New Friendship Is the Last Great Romance

Friday, January 22, 2016 - 6:44am
Photo by David C. Wong
The New Better Off

New Friendship Is the Last Great Romance

First, we had coffee.

We sat outside, because it was a beautiful Oakland day. We started talking about books, I think. I can’t really remember, honestly. I just remember this moment when I was looking into her bright eyes and listening to her self-assured voice, the voice of someone who knows herself and has been through enough to have no time for pettiness, and I thought to myself, “She is really something. I don’t want to let this one get away.”

At this point, it would be fair to assume that I might be trying to date this woman. In fact, I’m in a committed relationship and I’m on the straighter end of the sexuality spectrum. Instead, I was befriending her. As I’ve stumbled my way into my mid-30s, I’ve realized that the most romantic relationships I have these days are often platonic, female friendships.

It sounds contradictory. My most romantic relationships are platonic? But the kind of romance I’m talking about isn’t sexual. The kind of romance I’m talking about is charged with the magnetism of the unknown.

It’s nervously texting a new friend something pretty random and hoping she’ll shoot something witty back — simply because it’s fun to be in touch. It’s “learning” someone — is she the kind of person who goes to a hip hop dance class or would she rather make some fancy mixed drinks and watch our kids smash all the different colors of play-dough together? Will she be less into me when she realizes that I don’t cook? Is it time to share the hard stuff with her or will she think it’s too much, too soon?

I moved across the country a few years ago, so I’ve done this dance a lot recently, and I find it thrilling. I also find it not unlike what happened between my partner and me when we met. In the very beginning, there is the witty banter, the checking one another out, the refreshingly easy laughs. A sort of meta-evaluator in my head is watching and saying, “Oh wow, okay. Huh. This is really fun.”

The time is flying, the equivalent of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow, but for friendship. And then there is this “click” moment where I just know that I’ve met one of my people. My meta-evaluator says, “I’m totally into her. I hope she’s into me.” I get a little nervous. It feels good to be nervous.

My life is otherwise so set in most ways. I have made a lifelong commitment to two people — my husband and my daughter. I live in a home that I hope to stay in for many years. I’m a writer — always have been, always will be. That identity takes many forms, but at this point, the daily practice of it is as familiar as my own toes. I know it through and through. Sometimes it surprises me, but mostly, I can anticipate the fact that I’m going to be surprised (if that makes any sense at all).

But friendship — it’s an enduring wild card. I don’t totally know when a friendship will prove to be lovely but mostly circumstantial (we were in the same graduate school class or were neighbors for a while), and when it will transcend the challenges of modern calendar matching. There is nothing better than that lunch that you look forward to and relish from start to finish despite any busyness that may lurk at the edges.

Ongoing, I don’t know whom I’ll meet and I don’t know if we’ll have a pleasant, but forgettable connection, or if some part of me will light up in her presence and crave to keep lighting up. I don’t know if our illumination will be reciprocal. Maybe I’ll be totally hyped by being in her presence and she’ll find me interesting enough but not someone she can’t live without. That’s the risk, and it’s part of what makes the whole endeavor so intriguing.

If you’re wondering why I’m focusing on female friendship, here’s the skivvy: while my male friends are some of my most precious and long-lasting, I find that it gets harder and harder to forge new male-female friendships once you’re married. If you meet a new guy, it’s often frustratingly assumed that he’ll be “primary” friends with your husband and you’ll be “primary” friends with his wife, even if you actually prefer the guy. Or it’s just assumed that you and your husband, together, will be friends with the guy. This isn’t a rule, just a tendency I’ve noticed. Some of the same romance can exist with couple friends or when my husband and I both “fall” for a new friend, but it just isn’t the same.

There’s been much-needed analysis lately about the ways in which friendships are often de-prioritized in our modern lives, discounted, or seen as an optional icing on the cake (the cake being marriage and parenthood). In truth, long-term friendship is our lifeblood — the thing that remains when all else, including marriages, fail.

My longest running friendship is with someone that I met in third grade. Twenty-five years later, we can call one another up after months of no contact, say a few words, burst into tears, and the other person knows exactly what the blubbering is all about. There is nothing she could do that would make me stop loving her, plain and simple. That’s intimacy. That’s constancy.

But new friendship, often totally left out of the public conversation, is a way to feel continually alive, nervous, when seen again for the first time. While my oldest friends know who I’ve been, my new friends help me understand who I’m becoming. Even a small comment can feel enlightening, “Well, you’re so good at that…” I am? Oh, I didn’t used to be?

It’s fun to have new mirrors to look into, new chemistry to experience, new stories to hear. I’m so grateful to keep swooning.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

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I love this. Thank you so much.... we need more ways to see relationships out of the conventional boxes we've been given....

I know what you mean, and it's the worst mistake I have fallen into is thinking I can be friends with the wives of my husband. It may be an enlisted military thing (sorry folks) but there are an awful lot of young women with no ambition but to stay home and do NOTHING (no job, education, hobbies or volunteering), with or without kids, and just expect other women to be their substitute husbands when their husbands are aware and help them take care of the kids. I have had men treat me like a wild-thing for having a job and going to school and oh wow--because I work---we actually have money to go play after the bills are paid. They can't afford to play with their stay-at-home-wives so I must be the bad influence! What a crock! I've had jealous women hate on me for placing the last term of my college career ahead of their need for me to entertain them IN THEIR OWN LIVING ROOMS (not like some once in a lifetime or special event) or call me up drunk from a bar and demand me to come entertain them or meet some stupid guy or drive them home. Yes, I know not all women are this way, but I understand what you mean completely.

My favorite takeaway: "As I’ve stumbled my way into my mid-30s, I’ve realized that the most romantic relationships I have these days are often platonic, female friendships." This is so true and so hard to explain, and yet, you have. Thank you!

This really speaks to me! But I had to chuckle when you said it's more difficult once you're married. Having grown up without a father or brother, friendships with men are very important to me. But too often, my divorced status too often seems to make me into a potential predator, even when I honestly claim otherwise.

A friend of mine recently told the story of a wonderful day out with a new friend. They had talked and laughed a lot. I told her I thought it was so awesome to find a new friend when you are older. I am 65. Hope there could be a new friend in my future!

I appreciate Lois' comment. Having recently moved I too look forward to forming new friendships..

I will be 64 in a couple of months. It has been my experience that it is much harder at my age to have a social group. It was all so much easier when younger. It seems friendships just happened, with little effort.

This is beautiful and resonates with what I've always believed . . . and know. Thank you Courtney.

Great article!! I've been grieving the loss of two women I was blessed to have as friends-- boy did they really know me!!! A heavy part of that grief is that they weren't able to continue with me on my journey to self-- new mirrors truly do allow me to see myself as I'm becoming. .. Thank you for reminding us all how truly wonderful and critical new friends are--- my circle is isn't decreasing -- it is strengthening. .. Very different outlook I needed to see!!

Perfectly expressed. I've experienced similar things and always enjoy meeting new people and getting to know them better. " While my oldest friends know who I’ve been, my new friends help me understand who I’m becoming." This especially resonates with me because I feel it's the connection we seek through others that makes us feel like we belong to and with them, like the romance and magnetism of the unknown you describe with female friends. Already being in a committed, lifelong relationship with our spouses helps, too.

A friend recently told me the story of how she recently spent a whole day out with a new friend. They had talked and laughed all day. I told her how awesome I thought it was to find a new friend in older years. I am 65, and am anxiously awaiting meeting a new friend! I want her to help me find out who I am becoming...

I like your idea of new mirrors to look into, or to reflect new information, chemistry to churn and new stories that sometimes offer new perspectives. I totally get the invisible line of friendships as a married couple: he and he, her and me. I want that line to be softer, blurred, so that the dynamics of the four of us have more fun and appreciation of the group of "us". New friendships, at all levels of certainty, enrich.

I love your ideas about new mirrors to look into and new information that can be reflected, the churn of chemistry and stories with new perspectives. I totally get the married couples friendships with the invisible line: he for he and her for me. I wish it would be softer, blurred, so that the dynamics of the four can be more about the group of "us". Thank you for your insights.

I concur! It's always a surprise to see my personal thoughts written by someone else's hand ... And you've done that twice now Courtney. I just love it. Thank you.

I especially love your observation about new mirrors. Beautifully written.

Thank you for your beautiful insight, Courtney. I've been thinking lots about motherhood and purpose and marriage and passion now that I am 12 years into my marriage (18 years of the relationship) with two kids. One of your sentiments really spoke to me, and it was how you "crave to keep lighting up." I have found as a wife and a mother and a woman in my late 30s that what I crave more than anything is to keep lighting up. I am someone who tends to fall in love multiple times per week--not necessarily with another person, but with ideas or books or music or career paths--I think you get my drift. I, too, feel the familiarity of the daily practice of lifelong commitment to my husband and kids, yet equally honor the importance of finding opportunities to light up. Thank you for helping me look at intense female friendship through a different lens of what I had perhaps dismissed as having the occasional "friend crush." I knew it was deeper than that, but was not able to articulate it as well as you just did!

i LOVED reading this piece, courtney! and, so many times throughout i heard myself say out loud, "YES!" interestingly, having met a new female friend since moving to my new home state (two years ago), and experiencing all of the same emotions and thoughts you identify above, there was a time when i wondered, "gosh, am i falling for this woman?" that felt a little threatening, though when i really checked in with myself, i was delighted to find that indeed my commitment to my wife is rock solid. and, my being "smitten" with this new friend was really about what you describe above, "the magnetism of the unknown." thank you for your courage and honesty here. how refreshing to now have words for feelings i have felt about friendships throughout the years. and, oh, by the way, my oldest friendships is now one that has crossed into its third decade. how lovely to have someone in my life who knows me and my history, and who has watched so much change over the years.

A very sweet reflection--but I'd like to say to the author, please don't think you've figured adulthood out by your mid 30s. You've just begun adulthood. You have another 20 years to go before you reach the mellowness of middle age, and perhaps another 40 before old age. As a middle-ager, when friends with school-aged children are less and less, you will find your friendships shifting again. Someone said that we change friends or friend groups every 7 years. I don't thik it's changing as much as it is re-aligning and adjusting. In my 50s I"m less inclined to be friends with 30-somethings, who are still reading comic books and getting bent out of shape over lousy endings to tv shows. And 40 somthings who are still holding out for Prince or Princess Charming. Rather, I'm happier around people my own age, who can kvetch along with me about our body changes and how we have to be more careful with foods and wear lower heels. Yes, it may be harder to find those friends, but if you are slightly social, and know a wide group of people, you'll connect with the right ones. True, it's not the old "boys and girls together" like in one's 20s, so the challenges are greater, but the friendships last longer, too.

As an 80 yr. old, I completely endorse all the principles stated so well, as they are lifetime.

This is lovely and so telling of most modern day friendships I've had! Basically the cornerstone for the term "girl crush," wouldn't you say?

What about a male female platonic friendship? This brings about the question of "if men and women can be friends".....

I think the romantic feelings she describes in an early friendship are why intense male-female friendships don't work unless they include spouses and everybody is very, very honest. It is very easy to cross the line. And as someone who has suffered the grief, humiliation, and pain of infidelity, I can say that you have to be vigilant. I do have male friends. I do not go out with them privately, I don't talk with them the way I would female friends. Before the affair I would have thought that a person posting what I am now was just old, sad, and bitter...perhaps it's just something you have to live through.

As a screenwriter, I'm constantly seeking to capture those "firework friendships" that literally jump off the page as I write them. Quite often,'s not even in the words, but in gestures and expressions.

Personally, as I moved through the various phases of my divorce, and learned how to trust again, it eventually opened the door to a whole new world of magical connections, that didn't require a romantic intimacy component.

Courtney, others have said it, but I'll chime in too: this line is quotable, "While my oldest friends know who I’ve been, my new friends help me understand who I’m becoming. Even a small comment can feel enlightening, “Well, you’re so good at that…” I am? Oh, I didn’t used to be?" You've hit a singular point with this comment that rings especially true since I am college student. In college, I've noticed that the electrifying , meta-elevator ride is more and more common in my mind and heart (since a man has yet to make me take the elevator), yet so difficult to summarize until now.You've encapsulated the craving, joy and risky business of new, wonderful, deep, platonic, female friendship. Thank you!

As a senior living in Florida for the last three years, I can testify to how difficult it is for a male to make new friendships. So many other males are happy to lean on their spouses or perhaps have no friendships at all.
This is unfortunate for those of us who want new contacts.

Courtney, it's Kelley Guiney, your old pal from our Dove days. A friend of mine sent a link to this to all of her friends. Thank you for your wonderful writing and insight, as always! This article just made my day. I spend a lot of time in anguish over friends who aren't available to spend this quality time you're describing (even though they'd tell you I'm the most fun person they know!). I need to put that energy into people who are available and want to spend that time. I agree, there is nothing like spending a full day with a wonderful woman friend. XOXO lots of love to you!

It is so fun, indeed, "to have new mirrors to look into, new chemistry to experience, new stories to hear." Thank you for sharing these powerful, inspiring thoughts.

I just lost one of my oldest and dearest friends. She was 57 and died two weeks after her diagnosis of cancer. I still remember meeting her the second day of our freshman year at a huge Catholic high school in the Philadelphia suburbs. We were inseparable until I went off to law school but we always stayed in touch over the years. Our lives were so different yet when we spoke, it felt like it was just yesterday and we couldn't stop talking. I feel so grateful to have had such a dear, dear friend who loved me so much and that I loved so much. A woman cannot survive without her girlfriends…thank you so much for your moving article. You have softened my grief.

Loved your article & can relate! I’d love to know your best tips (beyond “befriending coworkers” or “talk to someone at church/school/your kid’s friend’s mom”) for making new friendships as an adult.

This is so lovely. Watching my parents as they grow older and treasure the friendships they have as well as very occasionally add a new person to the mix is a great reminder to me of the vital importance of friendship. Sometimes we feel too busy or too caught up in those "primary" relationships to really treasure what will bring you the most joy - today and in the future.

I am 91 and in Hospice but not ready to go yet. I don't now what my website is. I just know that what you say about "new friends" is as real as things get. You sound like a good one to me!

I am 91 years old and happily finding "new" friends as I am sadly losing old ones. A good friend is always,
new or old .

I agree, but have trouble finding such friends as I have moved, am in a different culture and can't even find a single website that offers a path to forging friendship. Suggestions?

God bless. You've said everything I've had such a hard time pinning down, myself. Wish I could find more relationships like these in the micromanaged lives we're living. Beautiful writing and beautiful feelings. Thanks.

What an absolutely beautiful article. Such a unique perspective. Love it.

I hope you really, really, thank your lucky stars that this is how it is for you. And thank your parents or whoever raised you that you are secure enough in your attachments to allow yourself to get close to others. You could be me, a person in her upper fifties, long divorced, and not a single close friend of either gender. Have never had a single close friend. I haven't entirely given up. I'm trying, have been trying for years, to learn how to be with other people openly, without fear, maybe someday able to reveal myself, to be brave enough to be present with another human being. It's a slow process, two steps forward, one step back.

You are so incredibly fortunate.

say amen somebody

I moved across country in August, and I've been doing this dance a lot. It's nice to see it so explicitly stated. Thank you for your reflection on this, Courtney!

I also like those . Thanks for sharing such nice and romance shoot.

Thanks so much! Often have felt like a failure for not having figured out the "important" parts of life quite yet, but have always been good at friendship and greatly valued friends new and old. Glad to read an ode to its central place in life!

Thank you so much for sharing this message. Female friendships are so very important and often get to the core of who we are. I remember years and years ago, reading a poem written by the deceased sister of a male friend. Back then, there was not a lot of discussion of sexuality, but from everything that I know of her, she was very straight leaning. In the poem she described the end of a very close friendship with another female. It was poignant and struck me to the core. I remember her writing that the "breakup" with her best friend had cut her to the core and was more devastating than many of break ups of romantic relationships with much loved men. I needed that poem, because I had just been "dumped" by a long life girlfriend who did not feel that I had sufficiently supported her with a difficult problem. I felt that I had supported her, but apparently not enough. As indicated in the poem, I grieved like I had grieved over so many lost romantic loves with men whom I had hoped to share my life with. I have also suffered the disappointment of thinking that I was establishing a strong bond with another female, only to see the disinterest after having spent time together. Like with men, I wondered "what is wrong with me" and "what did I do wrong." Age teaches that it is not always about you. However, the pain can feel the same.