How to Make “Life-changing” Friendships (and why they matter) | Rhaina Cohen

Rhaina Cohen

Trick question – who matters more to your happiness and wellbeing and, well, your life? A romantic partner, or close friends? Okay, so we all know that its not an either/or thing, but we tend to place those intimate, romantic relationships on the good life pedestal, like that’s the ultimate aspiration. And we treat good friends more as nice-to-haves. Well, what if that were’ completely upside-down?

What if your closest friendships were just as significant, if not more, as your relationship to your partner? Even if and when you DO find that one romantic love, what if there was still room for your chosen-family-level friends? And what if it wasn’t about swapping out one for the other, but rather, it was a yes, and thing?

My guest today, Rhaina Cohen, reveals groundbreaking research showing that for many people, their most significant and fulfilling relationships are not with romantic partners, but with profound platonic friends.

Rhaina is an award-winning producer and editor for NPR’s documentary podcast, Embedded, and the author of the insightful new book The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life with Friendship at the Center. In our conversation, Rhaina shares groundbreaking research and compelling stories that may completely change the way you view relationships.

Imagine being able to build deeply committed connections with friends that are just as enduring as marriage. Or picturing a world where platonic love is valued and supported as much as romantic love. Rhaina offers an eye-opening look at how we can expand the roles friends play in our lives, if only we open our minds to new possibilities.

I think you’ll be blown away by Rhaina’s unique perspective on reinventing relationships. She gives us practical tools to foster greater intimacy in our friendships, while revealing the cultural biases that hold us back. Get ready for an inspiring dialogue that may transform your connections and community.

You can find Rhaina at: Website | Instagram

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photo credit: Cassidy DuHon


Episode Transcript:

Rhaina Cohen: [00:00:00] I want to be super clear that I’m like a pluralist about this. People can have romantic partners and platonic partners, or can have several people who provide that kind of like anchoring connection for them. There are many kinds of wonderful love and support that we can get. There are more ways to find fulfillment and more ways to feel loved and connected, and that someone’s going to be there for you than just one type of relationship.


Jonathan Fields: [00:00:26] Okay, so trick question for you who matters more to your happiness and well-being and, well, your life, a romantic partner or close friends? Okay, so we all know it’s not really an either or thing, but we tend to place those intimate romantic relationships on the good life pedestal. Like that’s the ultimate aspiration. And we treat good friends more as kind of nice to haves. Well, what if that were completely upside down? What if your closest friendships were just as significant, if not more, as your relationship to your partner? Even if and when you do find that romantic love, what if there was still room for your chosen family-level friends? And what if it wasn’t actually about swapping one out for the other, but rather it was a yes end thing? My guest today, Rhaina Cohen, reveals groundbreaking research showing that for many people, their most significant and fulfilling relationships are not actually with their romantic partners, even when they have them, but with profound platonic friends. Rhaina is an award-winning producer and editor for NPR’s documentary podcast embedded, and the author of the insightful new book The Other Significant Others Reimagining Life with Friendship at the Center. And in our conversation, Rhaina shares really fascinating research and compelling stories that may completely change the way that you view relationships.


Jonathan Fields: [00:01:49] Imagine being able to build deeply committed connections with friends that are just as enduring and important as marriage, or long-term life partnership, or picturing a world where platonic love is valued and supported as much as romantic love, Rhaina offers a really eye-opening look at how we can expand the roles friends play in our lives, if only we open our minds to new possibilities. I think you’ll really be blown away by Rhaina’s unique perspective on reinventing relationships. She gives us practical tools to foster greater intimacy in our friendships while revealing the cultural biases that often hold us back. So get ready for an inspiring dialogue that just may transform your connections and community and sense of joy. So excited to share this conversation with you! I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project. Certainly this topic that you’ve latched on to is fascinating in so many different ways. And it’s interesting the, um, you know, while you have a book that really focuses on can we talk about friendship rather than just romantic relationships, it feels like really exploring social connection. This has been a deep fascination of yours for a long time. And I’m curious what’s underneath that.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:03:05] Man, if we want to go way back? I think I was just like the person that was always at friends houses. I am just a person who likes being around people. Kind of the odd one out in my family, I think a little bit in that way. But I think fundamentally, to me, a full life is one that is a deeply connected life, and I’ve been really interested in people who are approaching connection in unusual ways. I mean, you know, I don’t need to tell you that we have a loneliness epidemic, that people crave deeper ties. And the way that we’re doing things now for a lot of people doesn’t seem to be working that well. So I’ve just been so interested in people who do things differently. Like, you know, I’ve written about people who infuse their friendships with the childlike play. I’ve written about people who have rejection parties together to deal with rejection. So there are many different ways to connect that I think we sometimes leave on the table.


Jonathan Fields: [00:03:59] I so agree, and I feel like if you aren’t attuned to the role of social connections or relationships, family, chosen family before the last four years, then you are now where all of a sudden when it wasn’t available to you. At least not in the way that we kind of like, always knew and expected to be able to experience it. The level of suffering, I think just skyrocketed. I think a lot of people are still trying to figure out, what do I do with this, you know, okay, so technology got better and that certainly helped. But there’s an underlying thing that says, have I been ignoring this part of my life for too long? I’m wondering whether you sort of feel that too.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:04:34] I think I’m heartened by the degree of conversation that now exists around trying to imagine more kinds of relationships that can matter to us, and to loneliness during the pandemic. I think that’s what you’re referring to. I think a lot of people, even if they had someone who they had at their house, might have realized that a partner was not enough to fill every kind of need that they might have. And what they were really missing were these other relationships that maybe they had taken for granted previously. They might have taken for granted that friends would be around, but were not necessarily the kind of basis of life. I think that there is a bit of a wake-up call, and also some creativity that emerged during this time of a lot of difficulty that people had, where you saw pods, you saw people trying to swap child care and pool resources and find ways to be together, which they might not have kind of appreciated because they hadn’t been pushed to the wall in the way that they were. They hadn’t been deprived of that kind of close connection to to friends, and they might not have realized that even if they did have those sorts of connections, that they were as essential as they, you know, have turned out to be. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, basically. Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:05:50] That’s so true. So we come into the latter part of 2020. You wrote a piece that shows up in The Atlantic. I think it was October 2020. What if Friendship, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life? it seems like then became the precursor to this new book. But I’m curious when you decide, okay, so we’re we’re in the early days of this thing. We don’t know when it’s going to end. At that point, we didn’t know. I think that there were still years ahead of us. But you’re really leaning into this topic, this conversation, and rather than sort of a general exploration of how are the times affecting our social relationships and our friendships, you really key in on this interesting distinction, which is the difference between friendship and marriage, or like romantic love versus platonic love. Take me there. Like what drove this? And I’m also curious what happens when that piece goes live in October 2020.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:06:41] Well, I worked on that piece before the pandemic. Oh no kidding. The piece was actually my trial balloon, basically for the book to see. Will I be interested after 5000 words? Will anybody care about this topic? Is it at all interesting? And I filed that piece at the end of 2019. Oh wow. Then the pandemic hit and my editor was inundated. Obviously it felt a little hard to kind of poke at her during that time. And then I bothered her later in the year saying, I could rewrite this to talk about the pandemic and the sorts of feelings that people are having, where they’re craving their connections to, to people that they don’t actually have access to at the moment. So I ended up just like putting in a tiny bit of that in the piece. You know, it was interesting because I was writing about this topic and exploring the topic before we had this widespread conversation about loneliness in the way that we do now. And I think and like subsequent, I don’t know, pieces and books on friendship, I got an extraordinary response. I had people writing into me with their personal stories.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:07:47] You know, I thought that I was writing about this kind of niche type of friendship and that there is something that we could learn from this, this sort of friendship. But it was hard to find and maybe rare. But I was hearing a lot of people saying, like, you’re talking about me. I have this kind of friendship, which might have meant that they actually did have this specific sort of friendship that rises to a level of life partnership. But I think more broadly, a lot of people saw themselves in the stories of these really devoted friends because they felt like they cared more about their friendships than they were supposed to. They felt like they wanted a different kind of commitment to friendship than was acceptable. And if friendship is a spectrum and kind of, you know, acquaintances at one end that they had felt that they were at, they had already crossed a line and they were too far on the other end. And it made a lot of people feel like friendship can be more than the prevailing wisdom says it can be.


Jonathan Fields: [00:08:43] Yeah, that piece in an interesting way. The response to it, what it reminds me of is when Susan Cain started writing about introversion and basically, you know, she starts speaking to what is something like a third of the population and saying, you know, that thing where like, culturally, basically everyone says there’s something wrong with you and you have to change it and it’s not appropriate. You’re actually okay. And maybe this is beautiful, maybe this is something to be celebrated, maybe this is something really powerful and there’s nothing to fix. And I feel like that piece in a way. That’s why I was curious what the response was, because it felt like it could land like that in so many people’s lives. Yeah.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:09:21] I mean, the story that I always think of is this woman named Paula, who wrote to me after that piece came out and she told me that the article was a much-needed slap in the face, where I think her exact words that the time was in her mid-30s, was divorced and felt like the thing she had to do was go out and find a husband. That was the thing that will make her feel complete. But she had the exact kind of friendship that I had written about. Like this was her friend who was on her emergency contact forms, and she helped take care of her friend’s children. And they just they were really, you know, partners in a lot of ways. But she hadn’t been able to recognize the friendship for what it was. And it took seeing other people to realize that not only was the friendship this wonderful thing, but also, as you were saying, with the Susan Cain example, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with her. There was nothing in her life that needed to be filled. She was she was content as is, and she just hadn’t been able to understand the possibility that she could be happy, given the situation she had.


Jonathan Fields: [00:10:24] Talk to me about then. You know, when we zoom the lens out a little bit and we look at sort of like cultural expectations about relationships, about the positioning of the ultimate type of relationship being the romantic relationship. Like, this is the thing that you aspire to from the youngest days. Like, I’m going to check this box, but the ultimate box is to find that one person and how that has really become a part of culture, at least US culture, maybe not actually in other cultures. Where does that come from? You know, because you’ve gone deep into the history of this also.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:10:54] You know, for one thing, marriage or romantic relationships broadly have not always been this kind of pinnacle in terms of our emotional lives and social lives in the way that it is now. Marriage for a long time and still in a lot of places, is an economic institution. It’s a practical one, like you are taking on in-laws and you are exchanging money. It’s like more like a treaty than how we think about marriage now, which is finding your soulmate and the person who you know will make you whole your other half. Like, that’s the kind of language that we use. And you don’t really see that until the mid-1800s, that that’s really common, that the historian Stephanie Coontz has said that that love in marriage used to be a bonus, not the basis for marriage. And, you know, we’ve evolved to the point where not only do we expect love, but we expect self-actualization. So I think you sort of see these historical trends, but they also coincide with like a crowding out of friendship as this place that people did meet a lot of these needs, and it gets reproduced in our pop culture. Like, I was just thinking of the Michael Buble song, like where he sings like you are my everything, that that is the, you know, the expectation. And there is a Barbara Streisand song called people. And basically the moral of the story is that, like, if you don’t have that one other person, you’re lonely. And that’s like a terrible way to be. So I think we just sort of we there are deep roots of this kind of thinking about one person being the one to fill your life or make your life full, but then we see it kind of coming up from the time we watch Disney movies.


Jonathan Fields: [00:12:31] Yeah, I mean, it really is all over as you’re talking, like I’m literally hearing like Tom Cruise, like saying, like that famous line, you complete me. Mhm. And that is part of you know, we had Eli Finkel on the show last year who was. Really talking about a lot of this stuff, and I didn’t realize also, and you’re really reinforcing this, what he was describing is it wasn’t till the mid 60s where marriage became this sort of like this mechanism of self-actualization. Yeah. So it’s pretty new, but it’s really pervasive. Like it caught on very, very quickly. 


Rhaina Cohen: [00:13:01] Yeah. I was thinking exactly of Eli Finkel’s, these Eli Finkel’s three eras of marriage that he’s talking about in the last one is about self-actualization, and he puts it so nicely, like, we basically want our partners to be the Michelangelo to our stone, like they’re going to unlock the best version of us within it. So, you know, those are just very high and specific expectations. But, you know, I think you could tie it to other kinds of changes, too. Like if we want this one person to complete us, like, how many people did we used to look to for a sense of belonging, for a sense of meaning, and that we probably, as a society, would have gone to religious institutions or other kinds of organizations that might have made us feel like we were connected and and that we knew who we were and to build our identity and that all of that didn’t have to be kind of at the feet of a romantic partner.


Jonathan Fields: [00:13:51] Yeah, it’s an interesting question, although probably a little bit culturally taboo to ask, what is the cost of romantic love? Because nobody likes to think that there’s a cause, but you’re kind of saying maybe there isn’t in certain circumstances, but maybe there is too. And like, if we never examine that, then we’ll never understand. Like, what are we missing? What other mechanisms, what other relationships might there be to fill that void? Yeah, I.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:14:15] Mean, I want to be super clear that like, I’m, I’m like a pluralist about this, that I think that there are many kinds of wonderful love and support that we can get. I myself am married like I’ve experienced, you know, infatuation and romantic relationships. And I know that they can be very fulfilling. But I think it is, you know, worth looking at the trade-offs of not necessarily romantic relationships in general, but the particular way that a lot of us approach romantic relationships, which is we disappear from other relationships in our lives. You know, I think probably most people who are listening have had an experience where they had a friend get into a romantic relationship and then, like, you didn’t really see them anymore. Or I remember a really formative experience for me was a friend of mine in college who I was very close to, ended up meeting a romantic partner of hers in, I think, our sophomore year, which was great for her, but I just never saw her alone again. I mean, it’s been like more than ten years, and I think I’ve maybe seen her once, just on her own. She just always brought along her partner, and I felt like I had lost the kind of relationship that I’d had with her previously, because there was always this, this sense that it was a two-for-one deal, whether or not I wanted it to be that way. So I think people end up really reconfiguring their entire lives when they have a romantic partner and might not realize the way that they end up diminishing other relationships. And, you know, it’s okay to have someone take up more space in your life. But I don’t know that people are always intentional about, well, how much space do I want this new person to take up in my life? And what about the relationships that I’ve had for a really long time that could be, you know, family, friends, neighbors, and how do I make sure that I don’t neglect those in the service of this one specific relationship?


Jonathan Fields: [00:16:01] Yeah, I mean, that makes so much sense to me. And and I’m raising my hand here also, like I am with my wife over 30 years. And we are that weird fairy tale of we love each other deeply and we are each other’s best friends, and we’ve been together long enough to, like, really start to have these conversations over the years, you know, like, and when you really start to, you know, it’s interesting what happens when you start to expect all of your different social needs to be fulfilled by one person, and it’s not fair to you, and it’s not fair to them, because we have different needs and we’re different people, and there needs to be space to express that, which is a lot of what you’re talking about. When you start to think about the platonic relationships. I mean, what’s interesting also is a lot of what you’ve been exploring and what you write about is I almost want to call it like friendship on steroids. This isn’t the casual acquaintance. This is the notion that you can have something that feels as deep, as rich, as enduring as what people would see as this long-term romantic relationship or life partnership. But in the context of something that is purely platonic. And that’s what I think is seems kind of foreign to a lot of people who haven’t really thought about it or maybe experienced it, or maybe been a little bit pushed away because they thought that’s culturally maybe that’s not kind of okay. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:17:18] It’s a real head-scratcher for a lot of people. You know, one of the stories I tell is these two men who are in their 30s, they’re straight, and they have been best friends since they were 15. And they’ve done the kinds of things people do for romantic partners. They have moved across the country for each other. They have lived together. Major life decisions together have kind of been there for lots of great and hard experiences. And the mother of one of these men at different points was like, you know, it’s okay if it’s if you guys are romantically involved. Like, I would support you. And, you know, it’s sweet in some ways. Like she’s trying to say that she accepts the relationship, but at some point, her adult son Andrew was like, it’s not romantic. I’ve already told you this. And her response was, I just want you to be happy. What that means for her is being in a relationship, a romantic relationship. Andrew told her that he had all the things that she said that she wanted for him, like support and being close emotionally to somebody, but she could not understand and said to him like she didn’t understand how you could be partners with somebody if it wasn’t romantic.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:18:24] And I think by that a lot of people mean sexual, too. You know, if you take a moment to think about it, it’s like, what is the crossover point in terms of romance or sex that makes a relationship more enduring or committed than one that’s platonic? I mean, for a lot of people, romantic relationships change over time, and they might not even have that much romance anymore. They might not have that much sex, and we’ll feel companionate. So if you have a maybe like 70-year-old couple and they have a companionate relationship, is that so fundamentally different from a friendship that has always had that companionate edge to it, rather than a kind of that the sort of sex and sparks part? So it is very confusing to people, but I think it’s worth pausing about, like, what do people think is going on in the romance and sex piece that is so important that it would make any relationship like that categorically more important or committed than a friendship? And I just don’t think that that the sex and sparks are definitively the thing that creates commitment. I want to.


Jonathan Fields: [00:19:26] Tease out because there are two different threads that are in here. One is around the relationship between like sex, romance, and also platonic relationships. The other is where you share, like the story about two men who’ve known each other since they were 15 and feel like they’re really good with each other, and they would do so many of the things that you would think a romantic partner would do. But they’re not in any way romantic. You know what this starts to bring into the conversation is norms around masculinity, especially like in Western society, which kind of looks at that and says, you can’t be that close unless there’s, quote, something else going on. Let’s take me into this, because I know you sort of like really dive into this. Yeah.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:20:07] I think it is a lot harder for straight men to have these sorts of intimate friendships today, not historically necessarily, than it is for for straight women or queer women. And I picked this up even when I was just talking to people about the book, and I would tell them different stories. And when I would talk about the women, they usually would not kind of have any, you know, like, is it sexual that that kind of line of inquiry wasn’t as common. But when I was talking about Andrew and Tully, these straight men, there was immediately suspicion from people like, are you sure it’s not a romantic relationship? And that’s by people who I think are pretty open-minded and, you know, maybe would check themselves around masculinity and even they or check themselves around norms of masculinity and even they would bring that up. I think somebody that I spoke to who really illustrates the kind of constraints that American masculine norms create, is somebody else I talked to named Nick, who grew up in a really conservative Christian environment. He still belongs to, like a conservative Christian denomination as a youth pastor. And he being told that you’re not supposed to get physically close to men. And he became really close to a friend of his who’s gay, who grew up in partly in Brazil. So he had this friend art had really different ideas about what is closeness look like between men. And for art, like putting your arm around your friend was totally acceptable.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:21:33] It did not read as like, well, obviously you are romantically involved. And then as a. And then that’s a bad thing. So Nick was, you know, just felt really uncomfortable all the time with what closeness meant. And at one point when he and Art were, you know, kind of resolved a lot of things around, you know, what does it look like to be to be comfortable with one another? Nick ended up wondering if he was gay because he had not felt emotional intimacy in a relationship other than one with a woman in a romantic relationship. And his gay friend asked him, well, like, are you attracted to men? Do you want to kiss men? And Nick’s response was, no, you know, he was saying to Art, I just miss you when we haven’t seen each other for a little while. Or like, sometimes I want a hug. And Art’s response was like, oh, that’s just intimacy. Like, that’s just loving another person. And I’m glad that Nick had somebody to kind of guide him through this and to realize that he had these real limitations on what was possible for him in closeness. But I think for a lot of straight men, they don’t, you know, necessarily have someone telling them that it’s okay to be or emotionally close to another man without having other people gossip about you or think that there’s obviously something sexual when it’s a friendship. Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:22:51] I mean, it’s so interesting also because what you’re describing is even if these two men reconciled and they figured this out together and they’re like, yeah, we’re actually really good. And Nick was just super grateful for like, the awakening that he had to the fact that it’s actually great, it’s beautiful to have a loving intimacy that is completely non-romantic or sexual between two men. Nick still has to operate within a broader culture that basically like, you know, like when he walks into a room or if he ever, you know, talks about his bestie, you know, a lot of eyebrows are going to raise. So it’s not just about getting okay with that with the two people in the relationship, but like when the culture immediately around you looks at it in with skepticism constantly or worse, and skepticism like outright judgment, you have to imagine, like the pressure to conform to that. If you still want to become a part of like stay a part of that community, it’s got to be brutal because it’s effectively saying, like, you’ve got to choose, which is I mean, that’s a heavy lift.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:23:49] Yeah, I think this comes up with so many people that I’ve talked to that they have maybe reached the point where they have been able to figure out for themselves what they want, and which is a hard thing to do. You know, when when the culture is telling you there are certain things, certain ways to behave, certain things to want, and you’re able to defy that. I mean, that takes a lot of courage and self knowledge. But yeah, you still exist in society and people are still going to judge you. And one of the ways this played out for Art and Nick is, you know, they work in this religious environment, and the two of them have talked about their friendship and how committed it is. And they had a webinar during the pandemic, and evangelical websites caught wind of the webinar and laid all sorts of accusations, including that it was a backdoor homosexual marriage, I think were the exact words. And in their community, same-sex marriage is not, you know, any kind of same-sex desire is not permitted. So not only were they suspected of not actually being friends, but that they were there was a problem if they were gay, which is kind of another step to take. But they aren’t ended up having to resign from his job because of the friendship, because people in the community could not seem to believe that it was a friendship. I just think it’s it’s really difficult for people to chart their own course, as you’re saying, without facing the consequences of people’s constant judgment because they just can’t figure out what’s going on. So then they they map on their own beliefs onto what’s happening, rather than just kind of being curious about what might be going on.


Jonathan Fields: [00:25:18] Yeah, it’s like you have these two competing needs. You have one need for love, like, not romantic love Companionate love. And then you have another need for belonging. And sure, there’s some overlap in there, but when you have these two physiological and psychological needs and the way that you’re sort of like stepping into them is pitting them against each other, how do you choose? You know, it’s like these are two things that I feel like I need to survive, to be okay, to get through the day. And yet I’m being told I have to choose. It’s not okay to actually have both the way that it just has come into my life and that I feel good about, which is kind of brutalising in the work that you’ve done, the research that you certainly poured into this, how common was was this type of phenomenon, whether it’s like two men or just even more broadly, you know, when you just look at all different types of relationships.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:26:07] How common is a phenomenon of these friendships or the kind of not feeling like they belong? The tension?


Jonathan Fields: [00:26:13] Yeah, the tension of feeling like you have to choose between the community within which you feel a sense of belonging and the individual within you, where you have this sense of just like real, loving, companionate friendship.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:26:24] This is a good question. I mean, I think Art and Nick really faced resistance from their community, and one way that they have been able to deal with that is to try to create another kind of community of people who really appreciate these French. This is one of the reasons that they’ve they’ve been so vocal. Talk about the friendship that they have on, you know, webinars and for organizations. And my hope is really with the book that people will realize there are others like them out there. This is one of the hard things about having a relationship that is not just scrutinized, but invisible, where there’s no name and therefore no legitimacy to it. So something that I’ve just seen happen with these friends is that they try to find other people who might value chosen family or friendship in a similar way. And I will say there, you know, there are a number of cases where people’s maybe parents might judge them. And there’s there are some kind of whispering, but people who know them really well often envy what they have. They wish they could have that kind of closeness. Or, you know, I write about a family where two friends are raising a child together, and one of the friends ended up in a romantic relationship. And so now there are three parents to this child, and people talk about wanting to steal that romantic partner because they want that for themselves. They face consequences in like medical settings of having three parents and face confusion, but then the people who are closest to them are like, this is a beautiful thing. I wish more people had this. So sometimes people face this really hard tension. But I do think there are ways that if you are not sort of standing on this far on the sidelines and just maybe hearing the sketch of of what the relationship looks like, but instead get to see it up close, then there’s more opportunity to look at those friendships with admiration rather than, you know, saying, stay out. You don’t belong to the way relationships are supposed to look.


Jonathan Fields: [00:28:14] Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting also what you describe. Well, some people will actually say, okay, so this relationship means so much to me that I’m going to effectively find my need for a communal belonging by finding a different community or building a new community of people who actually, like, see this and celebrate it rather than condemn it, which I would imagine happens increasingly these days. But but there’s still that scenario where like the, you know, Nick and Art, like you described, if part of the community, Nick was a part of it, it sounds like both of them actually was faith-based. Or maybe it’s family, or maybe it’s family and faith that is brutally hard to walk away from, you know, because you’re not just choosing, well, I’m going to walk away from a family. You’re choosing. I’m going to walk away from a belief system. I’m going to walk away from potentially a biological family that’s been steeped in that belief system for generations in order to do this. So I can see on the one hand where if you don’t have that and you’re just like, I need to find another group of friends where like, everyone’s like, yeah, this is cool. We get it. That’s awesome. But there have got to be so many other scenarios where you can’t do that easily. I can’t imagine the sort of like the suffering that it leads to.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:29:24] You know, I think one other place this plays out is in romantic relationships. So a number of the people I’ve talked to, they love their friend. And they’re also interested in in romance or, you know, having a sexual relationship. And they’ve had a hard time sometimes finding partners who are okay with the relationship structure. That would have to exist, where the friend still remains really important to them. So this happened for Andrew and Tully, where women would have problems with how close the friendship is. You know, it’s come up for other people that I’ve talked to. So these friends end up having to make a choice about, you know, can I have multiple kinds of experiences or multiple kinds of connections that really matter to me without feeling like, you know, one person is saying, well, if I’m your romantic partner, then we should be doing X, Y, and Z together and not being able to sort of figure out on their own terms, like what roles do they want to play in each other’s lives. So I think people end up having to make this, this choice sometimes between romantic partners and platonic partners. But in the best-case scenarios, people find the right kind of relationship. And then these, these different types of bonds and supporting each other rather than being in tension.


Jonathan Fields: [00:30:34] When that happens. I’m curious whether you’ve had these conversations with folks that you talk to, because what I’m curious about is what is the perceived threat that somebody is reacting to. It seems like if it is just blatantly obvious that this is not a, quote, romantic threat, what is the threat then, that somebody might recoil against and say, like, you can’t keep this friendship going because there’s got to be some level of perceived threat there.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:31:00] I mean, I think the threat is, is probably that, uh, you won’t be able to have as much importance in the other person’s life that there is an imbalance between how much you need from your partner, but your partner might not need from you. And I think a lot of people approach romantic relationships with a level of possessiveness that they are kind of entitled to a certain amount of, of time and access to another person. And it’s zero-sum like that instead of, you know, there is this additional friend who can be the person to field lots of hard things and to enrich my partner’s life that instead. It’s like, well, why isn’t that person coming to me and why am I not, you know, the number one. I think it’s, um. Yeah, it’s an interesting question around, like what? What people feel like they’re losing. And I think it’s probably a sense of significance in the other person’s life and that you can’t share that kind of significance equally.


Jonathan Fields: [00:31:57] Um, so it’s almost like the feeling is I can’t matter as much as I need to if this other person matters as much as they do.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:32:06] That seems like probably some of the logic. I don’t know that people are walking through that. Um, and instead they get to to cover it by saying, well, you’re spending too much time with your friend, like, we’re partners. I just heard this last night from someone, uh, you know, my social circles who has this kind of friendship and had said that they had previously been in romantic relationships where partners had just said, like, you’re spending too much time with your friends or with this friend, and instead of interrogating, well, what is it that I’m feeling threatened by? They can instead say, there are these roles that have been prescribed for us on high, and you’re not fulfilling your responsibility, and therefore you need to change. And, you know, I think instead we could be a little bit more, uh, we could be a little bit less cookie-cutter about how relationships should function, a little bit more reflective about what it is that makes us feel safe or not in different kinds of relationships. Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:33:02] I think that word safe is so central to everything that you’re talking about here. Also, it’s like if somebody feels safe in their relationship, then they probably would feel pretty okay no matter what other relationships are going on. Which again, goes back to sort of like there’s got to be a perceived threat which which threatens that sense of safety within the relationship. And it’s like a status thing. And I think maybe this is also part of it. Right? Like that there’s this cultural norm that says your long-term romantic partner, if we’re going to rank status, they should be like the number one from, a status, you know, in terms of like, let’s let’s rank all the friends and the people and the people in your life and the family, like that person should be number one. And if they’re not, there’s something wrong. So anyone who knocks you off that number one perch becomes a threat to what is the norm. Does that make sense to you?


Rhaina Cohen: [00:33:50] Oh, totally. I mean, the way that I open the Atlantic piece that you were referring to earlier is a moment in a woman’s life where somebody that she was dating, like, was basically saying he wanted to be her number one, and she had a friendship of the sort that I’ve been talking about, a very long-standing, very important friendship. And she didn’t want to automatically knock off her friend and put this other person in her place, and he just sort of like, couldn’t deal with that, that possibility and that she eventually found somebody has gone on to get married to who is really happy to have the friendship there so that they’re kind of taking care of and benefiting from there, this one, this shared person in their life. But I think the ranking thing is so big. And to be kind of empathetic to somebody who might feel threatened by a really close friendship if you don’t align on who your number one is, assuming that there has to be a number one, not like, you know, a tier of people, maybe, um, then that could that could hurt. Like when there’s an imbalance, like if if somebody is saying that, well, you’re like, you’re equal to somebody else or you’re number two, but I know I’m your number one that feels like that could hurt and be an ego hit and also feel insecure. Like, maybe if I’m not the number one person, then I could be voted off the island or something that I’m not as necessary to make me feel like this relationship is going to endure.


Jonathan Fields: [00:35:17] Yeah, I mean, we all come into adult relationships. Whatever baggage and history and patterning like it has been passed down often, not just from one generation but from many generations. And that’s going to show up in all the different ways. As you’re describing that, I’m thinking to myself, there probably is a certain tendency to like have a ranking system among like between romantic partners, friendship. But then if you asked a parent like who has three kids, so rank your kids, it would be inconceivable. That’s like not socially okay, even if they might secretly feel like, you know, they that they could. It’s just not a thing that anybody is supposed to be okay with. And Norm says that that’s not how you’re supposed to feel. And yet, when it comes to this different context, it seems like that kind of like is much more acceptable. So it’s interesting how the norms shift based on something like this. You know, one of the things that you also that that you brought up in that long-term relationships is sort of like the the role of policy and legal status. You know, when you can have two people who are literally in this for life and they’re raising families together, they’re raising kids together. Maybe you have two people who have been divorced, who each have kids who come together and they’re raising, like, all the kids together, and they are in this and they’re good and they’re happy and they want to, like each adult is equally committed to the non-biological kids in the family. And yet what you’re saying is there’s no recognition for this from a legal or policy standpoint. So effectively it’s like there’s, um, you’re being treated unequally.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:36:52] Yeah. We just really have a legal system that’s built around this one kind of relationship, which is a marital relationship. And if you have a different kind of really close, committed relationship, be it with a friend or with a sibling, you know, I’ve heard a lot of stories about sisters who have taken care of each other for decades. Like, we just don’t really have a system built for that. And I think it’s it was built for a different time when nearly everybody was married. And right now that’s just not the case. I mean, we have like, record high numbers of people who are unmarried and also the kinds of situations that I’m talking about that are really devoted. You know, it’s just like we have this vestige of the past that in order to have children, you needed to be in a sexual relationship. Now, you can make babies in all sorts of ways. There are different ways that people are able to live outside of marriage in an acceptable way. And yet, you know, if you’re single or you have this kind of friendship, like you’re not going to get support. So a way that I saw this play out, where were two friends who decided to raise a kid together and they ended up getting married, even though they are platonic partners, because they wanted to make sure that the the kid had rights to both parents and the mother needed health insurance.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:38:06] So that’s something that is tied to marriage in this country. One of, you know, many, many rights and benefits that’s tied to marriage. And then everyone started seeing their the nature of their relationship differently because of that. So they were able to kind of use marriage to fit what they wanted. But there are plenty of people like these women who I talked to who are in their 80s, and I asked them if their friendship of 50 years at all, you know, compared to a spousal relationship. And I think if one of them was like was eating cereal, she would have like, spit it out. When I asked her that question, it was so inconceivable. So instead, they’ve just gone without kind of real legal protection, like they have medical and legal power of attorney rights together. But really, you know, their kind of legal strangers to each other. And it means that there’s a lot of undignified moments, like one of them went to visit the other in the hospital and followed the ambulance and wasn’t let into the hospital for a while and had to literally wait out in the cold in February. So, yeah, it’s it’s very hard. Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:39:06] But you’re also describing is, you know, making medical decisions, which kind of leads to when you get older in life or even if it’s not older in life, if you’re fortunate to have just an incredible platonic relationship that is like this, connected and this and really long-lived, and then you lose that person when it’s your, quote, life partner or when it’s your your marital partner, your romantic partner. People are still weirded out and they have no idea what to say or how to act, but at least there’s like custom around it. There’s the thing that you kind of know I’m supposed to do here, but in this circumstance that you’re describing, there really isn’t. And I know you’ve really taken a look at this moment as well.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:39:44] Yeah. I don’t think our society is great at loss and grief, period. But it seems like it is a special variety of pain. If you have a relationship that people didn’t understand in the first place, like how are they going to understand what it means to not have that relationship anymore and what the loss of it was? You know, one experience that I heard of was a woman whose friend died by suicide. Her, you know, this again, kind of relationship where they called each other whiffles short for, for wife. And when the friend died, other people told this woman, Nicole, like, oh, yeah, I had like a friend from high school who died or like just sort of comparing her situation to ones that really weren’t on the same category, but they thought friend and therefore it could be sort of anybody who you passed passed through life with and not necessarily thinking like, well, this is equivalent to the loss of a spouse or, you know, the loss of one of the most important relationships in your life. And for her, she finally had a moment of recognition. When someone says that it you know, it sounds like your heart is broken, but it took a long time to get there. And that sounds like the only person, as far as I’m aware, who kind of gave the loss the kind of significance that it was due. And instead she felt not only that she had no longer the presence of her friend around, but nobody understood her, and she had to suffer alone. And it wasn’t like, you know, in a different. Tradition that you would sit shiva, or that people would bring over casseroles or do anything that is expected when somebody is, you know, your person, which this friend was to her, I.


Jonathan Fields: [00:41:22] Would imagine there’s also a version of this. I’m curious whether you saw us in any of the conversations you had with somebody where it’s not the loss of life, but something happens. There’s a fracture and that person. There’s a hard end to the relationship. They’re out of your life, you know, like, again, if this was a marriage, you know, you would say, well, this is a divorce. But in this type of relationship where there’s a profound connection and there’s a fracture, again, I would imagine there’s this moment where people don’t really validate how profound that is. Did you see that?


Rhaina Cohen: [00:41:55] I saw especially shame around friendships ending in a way that I don’t think is necessarily true around the loss of a romantic relationship. I mean, there is shame around divorce and and breakups, but what people would talk about with, if there is a friendship falling out, that it would mark them as a certain kind of person, as a bad person in a way, like what was wrong with them? And I think part of it is that like, well, you know, you’re not supposed to take friendship that seriously. So if somebody decided to cut things off with you or, you know, you’ve had this falling out, then maybe you’re a melodramatic or maybe you’re like, really a hard person to be around. And if you think about kind of the differences between, you know, what it means to reject somebody romantically versus platonically romantically, it’s saying, like, you are not the one or maybe the most important person that I want to have in my life. But, you know, I think for a lot of people, rejection when friendship means like, well, I don’t want you to be the top 30 people, you know, who I’m closest to in my life, or even if it’s top ten, it’s a in some ways, it feels like it’s less competitive and therefore less understandable when a relationship would end. Like, again, there must have been something really bad about you if someone didn’t want you in their life anymore. So I think it’s easy for people to feel like it’s a judgment on them in a really deep way. And then on top of it, this the shame that, like, this is not a kind of normal thing. And we don’t have cards to help people deal with, with loss or a falling out of a friendship or even language like, I guess we could say, falling out. But like friendship breakup is still a modifier on the real thing, which is a romantic breakup.


Jonathan Fields: [00:43:33] Yeah, I mean, that makes so much sense. And it’s a shame that their shame, you know, it’s and part of what was jumped into my head is you’re describing this is and this is not every divorce or sort of like marital breakup or romantic breakup, but, you know, a lot of them, there can be some version of the phrase, I love you, but I’m not in love with you anymore. But when you’re talking about a platonic relationship, there isn’t even that out. You know, it’s basically like, I just don’t love you anymore. And that’s brutal. It’s brutal in any case, like whether it’s romantic or not. But I could see how the psychology would be really different there as well. And especially if there’s no social support around you to help you process it. Yeah. I mean.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:44:14] I think in a romantic relationship, if you’re saying, like, I’m not in love with you or you’re not the one, then in a friendship it might be like, I don’t want you in my life like that. I mean, think about how harsh that would be.


Jonathan Fields: [00:44:25] That’s rough.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:44:26] To have someone say or imply that.


Jonathan Fields: [00:44:28] Yeah, I mean, just incredibly brutal. The big question, and I know the book that you’ve written and sort of like the journey that you’ve been on is not so much a how-to or a prescriptive like this is how you do this dance, this is how you get okay. This is how you find and build platonic relationships that are meaningful and deep and long-lasting. But there are going to be a lot of folks listening to this who are kind of in their mind. They’re like, I would actually love that kind of relationship. Or maybe I’m in that kind of relationship, and I want to figure out how to get comfortable with the other person, and also with the community around me in the work that you did and the conversations that you had, were you able to tease out sort of generalized insights that might be helpful for somebody who’s in this moment?


Rhaina Cohen: [00:45:11] I think a lot of these friends have conversations with each other that people don’t typically have with friends, where they have this kind of open-ended thinking about what a friendship can be and the role that each person can play in the other’s life, which can include, like, maybe we should raise kids together, maybe we should buy a house together. You know, any number of things that are typically reserved for a romantic partner. So I think one recommendation I would have is to just sort of have like a blue sky, thinking around what friendship can be and to, like, welcome the friends in your life to that. And it might help to like look to models that exist in real life, ones that I write about, ones that other people have written about to use pop cultural depictions as a jumping-off point. I think we actually do have some good depictions of close friendship, like in Scrubs and Broad City and so on. But intention and imagination, I would say, are the two biggest things that I see in these friendships that there aren’t limits on what a friend can be, and also that. They are deciding for themselves how they want to exist in each other’s lives, and then having conversations as they go, and sometimes hard conversations about like, are you as present for me as I have been for you? Or, you know, a romantic partner enters the picture? And how are we going to reconfigure now that there’s this new person there that instead of just like letting life change and letting things go unspoken, which I think is often how people let their friendships unfold to instead make things said and have conversations that might be a little bit difficult. It might feel even a little kind of like formal for a friendship, because we’re just not used to having these conversations out loud.


Jonathan Fields: [00:46:51] Yeah, that makes so much sense. You know, one of the other things that, and I know this is something that’s become a more current interest of yours, is if you can create almost like broader structural changes that do support these kind of relationships and conversations, like one of your interests these days is co-housing. And I’ve had a couple of friends who over the past decade have run a whole bunch of experiments in co-housing, communal living. And these are like fully grown adults with like real, responsible lives and jobs. But there’s something inside of them that says, wouldn’t it be cool to live together in community, even if we have our own families, like we all want to be in the same place together? And it seems like experiences like that could also be really supportive of these types of relationships and communities. I’m curious what you’re seeing emerge from your exploration of co-housing.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:47:37] Yeah, I was in California for a couple of weeks and visited four cohousing communities in that time, a mix of like where I happened to be staying. And yeah, it’s a bit of a interest of mine, partly because I live in a, I guess, what could be called co-living. My husband and I live with two of our friends, and there are two kids, and we’ve had a number of people in our life try to do something kind of similar, and we are looking toward buying a home at some point, and we want to do that collectively because we’ve just like, loved what it feels like to live in such close proximity to these particular friends. But also we live in walking distance of a lot of close friends, and I live five minutes away from one of my closest friends. It would be even better if we lived next door to each other, and I’ve gotten to see what that looks like by visiting these places where usually the way it works is that an individual or a family will have their private space, but then they also have communal space, and it means that you can often have opportunities to run into people. And also, just like there are more kinds of people who you might encounter in a given day, like one of my friends lives in a co-living community where I think they’re probably the the youngest, around around 30.


Rhaina Cohen: [00:48:46] And there are people who have been in that co-living community for decades, and they get to learn from people who’ve lived a lot of life and have different professions. So I’m just interested in the ways that people can find kind of everyday connection, and that you don’t have to take as much action to feel like you are getting your social cup full. You don’t have to, you know, send a calendar invite and do that, you know, three weeks ahead of time and then have to reschedule. You can just walk outside your door and there’s going to be somebody there. Or if you have a parenting crisis, or one woman told me, you know, she didn’t. Her husband had the car that they share and she needed to pick up her kids, and she just stood in the middle of this co-living community and was like, help, I need a car. And like plenty of people, were happy to give her a car. So it kind of also you just have like more of a safety net beneath you. So there just sort of like a range of like of practical and social and emotional benefits that I saw for people who have lived in these really like thick, tied co-living communities.


Jonathan Fields: [00:49:48] I’m so fascinated by that. And in part, it’s almost like the opposite of what you’re supposed to want for the quote, American Dream-like success is like you basically keep pulling yourself out and out and out and further and further away. Like first you get a house, then a bigger piece of property and then surrounded by woods and it’s like you just keep drawing yourself more socially away from everybody. That’s what you’re supposed to do. But like, where’s that left us? You know, like, and there are so many beautiful aspects of living in community. I think I feel like a lot more people are starting to really rethink a lot of these things these days. So as we come full circle in this conversation, is there a central message like, this is a years-long exploration for you, like that’s culminated in a book, but it’s really based around a set of ideas. Is there an invitation that you would make to people as they’re thinking about all of these ideas?


Rhaina Cohen: [00:50:38] Yeah. My invitation is to be able to think beyond the defaults that we have been handed. As I said, I’m a pluralist here. Like I think for some people, tradition and doing what lots of other people around you or before you have done can be extremely meaningful. Like I’ve seen this with some of my own friends, but I think a lot of people are just in autopilot because the messaging is so strong, as you’re saying, that if you want to live the American dream, if you want to be successful, if you don’t want people to be constantly questioning you or asking. Are you dating anyone? Or why are you living with friends or something that I’ve heard a lot like, oh, I could never do that. Because like, the kids would interrupt my sleep, that people have certain kinds of, like, values around privacy that are so important that if you deviate, you’re kind of constantly defending yourself. So if you don’t want to have to defend yourself, then it’s sort of easy to follow this one path or do the what I you know, I mentioned the woman, Paula, who wrote into me, who was doing something different and couldn’t even see that it was fulfilling because there was this one acceptable thing. So, you know, my invitation is to take yourself away from this really imposed default and to, you know, realize what I think is great news, that there are more ways to find fulfillment than this one path, and more ways to feel loved and connected and that someone’s going to be there for you than just one type of relationship or even one relationship. You know, people have can have romantic partners and platonic partners or can have several people who provide that kind of like anchoring connection for them.


Jonathan Fields: [00:52:14] It feels like a good place for us to come full circle in our conversation as well. So in this container of the Good Life project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?


Rhaina Cohen: [00:52:23] This is probably no surprise given the conversation, but I think to live a good life is to live a deeply connected and supported life. You know, one where you know that for the big things, in the mundane things, that there’s going to be someone there like, you know, someone will be at your door if you’re in crisis. And like one of my friends did, will tell me about the sale on avocados at the grocery store, that I know that someone’s there looking out for me. And if you don’t want to, that you don’t have to go it alone. Mm. Thank you. Thank you.


Jonathan Fields: [00:52:56] Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode, Safe bet, you’ll also love the conversation we had with Kat Vellos about how to plant the seeds of grown-up friendships. You’ll find a link to Kat’s episode in the show. Notes. This episode of Good Life Project. was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and me, Jonathan Fields. Editing help By Alejandro Ramirez. Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music and special thanks to Shelley Adelle for her research on this episode. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project. in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven-second favor, and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields, signing off for Good Life Project.


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