The Other Love Story in Our Lives
Maybe we shared secrets or surprise compliments (or both). Maybe we danced. Maybe we hugged with total joy. Maybe we were buoyed by booze, or maybe we just felt light because of our love for each other.
My best friend, Ruthie*, who lives a few blocks from me in Brooklyn, and I say it to each other after these kinds of nights. "I love you," one of us will say. "Text me when you get home," the other will say.
I hear it on the street sometimes. I hear it on television, too, on the HBO show Insecure, which is more about the star, Issa (Issa Rae), and her best friend, Molly (Yvonne Orji), than anything else. "Text me when you get home," Issa tells Molly after Molly drops her off at her apartment just after two a.m.
Men do not tell their friends to text them when they get home. Some guy somewhere must have been worried about his buddy finding his way back okay at the end of a night, but he probably just said, "Get home safe," or didn't say anything at all.
This is because women who say, "Text me when you get home," aren't just asking for reassurance that you've made it to your bed unharmed. It's not only about safety. It's about solidarity. It's about us knowing how unsettling it can feel when you've been surrounded by friends and then are suddenly by yourself again. It's about us understanding that women who are alone get unwanted attention and scrutiny. Should I hold my keys in my hand? Why is this driver talking so much? Is this guy following me? Am I too drunk? Is that guy who just said, "Hey, gorgeous," going to say anything else? My place feels so empty.
The words are a web connecting us, winding through the many moments we spend together and apart, helping us understand that whenever we're unmoored or terrified or irate or heartbroken or just bored, we're not by ourselves. They are a way for women to tell each other, "I'm always with you. I won't forget about you when you walk away. I am here when I'm standing in front of you or any other time you need me, no matter what."
I wish I'd understood sooner what women can give each other. I didn't expect to end up where I am now, making female friendship the center of my story. But when I decided I wasn't ready to marry my long-term boyfriend in my early thirties, I looked around, and instead of being unsure, I was inspired. Surrounding me were a bunch of women who were doing exactly what I wanted to do: striving to do good work, setting themselves apart and aligning themselves with other amazing people. I wanted to spend whatever time I could with them. This crew became essential to my identity and psyche. Someone once described female friendship to me as a soft place to land, and it was.
Now, I look to my friends for the kind of support that comes from wanting only to be good to each other. My people push me to do better. They listen, but not in a quiet, passive way. They're always on point for correcting me when I put myself down or fall into the trap of thinking things are my fault when they aren't. My friends are brilliant, funny, fearless, wise and generous. We champion each other in emails, in texts, in congratulatory flowers or simply by saying how much we trust each other. It feels like I'm part of a team, even if some of the women on it don't know each other.
What could be looked at as cute (for example, how female friendship is represented on greeting cards with pictures of stilettos or glasses of wine) is more than that. What's happening now goes beyond women raving about their girlfriends. We're reshaping the idea of what our public support systems are supposed to look like and what they can be. Women who might have assumed they could find care, kindness and deep conversations only in romantic relationships are no longer limited to that plotline. Whether women marry or not, whether they have children or not, their friends are fundamental parts of their lives that they won't be giving up. There just isn't only one love story in our lives.
And yet, the idea of relying on friendship is in tension with the fact that these relationships are unrecognized and unstructured. There are no licenses or certificates that make them legit or guide how we conduct them. We could lose each other at any moment.
Alexander Nehamas, a professor in the humanities at Princeton University, compares our friendships to art in his book On Friendship; we value them because they're beautiful. "There are relationships where we know what we want from the other person," he said in an interview, "like how I know what I want from a waiter or a salesperson. That relationship doesn't really change us at all. I have a particular desire or value, and I expect you to supply it, whereas with friends I don't know what to expect, either from them or for them. Friendship or a relationship that is more than an instrumental relationship is always leading into an uncertain future. It makes it both exhilarating and also dangerous."
It's a striking way to describe our friendships. When I see my girlfriends, I don't love them because of any trade of services I expect to get from them. I love them because they're there. This kind of thinking underscores how tenuous these connections with a friend can feel, depending on what supposedly more legitimate relationships they're being compared to. We have to keep pressing for them to be recognized. If we just treat them as something heady and heart-filling, not only will they cease to exist, they’ll be diminished by a culture that, at best, is extremely critical of most of the things women say they love. We have to continue acknowledging how necessary these relationships are, whether it's making friends our emergency contacts at the doctor, our yearly Thanksgiving companions or the people we reach for first whenever anything good, awful or irritating happens. The conversation about how important other women can be in our lives has just begun.
Text me when you get home. When women say this to each other, they're also saying, "Let's keep talking."
This adapted excerpt was taken from Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship, by Kayleen Schaefer.
* Full disclosure: Ruthie is an editor at Oprah.com.