’s very helpful to be close to someone who has similar spiritual practices.

We have such a deep connection. I have a life-threatening condition, and I’ve had several surgeries. I got very sick in 2012. I was in the ER with my sister and my parents, I was so sick and in so much pain, and all I remember is all of a sudden I looked up and there was Teresa holding my hands, looking into my eyes, she didn’t say anything. It was like no one else existed in the room and I just looked at her and I said, “I’m so sick,” and she just looked at me and held my hand. I always tell that story because it encapsulates Teresa and us. She didn’t have to say a word.

Teresa: It’s moving to go back to that time and remember how much I love you and how scared I was. It’s really hard to think about that. It’s kind of been the same with me. I got my second Covid shot last year and immediately developed this excruciating pain in my belly. I called Rach and Andy (her husband) and asked them to take me to the hospital. It turned out that I had a tumor in my transverse colon. I had a successful surgery, and I’m cancer-free now. Rach has been there through the whole thing, just so there with me. This is a woman who has so much on her plate and wants to make me muffins every week.

We have a lot of fun. It sounds like we’re going through this trauma all the time, but actually are just constantly having a lot of fun.

Rachel: We laugh a lot. We have similar senses of humor. We just get a lot of things together.

Teresa: I deeply appreciate the way that Rachel stays connected. … It’s changed my life because I’m more of an introvert. And when I was married, it was always just my husband and I, and I regret that I didn’t develop deep friendships with some of the women that I really liked. I’ve learned to be a better friend and a better person because of Rachel, and that means the world to me.

—Lauren Katz

Future Perfect

Our love of orcas is making them miserable


Mud libraries hold the story of the Earth’s climate past — and foretell its future


How to talk to a loved one about their health

View all stories in The Highlight