Childhood besties, work wives, workout buddies — regardless of how and when you make them, friendships can become some of the most important and rewarding relationships in your life. In The Atlantic‘s series, The Friendship Files, senior editor Julie Beck interviews different sets of friends — including those who met through an app, former contestants of The Great British Bake Off, and pen pals going on 20 years — to hear the stories of how they met and how their relationship grew over time. Says Beck, “Everybody is so warm and generous and interesting when they talk about their friends.” We talked to Beck about what makes friendships unique, what she’s learned so far, and who she’d love to interview. Read on, and then give your BFF a call.

friends hanging out

Brit + Co: How did this series start?

Julie Beck: I’ve covered friendships a lot for The Atlantic before, in terms of psychological research, and it actually came about because I was thinking about friendship swiping apps, like Bumble BFF. I was thinking, “Do people actually use these? Do people actually make friends on those?” So I went looking for some friends who had met on one of those apps to interview and just to hear their story. Once I talked to them, I had this great interview, and I thought this could be expanded to talk about a lot of different types of friendships. So I started gathering more folks to talk to, and we launched the series on February 15.

B+C: You’ve interviewed lots of types of friends. Is there a common thread that binds people together?

JB: I think what’s so interesting about friendships to me, is that it really is the genre of important relationships in our life that has the least amount of rules or the least amount of cultural narrative ingrained around it. We understand family comes from legal or blood ties, [and for] romantic relationships, there’s choice involved in that, but there’s still a script that we all kind of know for how that relationship is culturally understood. Even if you don’t [choose to follow it], to a degree, you are consciously against acting against that script. That narrative is always present in one way or another. With friendship, there really isn’t one. People meet in all different kinds of ways, they connect in all different kinds of ways. The mechanisms by which they get close to each other are always different, and I think that’s what makes it so interesting, so variable, and why I think that this hopefully could go on for quite awhile. People really have to create their friendships on their own and move those relationships forward in their own way.

Researchers will say the thing about friends is that we choose each other. It’s a voluntary relationship. And that has its pros and cons. There’s a lot of research that suggests that as people get busy in middle age, and their careers ramp up and their family obligations ramp up, that friends can also fall by the wayside because it is a flexible relationship. If we’re dating and I don’t see you for three months, that’s kind of weird. But if we’re friends and I don’t see you for three months, that doesn’t mean we’re not friends anymore. That flexibility allows friendship to fit into whatever shape your life is taking at the moment.

B+C: Have you seen differences in friendships based on what stage people met each other?

JB: I think the research will say that a lot of people make most of their friends in their youth, and I’ve definitely talked to people where that’s the case. I’ve talked to people who have fallen out of touch with their friends in middle age and then reconnected later, and some of that is just someone making the initiative to reach out to the other person. But I’ve also talked to people who have forged really close friendships late in life, new friendships. I’ve talked to some people last week — a bunch of veterans from the Vietnam War who were all friends in their platoon when they were over there, and they really lost touch immediately when they got back to the States. Fifteen to 20 years went by, and then someone sent out a letter to all the other ones and they got back together. They started having these reunions, bringing their spouses, their kids, their grandkids. And now they have this really rich interconnected network of all of their families and that’s something that took hold for them later in life. I think it’s really dependent on the effort that people want to put into these relationships.

B+C: What have you learned about your own friendships?

JB: It’s just reinforcing for me that if you want to keep these relationships in your life, and if you want to make sure they’re rich throughout your life, it has to be a choice. You have to put in the work the same way you might have to put in the work for a romantic relationship or to stay close to your family if you don’t live near them.

Sometimes it’s hard in adulthood when you are busy or there isn’t a built-in structure for making friends like there is in high school or college when you’re sequestered with all these peers who could become your friends. But then hopefully as you get older, you learn, and you learn strategies and ways to put more of an effort. The voluntary nature is what makes it unique and endlessly diverse.

B+C: If you could interview any two friends, who would it be and why?

JB: I think if I were to ever get to interview Oprah and Gayle, that would have to be the series finale. There’s been a huge focus on women’s friendships in our culture recently, but even before it was this zeitgeisty thing, Oprah and Gayle have always been so open and emphatic about the importance of their relationship. And I mean, really, where would I go from there?

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