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When their relationship started to falter, these two friends turned to friendship therapy

Now, they’re closer than ever
Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman tried everything they could think of, including a just-the-two-of-them spa weekend where they could focus on their friendship. Nothing seemed to work.Courtesy Milan Zrnic

In 2009, Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow met at a "Gossip Girl" TV viewing party hosted by a mutual friend who knew they would hit it off. Their friend was right — they quickly became close. They forged their friendship over late-night conversations side-by-side on the couch, countless texts and emails, and unwavering support during romantic breakups. By 2014, they were not only BFFs, they were also co-hosting a podcast, "Call Your Girlfriend."

But over time, their relationship started to flounder. There wasn’t a big blowup. But they didn’t feel as close, and they weren’t able to articulate that to each other.

“There’s an expectation that breakdowns in friendship will look like the stereotype of a romantic relationship falling apart, where someone cheated, or there was a big betrayal or one catalyzing incident,” Friedman told TODAY. “For us, it’s not a quick and easy story, but we fell into a really bad miscommunication pattern.”

Of course, friendships end all the time, for all kinds of reasons. People grow apart, or the circumstances that brought them together change. But Friedman and Sow were determined to fix their problems rather than part ways. They tried everything they could think of, including a just-the-two-of-them spa weekend where they could focus on their friendship. Nothing seemed to work.

Turning to friendship therapy for help

“It felt like things had deteriorated to a point where we couldn’t just fix it ourselves, even though we really tried. And that is where we hit on this idea of going to therapy,” Friedman said.

Sow agreed: “Because we’d never been forced to articulate what was working about our communication, now that it had broken down, we couldn’t figure out how to get it back. We tried to salvage our friendship by repeating the steps we’d gone through to build it in the first place: trying to find a spark, putting in the face time, and getting vulnerable with each other. This time around, it was much harder.”

It felt like things had deteriorated to a point where we couldn’t just fix it ourselves, even though we really tried.

Ann Friedman

It’s common for people in romantic relationships or family relationships to turn to therapy to help them solve problems. But when Friedman and Sow were looking for friendship therapy, it was relatively uncommon. “We did not even look for a friendship therapist because there were zero results when we searched for that,” Friedman said.

But an expert in relationships can help you solve your problems when you can’t solve them on your own.

“A third party that’s more objective and not so emotionally close to the situation might be able to offer you tools that’ll assist you in navigating whatever the challenges may be,” said Shontel Cargill, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Thriveworks in Cumming, GA, who has experience treating friends together.

How friendship therapy works

Friendship therapy can follow the model of talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, or emotionally focused therapy. Cargill said that sometimes in friendship therapy, one or both people discover that they could benefit from individual therapy.

“[In friendship therapy] we’re having conversations, and we’re creating that space to be open and honest and transparent,” Cargill said.

When Friedman and Sow were looking for friendship therapy, it was relatively uncommon — they found zero results when they searched the web. Courtesy Milan Zrnic

Therapy helped Friedman and Sow discover they were struggling with a common problem in relationships. They were misreading each other. “If you’re continually misreading each other in the same way, it becomes harder and harder to break that loop,” Friedman said. “Therapy really clarified that we were both unintentional about the hurt we caused each other. We both were trying our best in the friendship.”

Therapy helped them see their relationship in ways they couldn’t see themselves. “The sessions began paying off as our therapist started to show us where the cracks in our relationship were,” Sow said.

Friedman pointed out that therapy wasn’t a quick fix. It was an intervention that gave them both the tools they needed to keep their friendship healthy. In fact, they cherish their friendship so much they wrote a book about it: "Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close". “It would be amazing for every friendship if you were forced to write down the arc of it — what’s wonderful about it, why it’s worth preserving,” Friedman said.

Your friendships might have suffered during the pandemic

If you’re struggling to reconnect with your friends as pandemic restrictions are easing up, you might want to consider friendship therapy. “The pandemic impacted us on an individual level, and our relationships were impacted as well,” Cargill said.

Some people needed a friend to be there for them during the pandemic, but the friend didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to support them. A therapist can point out how both people are hurting and create the space for them to talk about their feelings.

Cost can be a challenge

Even if you want to invest in your friendship, paying for therapy can be a barrier. Your health insurance plan might not pay for therapy to help you repair a friendship the way it would for a diagnosed mental health condition.

If money is keeping you from finding a friendship therapist, consider a mediator. Friedman said she met someone who acted as a mediator for two of her friends who were in a tough place. “I like that idea,” she said. “If the two of you can agree on having a mutually trusted third party in the room, there could be some of the same possibility present there.”

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