Though so many of us are suckers for romance, friendships may be the true love stories, the bonds that really complete us. A friend knows our secret aspirations, petty aggravations, every daily triumph and despair. She’s our memory bank, moral compass, and reassurance that we aren’t the only person on earth who’s equally passionate about season 1 of Outlander, putting more women in Congress, and Hot Pockets. A good friend exerts a gravitational force in our lives: Even, or especially, in moments when everything threatens to fly apart, she pulls us back to ourselves.
“We see our friends, and our friends see us, with a clarity that other people don’t—not even our romantic partners,” says Lauren Mechling, whose novel How Could She explores the complexities of female friendship. “To be known that way is incredibly important. Friendship helps us define who we are.”
But these days it’s getting harder for us to define what friendship itself is. Social media has turned friend into a verb, not just a thing that we are but a thing that we do—or undo, as in the Orwellian-sounding unfriend. On Instagram we connect with strangers who invite us to join them where we used to hang with our nearest and dearest: in the dressing room at Target, on the couch at wine o’clock. Meanwhile, our actual friends sometimes look like strangers—flatteringly filtered, perpetually #blessed, and often having too much fun with other filtered, #blessed people who don’t happen to be us.
In this universe of insta-intimacy, it’s good to remember that friendship is still a matter of the heart, not heart emojis, and as such must be handled with care. That’s the spirit in which we crafted our guide to being a better friend in the digital age. Because in the vast reaches of cyberspace, the network that matters most is yours.
SO MUCH HAS been written about how technology is weakening the delicate fabric of human relationships—heads buried in screens, conversations replaced by keyboards—but the truth is, it can do wonders to knit us closer together. Remember the girlhood dream of staying “friends 4ever”? Our apps and devices can make that dream come true, offering a connection to people you thought were lost to the sands of time. Your bestie from third grade, who was always sticking up for the kids who got bullied? She’s now a public defender with four rescue cats and a lively social media life—and she’d be thrilled for you to get in touch.
Today we can take our friends with us everywhere, virtually. One FaceTimes you from London, walking you through the Tate Modern. Others group-text while watching Big Little Lies “together,” sharing reactions in real time. We can stream and snap our way into each other’s lives with next to no effort.
Of course, the existence of all of this bridge-building tech doesn’t mean you can skip out on spending time with your dearest pals IRL. The offline touch is especially vital when they’re in need. Khalil Gibran called friendship “a sweet responsibility,” which nails both its benefits and its obligations. If your friend is dealing with something big—divorce, a death, a troubled child, a career shift—your job is to be with her in person or at least call. Yes, even if you’re “crazy busy” or “hate the phone”: Your voice on the other end of the line is more powerful than any text. (FYI, psychology professor Albert Mehrabian found that 38 percent of communication about feelings occurs through vocal tone.) Texts, emails, and DMs are like emotional CliffsNotes—they give an outline of the story, not the full sentiment behind it. In person or on the phone, you can hear your friend’s unguarded thoughts, pauses, sighs. Research has found that it can take over 200 hours together in person before someone becomes a close friend—and that’s not an investment you want to squander. Just as you wouldn’t conduct a romantic relationship virtually, you can’t sustain a friendship that way.
TINY MOMENTS ADD UP. Have a minor revelation? (“I just realized I’ve been mixing up Jeff Daniels and Jeff Bridges for the last decade!”) Text her. Blips of contact are the dabs of emotional glue that keep your connection solid. “In my closest friendships, we can obsess over anything, for any amount of time,” says Cathy Guisewite, “Cathy” cartoonist and author of Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault, a collection of candid essays on womanhood. “When my niece graduated from high school, my sister planned her party down to the tiniest detail. She’d text me photos of napkins as she walked through Party City. That’s exactly the kind of thing we bond over.”
THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT. Voxer lets you send quick audio messages to a friend that she can listen to at her leisure, no phone call required.
YES, THE WOMAN in those Instagram posts looks like your buddy Kim—same mole near her left eye, same habit of snorting when she laughs—but she is not actually Kim. She’s a meticulously crafted avatar: a presentation of the woman Kim wishes she were, or the woman she was in late 2004, or the woman she feels pressure to seem to be.
In the social media era, many of us feel compelled to offer up our most charming, carefree, Ashtanga-practicing selves to the world. That presentation can be at odds with the way our real-life friends know us, sometimes creating a jarring dissonance. It can be disorienting, for instance, to watch a friend perform marital bliss on social media when she spends half your conversations fretting about her jerk of a husband. But before you judge her for being a phony, think of the pressure she must be feeling to keep up appearances. Real Kim may need your forbearance for Screen Kim’s behavior. Social media just isn’t the setting for the kind of authenticity and vulnerability that’s the bedrock of true friendship.
That knowledge will help when Screen Kim fails to provide online “evidence” of your friendship. Author Lauren Mechling vacationed with a close friend’s family in Italy a year ago; after returning home, Mechling plastered her Facebook page with pictures. Her friend did not. “I was shocked and hurt,” says Mechling. “Why didn’t she want to brag about our cool vacation, and the fact that we grilled fish together and listened to Sicilian accordion players? It bothered me so much that I finally brought it up, and she explained that her father didn’t like how he looked in the photos—she was trying to protect his feelings.”
One last thing about Real Kim: It’s not fair to make her take a back seat to your onscreen persona. As we mine our daily lives for content and imagine how it’ll play out on an internet stage, we sometimes fail to be fully present in what’s happening around us. (She’s confessing to troubles with her boss, and you’re mentally concocting an Instagram post about your “SUPER FUN #ladiesnight #yum #lovemyfriends.”) But the phantom eyeballs of your online followers aren’t nearly as important as the ones you’re looking into across the table. So let your paella go unphotographed occasionally—the likes you’ll garner aren’t worth the distance you might create between you and the people you truly hold dear.
YOU KNOW HOW horrible it felt when Tina Capicolo didn’t invite you to her sweet 16 and you had to hear about it at school later while gritting your teeth hard enough to create a diamond? Thanks to social media, you can now regularly experience that emotion as an adult. We have immediate front-row seats at beach getaways we weren’t asked to attend—and the pang of exclusion stings just as badly now as it did back when you used Jean Naté.
Do yourself a favor and try a little perspective: Preinternet, this kind of thing happened all the time—you were just blissfully unaware. Speaking of awareness, this is a good time for a self-audit. There could be a simple reason you weren’t invited—maybe the group assembled to obsess over a novel you haven’t read—but it could also be more personal and complex. Is there a lingering grudge you and your friend haven’t addressed? Maybe you’ve been distant lately, and she thought you were pulling away. Have you been spilling her secrets? Dominating chats with 20-minute diatribes about how maybe it’s “finally time” for you to get Botox?
Keep in mind, too, that you’ve probably caused FOMO yourself, with no negative intentions; give your friend the same pass you’d want to receive. If you really can’t stop licking your wounds, it’s fair to bring up your agita—nicely—with those who left you out. “One night several years ago, my Instagram blew up with photos from everyone I knew at a friend’s party—and I hadn’t been invited,” says the actor Busy Philipps (who has 1.8 million Instagram followers and considerably fewer close friends). “My feelings were really hurt, so a couple days later I called the person and said, ‘I need to talk to you, because it feels like this was a thing.’ It turned out that it was, and we got to the bottom of it, and we got through it.”
SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGIST Laura Eramian and sociologist Peter Mallory have studied the reasons friendships fail and found three recurring issues that can cause a downward spiral: an imbalance in effort or affection (one always reaches out to schedule lunches; the other can’t be bothered), differing expectations (Michelle doesn’t think twice about calling Liz every day to complain about relationship drama; Liz sees that as a ludicrous burden), and problems with overlap (resentments about deadlines or workloads making things awkward between coworker pals).
Inspired by Marie Kondo, people are doing the painful emotional work of parting with things that no longer mean what they once did. But those things can’t take it personally when they’re heaped into a Hefty bag. The process of breaking up with a friend, on the other hand, is a psychological minefield that can cause long-lasting injury. One reason is simply that we know our friends so well: Research has shown that we’re better at describing our friends’ creative skills and intelligence levels than they are themselves. “If you have to fire an employee or break things off with a romantic partner, they can tell themselves it’s for subjective, superficial, or nonsensical reasons,” says Lauren Mechling. “But you and your friends know each other so deeply that if one rejects you, it’s hard not to feel that she’s seeing something in you that she doesn’t like—something you might not even have found within yourself.” If you’re the one doing the rejecting, you owe it to your friend to proceed with extreme benevolence and care.
Before you decide to part, ask yourself if you can let your grievances go—if being spared your pal’s critiques of your outfits is worth losing her impeccable sense of humor. “I pick my battles,” says Busy Philipps. “You can’t call people out for every single thing, like posting too many selfies. Sometimes you have to be like, ‘Okay, she needs some kind of validation that I can’t give her right now, so I’m just gonna sit back and let this pass.’ I’ve gone through phases where I’m sure I’m not that cool to be around, either!”
You can lie low, dialing back the frequency of your calls and emails, in the hopes of conveying how close (or distant) you’d like to be without having to get explicit. Whatever grievances you can’t let go of, don’t hash them out onscreen. Since online conversations lack the nuance that face-to-face or phone conversations offer, minor email or text misunderstandings can turn into full-fledged warfare. Psychologists also warn of “online disinhibition”—the tendency to be bolder and more open (and sometimes more aggressive) when you can’t see someone’s face or hear their voice; in other words, the email you’d write to a friend you’re peeved at will likely be much more barbed than what you’d say if you were telling her off in person. No matter the disagreement, it won’t be solved by broadcasting your annoyance to your 236 Facebook friends. And if you eventually make amends, that public record of your clash will remain, like a gruesome scar.
But if the friend-ship has run aground and you’re ultimately unwilling or unable to bring it back to sea—if things have become endlessly contentious or painful—it’s probably time to call it quits. It should go without saying that this is not a text message situation. What situation it is depends on numerous factors (your emotional closeness, the problem at hand, the personalities of the key players…). Each friendship breakup is as unique as a thumbprint and as complicated as a trigonometry equation: Consider whether this is a time to be direct in person, send a judicious email, or quietly slip away. Your friend is likely to scrutinize whatever you do or say as intensely as if it were the Zapruder film. So be respectful and merciful.
Some breakups are just the natural order of things. “I had a friend in high school who was brilliant and very bossy,” says Roz Chast, illustrator of Why Don’t You Write My Eulogy Now So I Can Correct It?, a collaboration with longtime friend and writer Patty Marx. “We had some fights over the years, and after a particularly bad one, without any explanation, we just stopped talking. Sometimes a friendship, especially if it’s very complicated, doesn’t end all wrapped up in a nice neat package with a bow on it.”
And if you’re on the receiving end of a breakup? Take comfort in the fact that friendship can work in mysterious ways. “Once, a close friend didn’t talk to me for about a year and never explained why,” says Marx. “I didn’t ask because I thought, It’s not going to be a good reason. It’s not ‘I love you so much that I can’t bring myself to talk to you.’ And eventually, she started talking to me again.”
BOX: ROCKICON FROM THE NOUN PROJECT. COMPASS: DAIRY FREE DESIGN FROM THE NOUN PROJECT. BUTTERFLY: ICON FAIR FROM THE NOUN PROJECT. WAND: CORPUS DELICTI FROM THE NOUN PROJECT. BOMB: SOFIANSORI FROM THE NOUN PROJECT. PEACE SIGN: JEREMY J BRISTOL FROM THE NOUN PROJECT. SCROLL: JNGLL FROM THE NOUN PROJECT. ■