The Therapy for Black Girls Podcast is a weekly conversation with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a licensed Psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, about all things mental health, personal development, and all the small decisions we can make to become the best possible versions of ourselves.
Whether you’re looking to make new friends, maintaining an existing friendship, or wanting to remove yourself from a friend group all together, the process of cultivating healthy friendships is a lesson often overlooked in our textbooks and general life skills. But, why is that? When having and being a friend is a core aspect of so many of our adult lives.
This week, Psychologist, friendship expert, and NY Times Best Selling Author Dr. Marisa G. Franco joins us again to discuss her new book, Platonic, How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make And Keep Friends. Our conversation explores how avoiding conflict is not helping your friendships, how your attachment style is showing up in your platonic relationships, the difference between dependency and friendship, and how to break up with a friend amicably.
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Executive Producers: Dennison Bradford & Maya Cole Howard
Producers: Fredia Lucas, Ellice Ellis & Cindy Okereke
Session 277: Cultivating Friendships In Adulthood
Dr. Joy: Hey, y'all! Thanks so much for joining me for Session 277 of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast. We'll get into our conversation right after a word from our sponsors.
Dr. Joy: Whether you're looking to make new friends, maintaining an existing friendship, or wanting to remove yourself from a friend group altogether, the process of cultivating healthy friendships is a lesson often overlooked in our textbooks and general life skills. But why is that, when having and being a friend is a core aspect of so many of our adult lives? This week, psychologist, friendship expert, and New York Times bestselling author Dr. Marisa Franco joins us again to discuss her new book Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends.
Our conversation explores how avoiding conflict is not helping your friendships, how your attachment style is showing up in your platonic relationships, the difference between dependency and friendship, and how to break up with a friend amicably. If something resonates with you while enjoying our conversation, please share it with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession or join us over in the Sister Circle to talk more in depth about the episode. You can join us at Community.TherapyForBlackGirls.com. Here's our conversation.
Dr. Joy: I know you have been super busy, so I'm thankful for you making some time to chat with us today.
Dr. Franco: Always happy to.
Dr. Joy: You have been here with us before, Dr. Franco. It's very special to have you back for a third time because now you are in book launch mode. I'm very honored that you kind of gave the world a sneak peek of Platonic to come years ago and now it is finished and ready for people to purchase. Tell me, how have you been doing? What's new with you really since we last talked?
Dr. Franco: Oh my gosh, great question. I feel like this book was like its own, I guess healing journey for me. In each of the chapters, I'm like, hey y'all, this is what the research says. This is how I've been screwing up, so we should all do something differently. It certainly changed a lot of the ways that I show up in my friendships.
Dr. Joy: You mentioned that you feel like you have been doing a lot of things wrong and have figured that out through writing the book. Tell me, what do you feel like you had gotten wrong before writing the book? And how can we learn from maybe some of the mistakes you feel like you were making?
Dr. Franco: That is a great question. I'm embarrassed at myself but I shouldn't be because we're all on this journey. Anyway, I think one of the big things I was doing wrong is like I would never bring up problems that I had with friends and I thought that was kind because I was trying to get over them on my own. And I thought we would cause more tension if we brought it up. Then I read the study that said open, empathic conflict actually contributes to more intimacy in your friendships and I was like, okay, so I'm actually sabotaging my friendships by ignoring all our problems all the time. So I just started bringing problems up in a very empathic way.
There's this psychoanalyst, Virginia Goldner, and she talks about how you can have flaccid safety which you get from pretending nothing's wrong, even when it is. Or dynamic safety which comes from rupture and repair that sets a precedent for like, hey, if there's anything wrong in our friendship, we don't have to live with it or slowly back away from each other because we have no other options. We can actually heal. And so that has made my friendships a lot more deep, and I think more sustainable too.
Dr. Joy: I think this is an interesting concept because I think a lot of times what happens, especially when we are first going to therapy, we're learning all this new stuff about ourselves and we want to try it out, what we don't realize is that other people are impacted by our new behaviors, even if they're healthy. I'm curious to hear how your friends took to you bringing up problems now when there had been no history of that before.
Dr. Franco: Yeah. Here's the thing, some of them read the chapter from my book on working through conflict, which is really helpful. But the other thing that I learned about working through conflict in healthy ways is that if you're really good at conflict, you make people that are bad at conflict look like they're good at conflict. Because you basically de-escalate. You kind of scan where the other person's at and try to, I guess, bring them down if needed. You're just kind of very aware of yourself and the other person. With my best friend, when I tried to bring up a problem, at first she was like, it feels like everything I do is wrong. And instead of escalating, I was like actually, there are so many things that you do right and I'm sorry I haven't expressed that to you. But like, that's true, too. And like there's this one little thing that I want to change but I still love you so much and I still love all these other things about you. And so it's really hard, Dr. Joy, but I think knowing you can't control people but you can influence them, made it easier for me to try to work through this conflict with my friends. And now they do it with their friends. It's really created ripple effects, which is super cool.
Dr. Joy: Nice. You mentioned bringing up conflict empathically. What does that even look like?
Dr. Franco: That looks like first you prime the conflict by saying like, I wanted to bring this up because you're so important to me so I never want anything to get between us. You use “I” statements like, hey, I've been feeling hurt because of this. You don't use “you” statements like you're a bad friend and you disappoint me. You ask for their perspective, like hey, what was this like for you? With the awareness that sometimes, whatever their experience is can fundamentally alter your experience. So if my friend didn't show up for me and she's like laying in bed with depression, obviously I'm not going to be as mad with her for bailing last minute. And you try to come to a consensus or you engage in mutuality. It's about common understanding, it's not about winning or losing. And so you're invested in getting your needs met and you're invested in getting their needs met. When you do it that way, it really is an act of love and reconciliation.
Dr. Joy: It sounds like it may have been a little awkward for you, at least with your best friend. But eventually, with the empathy and couching it in “there are lots of things that you do right,” it became a place for you all to be able to have these kinds of conversations and then a ripple effect.
Dr. Franco: Exactly. Because I think we all needed to see that conflict could be something that's not combat, that it can be an act of love. I think for me reading all this research and doing it for the book, I realized that potential. And then if I can bring that to my friend, they realize that potential. And then when I bring up conflict again, they're not in fight or flight mode because we've all had this healing experience of it actually being an act of love that brings us closer.
Dr. Joy: Nice. One of my questions for you, Dr. Franco, is if you can talk us through what makes a healthy relationship or a healthy friendship, versus an unhealthy. I think a lot of people might have initially thought like conflict being present as an unhealthy thing. But clearly, you're saying that that is not. So in addition to an ability to manage conflict, which I think is the sign of health, what are some other signs of health from a friendship that we should be on the lookout for?
Dr. Franco: What happens when you are intimate with someone is you begin to include them in your sense of yourself. Which means when they succeed, it feels like you succeed. And so what does that mean? There's a lot of healthy behaviors that extend from that process. I'm rooting for my friend’s success. If they have an accomplishment, I'm like, yes! I'm not like, well, I don't know if they should have given that to you. Not being malicious, and engaging in something called mutuality which is what I kind of touched on when I talked about conflict. Which is, I'm thinking about your reality and my reality at the same time and figuring out how to meet both of our needs. I talk about that, too, in my chapter on generosity, that good generosity isn't “I'm doing whatever you want,” because that makes me resentful.
And actually, people can sense it (according to the research) when you're doing something out of obligation that you don't really want to do. And although generosity makes us happy, that obligatory generosity actually drains us. And our friends actually prefer it if we don't give it to them, ironincally. Setting boundaries, I think. Each person being able to set boundaries and engage in that process of mutuality that's like, “I'm thinking about you and I'm thinking about me and I'm trying to figure out something that works for both of us.”
So what does it look like when that breaks down? I interviewed a friendship pair and one of them was supposed to go to the other's recital and she couldn't because she got really sick— her friend couldn't go. And that friend was bummed because her friend missed her recital, which is understandable. But if you're engaged in mutuality, you're able to tell yourself, okay, even though my friend did something that kind of bums me out, if I look at the bigger picture here, I see what's going on in her life and why that happened. But instead, this friend said you're an awful friend, you didn't show up to my recital. And so that breakdown of perspective taking, that sort of self absorption, that is what we see in unhealthy relationships. While the “I'm considering you and I'm considering me,” and our relationship is we're each mutually invested in both of us. That's what you see in very healthy friendships.
Dr. Joy: That example you gave was really striking because now I feel like I have all these questions that you might not be able to answer because you're not the friendship pair. But that feels like a bit of an extreme reaction, especially if this is somebody you've had some history with. Like if I'm sick and I can't make something when you know I usually make your events, it feels like there should be a little bit more grace than, oh, you're a horrible friend. And so I'm wondering how do you come back from something like that? Is it possible to even come back from something like that? And what might lead to the friend who's feeling really self absorbed, what might lead to them being able to view their friend as a horrible friend as opposed to “this was something that happened in isolation”?
Dr. Franco: I talk about in the book that I really think a contributor is insecure attachment style. Insecurely attached people are thinking a lot more about how the world affects them than how they affect the world. And they don't often have the broader picture of like what's my reality and what's your reality? I mean, avoidantly attached people who fear intimacy and closeness, they tend to think a lot more about their needs and so they'll push people away. They’ll ghost some people because they're uncomfortable, but they're not thinking about the impact on the other person. Whereas anxious people, they tend to engage in something called vulnerable narcissism, which is a different kind of narcissism, where you're making all of these demands on the other person and it's coming from a place of like hurt. And you only see how people are harming you and you don't see how you are harming other people.
So I would say that might be an instance of vulnerable narcissism. Where you hurt me, and that hurts so badly that I don't even have the capacity to consider you. Our triggers make us... I want to like dance lightly on this because I don't mean to attack anyone who's triggered, we all get triggered. But what I notice is that when we're triggered, we're pretty self-absorbed, it's very hard to be loving. I think love is giving people the benefit of the doubt and triggers push us to do the opposite, where we only consider ourselves and we assume that the other person has such negative intent. And so that triggering, that this is a wound that's coming up from my past that I'm super imposing onto my reality now (which is fundamentally what attachment theory is) can lead us to be in so much pain, I would say. Like literally in so much pain that we don't have the psychological resources to consider someone else's reality.
Dr. Joy: You've already kind of delved into it, but I want you to take a step back because I love that you in the book approach the idea of friendship based in attachment, because I don't think we always see attachment. And there's tons of research about attachment but not a lot related to friendship and how that is impacted by our attachment styles. Can you go back and just give us an example or give us a definition of attachment theory? And then maybe what does this look like in friendships?
Dr. Franco: When I was reading a couple of studies on attachment theory and friendship, a lot of them done with kids, they would show these kids the story of you're in the lunchroom and your friend’s kind of coming up behind you and they spill milk on you. How do you interpret the situation? Do you think my friend, they're out to get me, they're out to hurt me, why did they spill this milk on me? Or do you think, oh man, my friend must accidentally have spilled their milk on me? Like, no biggie, I'll clean that off. And fundamentally, that difference in interpretation is what defines our attachment style which is our template for how we perceive our relationships. Most of our relationships are ambiguous. People aren't saying I spilled this milk on you because I hate you, or they're not saying this is a total accident. Even if they are, our attachment tells us what they really mean and that's what we pay attention to, more than what they say. Because that's what feels very real to us, based on our own past experiences, based on our own template.
And so the secure people, they read that story, and they were like that was probably an accident on my friend's part so I forgive them and I don't want to exact any revenge on them. Whereas the insecurely attached kids were like I want to get them back for their behavior, and they're out to get me, and they're out to harm me. It's just a fundamentally different philosophy on the world and how people are relating to you that we develop—based on our early relationships with our caretakers—and continues to evolve over time.
You have anxiously attached people and their template says people are going to abandon me and I have to cling to them. They tend to misfire all the time and think they're being rejected when they don't. If you're anxious and you haven't had a text back from your friend, you're jumping to maybe they don't really like me then. You are so afraid of abandonment that this is my own anxious attachment. You can't bring up conflict because you think that's just gonna make people leave you. You tend to have more volatile relationships. You think more about how people are harming you than how you might potentially be harming them. You make demands on people to ask them to kind of prove their love to you, that aren't necessarily fair because you're not necessarily considering other people when you're hurt.
Then you have avoidantly attached people and their template is people can't be trusted and they're out to harm you. Avoidantly attached people in their friendships, they tend to ghost, they have fewer friends, their friends don't feel like they really know them because they're not actually vulnerable. They just keep people at a distance. And these are all just forms of self protection. It's to defend ourselves against a world that we assume is harmful. But the thing is, when your self protection looks like shutting people out or attacking people, and the most powerful thing that actually protects us is human connection, then your self protection is actually harming you in the long run but it's hard to realize that in the short run.
Whereas then you have securely attached people, and just like I shared in that story, their template is people love and accept them. There's this concept called pronoia which is like you think the universe is scheming for your success and your goodwill. And because of that, they feel very safe to take bold behaviors that create intimacy. A lot of the behaviors that create intimacy are risky so we have to feel safe to engage in them. They can be vulnerable and work through issues without attacking because they assume the other person has their best interests at heart, and wants to hear from them and heal the relationship. One of the biggest tips that I share for becoming secure in the book is like they assume people like them which is a self fulfilling prophecy. When researchers told people that they would go and interact with people who would like them, they became open and more agreeable and more positive and they were actually liked, even though it was a lie. Whereas people that are high in rejection sensitivity, like people with anxious attachment, they actually tend to reject people. Because they think people are rejecting them, they become cold, they become withdrawn, and then other people feel really rejected and reject them back. And they don't realize that they're actually manufacturing some of the outcomes that they really fear.
Dr. Joy: You have touched on this but I do think it's important. Because I think for a long time, people have felt like you could not switch between attachment styles, that it was like a fixed characteristic. But what you're talking about, and I think what more research now has found, is that it is possible to change in some ways your attachment style. So what does that look like? And I also want to know, how might people be aware of what their actual attachment style is like? Because my feeling is that other people can feel what's going on as opposed to, of course, we often don't know what's going on for ourselves. We don't know, unless somebody tells us about it. What kind of insight do you have around how we might be able to even figure out our own attachment style?
Dr. Franco: Absolutely, yeah. So let's look at some characteristics of anxious attachment. You tend to overshare, you have friends that move really quickly and really intensely because that is proof to you that the other person loves you. But then they kind of blow up because they don't have a foundation. When you have problems, you don't bring it up. You fear that your friends don't actually like you. Sometimes you don't reach out to friends because you think they don't actually want to hear from you. Sometimes you are giving towards friends just so that you can get something back from them, that's like their love. You tend to be attracted to relationships with people that aren't loving towards you because it matches your template, which is that you have to earn love towards people. Sometimes you're suspicious of people that give love freely to you because that's not part of your template.
And so you can cling to relationships with people that mistreat you because you invalidate your own feelings—because you think it's all about the other person, what you can give to the other person. So you can't be out of touch with your own emotions and think you're too much and you need too much. And you're kind of avoidant towards yourself, sadly, even though you're anxious around other people. Like your own emotions, you're just like this is too much, and why do I feel all these things, and what I’m feeling is not valid. And that just intensifies the emotions. A lot of the times, you realize in your history you've thought someone was rejecting you and maybe they actually weren't.
Avoidantly attached people. People don't actually know the real you. You're very uncomfortable being vulnerable. You tend to keep your friendships separate. When there's a problem in friendships, you tend to just pull away and disconnect. You don't even know why people value friends so much because you have trouble actually experiencing friendship for its joys and intimacy because you're so afraid that people will harm you or will do something mistrustworthy. When people do something nice for you, you're actually like, well, you might have some ulterior motive that's going on. You like to keep people at a distance. And you end friendships pretty quickly. When friends are out of sight, they’re out of mind. You struggle with long distance friendships for that reason. When you're vulnerable, it is very uncomfortable for you. You tend to suppress your feelings and be very out of touch with what you're actually feeling, and you tend to see yourself as very self sufficient and independent as a coping mechanism for realizing that other people wouldn't show up for you early in life.
And then we have securely attached people. You tend to assume people like you. You're flexible to other people's needs. If someone needs a certain thing in your friendships, you can give it to them. You can bring up issues without attacking people. You sort of easily make new friends. You make other people feel like they belong, in contrast to the other attachment styles. You think more about how other people are doing and how you're affecting other people. When people do something nice for you, you're able to just take it in and appreciate it. You make people feel pretty safe, pretty accepted and pretty loved around you. And you can maybe tolerate difficult people more than other people might be able to. You're very good at regulating your emotions. So rarely do you... Not rarely, but less than the insecure folks, you don't get into this sort of aggressive or withdrawn mode because you're able to deal with your emotions more so you don't have to get to that place.
And then you ask me, how do we change our attachment styles? The book is really about all these behaviors that we can engage in to change our attachment style. I said one of my biggest tips is to assume people like you, but more generally, it is to take in and savor experiences of safety that are antithetical to your template. That actually helps Rick Hanson, he's a psychologist, he has a lot of research that is about how you can rewire your brain. And when you have had trauma, the trauma of insecure attachment, your brain is wired to tune into threats and negative situations and times people are rejecting you. So it has to be an active and intentional process for you to actually look at the times when someone did respond to your text or someone waved at you or someone smiled at you. Or someone did something nice for you and you could just accept that at face value as someone showing love to you. Like take a moment and feel that in your body. Note that, register it. Picture that experience sinking into your body. Then you do this as a practice over time and so what you practice over time ends up becoming fundamentally part of your personality.
Dr. Joy: As you're talking, I'm thinking this will probably be most difficult for people who reject other people before they even have a chance to reject them because where do you even start the loop? What are you even creating opportunities for someone to show you love or show you things that are different if you are already so fearful of being rejected in the beginning?
Dr. Franco: Exactly. And that's why I think what's really helpful about knowing attachment theory is, if you don't know your attachment style, you think the world is just harming you. You think you have no power over it. You're just like people are mean and people can't be trusted and I'm just trying to survive out here. And you don't realize how maybe some of your behaviors are influencing how other people might be treating you. And so I think that's why it's just so helpful, the awareness of like, how are we showing up? And how is that influencing other people? Because then you are empowered, you can change course, you have agency. That's why I think, no matter what your attachment style is, it's really cool to know it because you're like, oh, there's actually hope here.
Dr. Joy: Something else you spend a lot of time talking about in the book is the difference between dependency and friendship. Can you tell us about the difference between those and how we might have more reciprocal kinds of relationships with one another?
Dr. Franco: Absolutely. Dependency is kind of like I outsource my nervous system to you. I outsource my self soothing to you. These people that are dependent, they will call you all the time. When they're in a crisis, they demand that you listen to them. It's the friendships I think a lot of people say like this is draining. The friendship is confined to a single chapter or song without a larger playlist. Which is like, vulnerability, vulnerability, vulnerability, needs, needs needs. But the beauty of a friendship is that it has many chapters. There's vulnerability, there's affection, there's fun, there's simple moments, mediocre moments or just sitting next to each other and eating dessert. But for these people that are dependent, they're almost treating you like you're their parent. I'm just gonna ask things from you and I am going to ask you to deal with all my emotions for me. It's like we don't even take a beat to be like what am I actually feeling, but we start calling our friend and we're like, oh my god, this is what I'm going through.
And so that is dependency and not friendship because friendship has a larger story. It has many more different ingredients than just emotional support. That's part of it. And these people that engage in these dependency relationships, there's often a lack of mutuality or reciprocity. They're asking so much from their friends and their friends aren't asking the same from them, per se. Again, it's like a parenting relationship more than a friendship, which is like we're both gonna get our needs met in this relationship.
Dr. Joy: More from my conversation with Dr. Franco after the break.
Dr. Joy: I think this goes back to our earlier conversation around conflict. Let's say somebody is checking out our conversation right now and they realize, oh, I have somebody in my life like this. They only call when they need something, there is no other song in this playlist. How might they have this conversation with this other person? Or is it that you just realize it and cut them off? Or do you try to have a conversation?
Dr. Franco: I would say it depends. Because, again, we all go through periods of dependency in our friendships. The problem is that this is the only part of the friendship. So my first suggestion would be take a step back from the friendship and assess—is this just a chapter of our book where my friend really needs support, or has this been our book all along since the beginning? And maybe if it's just like, oh, my friend’s going through a rough time, you can give them that grace, show up for them when you can. But if you realize, oh gosh, there's been like such a long history of this and it's always been so one sided, then that's when I say you might consider whether this friendship works for you. I think we should heal and work through conflict with friendships that we know this person loves us, we know it's a good friendship, but we've had a problem that comes up and then we need to bring it up. But when it's like throughout this friendship history, it has not been satisfying or good or fair or reciprocal, then you might want to end the connection.
But if it is one of those friendships where you're like, this is otherwise good and my friend’s going through a lot. And you're still like this is like a little much for me and I can't take it... Harriet Lerner, she's a psychologist, she has some really good language around that. Which is sort of like, hey friend, I miss our larger friendship. I miss all of the other things that we used to bring into this connection. I know you're going through a difficult time and I know you need support and I want to make sure you're getting the support that you need. Is there a way that we can bring in other folks to make sure that you are getting that support? And for our friendship, is there a way that we can remember all the other things that we've loved about each other? Is there ways that we can also chat to just hang out or you can come over and we can play board games, or we can go for a walk? I think in general being able to approach conflict by asking for what you need instead of what the deficit is, can help people not get into that fight or flight reactive mode. So that's what I would suggest.
Dr. Joy: I love that, such gentle language. I think even as you were talking about conflict earlier, when you approach it in that kind of way. Now, this is not rocket science, it's not a template for “if you do this, it's going to go perfectly,” but I think approaching it with that kind of a lens, like you said, of “okay, what else do you need, what other support can be offered,” as opposed to “here's what you're doing wrong,” invites a very different kind of conversation.
Dr. Franco: Absolutely. And they are going through a hard time so some gentleness can go a long way.
Dr. Joy: Yeah. I think that that kind of goes to some other things that you shared around just vulnerability being really important in our friendships. What do you think that we often misunderstand or get wrong about vulnerability in our friendships?
Dr. Franco: Gosh, this chapter in my book is very vulnerable for me because I talk about how I thought everybody wanted someone polished and perfect. Especially as a black woman. I saw my mom cry once when her grandma died, so I never wanted to be vulnerable. And the research told me... The research is my mentor, it told me how wrong I was because the research finds that the more we self-disclose, the more people like us. And I thought I was burdening people but I realized the biggest burden I was placing on my friendships was often my silence because they didn't actually feel close to me. And when you are vulnerable with someone, you convey to someone that you trust them. And according to the theory of inferred attraction, we like people who we think like us. And vulnerability is a way to say, hey, I like you, I feel close to you, I trust you, which is why I'm willing to share this with you.
Vulnerability is a very powerful piece of how we end up feeling close to people. And I think especially we have this American narrative, and for black communities there's even more historical precedent for this—we weren't safe to be vulnerable. But this American narrative that we have to handle things alone and be self sufficient and be independent, and that's what I thought I had to do. But I started reading research that that actually is linked to more suicidality and depression and the number one thing that prevents against depression is confiding in someone. Out of 106 factors, that's what the research found. And then I interviewed this expert on secrets and I read one of his studies and it found that the people that were best at holding the weight of their secrets, they were so good at it because they had told someone who responded lovingly and they internalized that sense of love towards themselves.
And what I concluded from writing that chapter was that, wow, we aren't strong on our own. The people that are strong have received love from others and they've just internalized. That's what secure attachment is. They've internalized that so it's now part of their own hardware, their own nervous system, their own regulation system. And the people that are just like I don't need anyone and I can be self sufficient and independent, they actually tend to have a lot of chronic health problems because those emotions stay in there if they're not being released. Avoidantly attached people have more inflammation, heart problems, headaches, all those things. And so yeah, when I asked Michael Slepian who does the research on the secrets, what's the one thing you would recommend that we do with our secrets, based on all your research? He says, the one thing that I would recommend is that you tell someone about them. Someone safe, of course.
Dr. Joy: Dr. Franco, I am curious to hear what is vulnerability? A lot of times when I hear it described, it feels like it is only letting people know when you're struggling. Like I let somebody know when I need help, or I let somebody know when I'm not feeling so good. Are there other ways that we can be vulnerable in relationships that don't require us to be talking about some bad thing happening?
Dr. Franco: Absolutely. I think vulnerability is just sharing something that feels risky or exposing to you. Like it kind of exposes you to your fears of rejection. That can be so many different things. Honestly, for me, sharing good news can be that way. Like I'm showing off, I'm afraid. So that can be like a vulnerable act for me. Showing love and appreciation towards someone. Saying to someone “you're amazing and I care about you and these are all the ways that I think you're like a walking miracle.” That feels very vulnerable because what if that person rejects me and thinks I'm weird and I just told them I really like them. So that rejection is gonna like hit me a lot harder. I think intimacy is vulnerability. I go through six traits and these are six traits that I see in the research that cultivate friendship and that secure people do really well. Initiative, vulnerability, authenticity, affection, productive anger, and generosity. For all of those traits, they're all vulnerable. Even being generous to someone is vulnerable because, I don't know, I'm putting myself out there to show you that I care about you. If you want to escape vulnerability, you are also escaping intimacy because intimacy is inherently a risk.
Dr. Joy: Can you say more about the authenticity piece? Because it feels like that's tied closely to the vulnerability.
Dr. Franco: Absolutely, yeah. I've really struggled to define authenticity in this book because I felt like we all have this sense that authenticity is what we say automatically or reflexively, and the first thing that comes to mind is the authentic reaction. As I read all the research, I realized that actually, often our authentic reflexive reaction is what's called the defense mechanism which obscures the truth about how we actually feel. Like if I'm being aggressive towards you, I'm probably feeling vulnerable or put down and instead of sharing that vulnerable piece, I go on this defense mechanism. I'm like, actually, you suck and it's your fault. And so actually, authenticity is being able to acknowledge the feeling that comes before the defense mechanism.
It's like, when you want to be reactive about something, saying the emotion that reactivity is trying to protect you from. Like let's say my friend, I'm struggling with infertility, my friend has a kid, I see my friend get pregnant. I might think it's authentic to say kids are a lot of work because that's the first thing that came to my mind. But actually, if it's a reactive emotion that I'm sharing reflexively, it might be protecting myself against the true emotion which is feeling inadequate or insufficient. And so authenticity is about being aware of our emotions so we don't go into these defense mechanisms that harm our friendships. And so that we can act with intention instead of with reactivity. And we can choose what we say that actually reflects our inner spirits and who we are instead of just having our primal brain take over and try to protect us against that deeper feeling or emotion.
Dr. Joy: What would this look like in practice? If we stay with the example of the friend who just had a kid and you are maybe struggling with infertility, and your immediate thought is like kids are a lot of work, I don't want to do that anyway. What might it look like to actually get rid of the defense mechanism and approach this from an authentic place?
Dr. Franco: The defense mechanism, again, anything that protects you against your yucky feeling. Like kids are a lot of work or like “you're gonna have to save up a lot of money for that” or “I know that that's gonna affect your marriage a lot, so good luck with that” or we just don't respond. All of those sorts of behaviors. But the authentic reaction would be to actually sit with the feeling so that we don't feel compelled to engage in the defense mechanism because the defense mechanism is protecting us from that feeling. So it's, oh, I'm actually feeling really jealous, really envious, really bad, and I'm going to sit with that and acknowledge that. Because otherwise, I'm going to ask someone else to take care of this feeling for me. That's basically what I'm doing. I'm outsourcing my emotional regulation to you by telling you this isn't that great so now I can feel a little better. But instead, I'm able to tolerate my feelings so I don't have to damage the relationship to get someone else to tolerate it for me.
And so once you know, like I'm feeling jealous, I'm feeling insecure, I'm feeling inadequate, you have a choice and that's what authenticity is. It's being able to act with intention instead of reactivity. You can maybe say to your friend: I want to be really happy for you but I've really been like struggling with my own infertility issues and so if I'm not able to be as happy for you as I'd otherwise love to be, I just wanted to let you know that. Or you can also acknowledge that you're jealous and envious but that we feel many feelings at once and that there is a part of you that is also very happy for your friend. It might feel authentic to lean into the part of you that is happy for them and say, you know what, I am rooting for you and I am happy for you. Acknowledging that that insecurity exists while the happiness exists. It's about choosing a reaction that fits you, fits who you are, and fits your relationships. You're not just like acting out in your relationships and causing harm.
Dr. Joy: I think that some could argue even having the conversation around feeling jealous, in some ways may feel like an outsourcing of what I feel onto you. What would you say about that? And is there a difference?
Dr. Franco: Yeah, I would say that I don't think all outsourcing is bad. I think when we can't tolerate our own emotions that sometimes we do need to ask for change in our relationship to help us with that tolerating. But the difference here is that I'm able to acknowledge that and offer that as an option to you, instead of just putting you down and bashing you. I'm being more vulnerable and I'm being more transparent about it instead of just acting out in harm. I talk about, in the book, the difference between anger of hope and anger of despair. Anger of despair is I'm angry so I want to destroy things and plot revenge. Anger of hope is I'm angry so I want to heal, I want us to heal. And so the intention is very different. When you're using anger of hope, you're not trying to attack the other person, you're trying to maintain the relationship while healing yourself.
When you're acting out and being inauthentic, you're outsourcing in a way that “I'm gonna feel better at your cost. You're gonna have to sacrifice for me.” Instead of this more coming together, like “I'm sharing these vulnerable feelings and I love you and I'm close to you. And like I'm struggling with this getting in the way, but I just wanted to be transparent with you.” That's an outsourcing that's not like “you're gonna have to sacrifice yourself for me to tolerate this emotion.” It's instead an outsourcing that's like “help me come together to help me with this emotion inside of me.”
Dr. Joy: Got it. I want to hear you talk more about productive anger. Because I think a lot of people do a lot of friendship research and I feel like this is the first time I've heard productive anger as one of these tenets that really leads to healthy friendships. Talk to me more about that.
Dr. Franco: You know, this is an interesting one for me because friendships end. Every seven years, we lose about half our friendships. And most of that happens because it could just fizzle out, but sometimes we lose very important friendships because in friendships we don't make the unsaid said. And little problems can continue to build in a way that would never work in a romantic relationship. Intimacy is intimacy. You need some cleaning out, you need some fixing, you need some working through, you need some detoxifying. And I think that's one big thing I've learned from writing this book on friendship. The same skills that make your romantic relationships succeed, make your friendships succeed. Some of you learned how to have a productive anger conversation with your boo; you can use those same skills in friendship. Secret, these skills are transferable. Or vice versa. If you're good with your friends, you can use those same skills in your romantic relationship.
I think productive anger is about being authentic with your anger. Not just being aggressive and reactive to protect yourself against that deeper feeling of anger. It's using anger as a signal. This is a marker, an indicator for me that I need to change something, that there's something going wrong in this friendship. And we don't have to do this every time something comes up in a friendship, but when it continues to weigh you over time... For me, it was when I started to find myself withdrawing from friends that I otherwise loved because of these issues, the accumulation of these issues. That was my signal that, oh, I actually need to be addressing this problem and be addressing this issue between us. And so when you approach anger productively, it's like using a lot of the skills that I said before. I feel, priming them for positivity, de-escalating as needed. So there’s this is funny word that I read in the research—the anger orgasm, which I think we can all understand what that looks like. You don't get the anger orgasm, but there's another root meaning of anger that's about like education and illumination. And so you using anger as a way to educate and illuminate ourselves as to what our deeper needs are. That's what hopeful and productive anger does in your relationship with your friend.
Dr. Joy: More from my conversation with Dr. Franco after the break.
Dr. Joy: I wasn't aware of the statistic that you shared around us losing half of our friends every seven years. It sounds like some of it just happens because schedule changes, life happens. But other times, like you're saying, it’s that we have not said the thing. And I'm wondering, when a friendship ends, what does that look like? Let's say we've kind of gone through all that you're talking about and we realize, you know what, I have really come to the end of the road with this friendship. Is there a conversation that you have? Or what does it actually look like to end a friendship?
Dr. Franco: There is a mature way to end a friendship. And I say you have to address it with a long term friend, because if you don't, you trigger what's called ambiguous loss. Which is, we don't have clarity and closure as to why something ended so our grief becomes more complicated and a lot more difficult. So if you're not giving your friend a reason why you want out in this relationship, you're basically probably going to trigger ambiguous loss for them. And you might be less uncomfortable by not having to have that conversation, but they're going to be doubly uncomfortable because they're going to be wondering what the heck happened for a long time. And that uncertainty makes it very hard for them to process their grief. So please be kind by actually having a conversation with your long term friend and just saying to them, you know, I've been having some thoughts about our friendship, I was hoping we can talk about it.
When you have that conversation, use “I” statements. I've just been feeling like we're not compatible anymore, or we don't share similar values anymore. And like this isn't a fit for me anymore. But I also encourage you to embrace what's called a commemorative friendship, which means you acknowledge all that was good in the friendship. Because of something called the recency effect, the last thing that happens in a relationship affects our perception of the relationship overall in a disproportionate way. So if our last conversation is an awful one, I might think the whole entire 10 years of friendship was awful. That's why I encourage you to create a commemorative friendship by being like, even though this isn't working out now, I wanted to acknowledge this time we traveled together, and this friendship was really meaningful at this time, or this is the way it has changed me moving forward. And even though it's not going to work out, I do actually, really, really appreciate that.
But then after the friendship ends, get ready for something called disenfranchised grief which is the grief we feel when other people do not invalidate the gravity of our loss. Such as when you lose a friend and people are like, why are you so sad? It's just a friend, it's not like you went through a divorce. And because we heal in community with others, because part of our grief process is other people saying, “oh, I'm so sorry you went through this, that must be so hard,” and you don't get that, you don't get the same social honouring of your loss when you lose a friend, it can again be a lot harder to grieve the endings of friendship. Like I talked to someone for my book and they were grieving for 10 years. They were like, I still look at her Instagram and cry, because we just don't give ourselves permission. So please also validate, but it's okay for the loss of a friendship to affect you a lot. Friendship is another connection, so just like losing a romantic partner can affect you a lot, so can losing a platonic friend affects you a whole lot.
Dr. Joy: Dr. Franco, you've made the comment several times like these are transferable skills, even in this grief conversation like losing a friend. And I've heard a lot of women. You and I are writing about similar themes so I feel like some of this overlaps. A lot of women have shared that they feel like they grieve longer and harder around friendship breakups with other women than maybe even a romantic relationship. I'm just curious to hear your thoughts around why, societally, there is an invalidation of a friendship loss . Or why we don't think like, oh, if these are the things I need in a romantic relationship, why don't we think about needing those in platonic friendships?
Dr. Franco: First of all, I think asexual scholars (Angela Chen, she wrote the book ACE on asexuality) have really pushed me to realize that romance throughout history has been a part of friendship. What do I mean by that? Idealizing someone, being passionate about someone, wanting to spend all of your time with them. That's not inherently sexual so that can be part of a platonic partnership. And in fact, when best friends talk about each other, “they're my soulmate.” I just wanted to spend time, I love her so much. Especially like woman friends, you just tend to be closer, we can hear like a bit of romance in there. You know, the lines are so blurry, right? After I realized, I was like, yeah, I definitely feel like some romantic chemistry with some of my best friends. I idealize. I think they're the greatest thing ever. And so you are losing romance sometimes. You're not losing sex, because inherently platonic friendships are not sexual, but that doesn't mean they're not romantic and they have been throughout history.
Let me go into a little briefly the history as to why we undervalue friendship. In the early 1800s... A lot of this research is done on, I should say, like European white communities so I think that's definitely a limitation of the historians who have written about friendship. Like Stephanie Coontz, she's great but I don't think her research is necessarily inclusive. But these European communities where people used to hold hands with their friends, hug their friends, there’s pictures of men from that time being in the sports team, cuddling in each other's arms. Love letters. Frederick Douglass wrote to his friend like “losing your friendship is what scares me about leaving the plantation.” This is how people held friendship back in the day.
What happened? Sigmund Freud, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, two psychiatrists. Before their time, it was always stigmatized to have sex with someone of the same sex but it wasn't stigmatized to have a constellation of behaviors that might suggest someone's sexuality. So holding hands wasn't stigmatized because that's not sex, and writing love letters wasn't stigmatized because that's not sex. There was all these ways we could be intimate with our friends and it wasn't like, oh, are you having sex with each other? Because none of those things are actually sex. And then Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Sigmund Freud, they basically created the concept of sexual orientation. It's not just taboo for you to have sex with someone of the same sex, but for you to have any of these behaviors that together can comprise someone's sexual orientation. So if you're holding hands with your friends, you're cuddling with your friends, you're sharing the same bed, all this stuff that was normal, all of a sudden, that was very stigmatized.
After them, around 1867, friendship really changed forever because people became afraid of all of these intimate behaviors in friendship, that they might signify some sort of like sexual interest that they don't inherently signify. That's when friendship sort of really changed and researchers call it homohysteria which is the fear of being perceived as gay, which really just destroyed friendship in a lot of ways. Just like the normal intimacy and the normal closeness was just so stigmatized and really limited our scripts for what friendship can be. Because it was like, okay, now it's “anything that doesn't convey sexual orientation” and this is completely ambiguous and we don't know what it is so let's just not do any of these things. And so then friendship was just really, really flattened from then on where now people feel like I can't love my friends too deeply because otherwise it might be perceived as something else going on.
Dr. Joy: Thank you for that history lesson, I was not aware of all of that. I think that that helps. It definitely helps to kind of put those things in context. Again, kind of staying with this theme of the similarities between romantic relationships and friendships, we do know a lot of people subscribe to love languages. I mean, we think about that a lot in terms of partners and romantic relationships. There's even like love languages related to parenting and all of those things. But I'd love to hear your thoughts about love languages in our friendships. And what might we be able to do to speak more of our friends’ love languages?
Dr. Franco: This is a great question. I think similarly to the transitive principle, that we can use a lot of our romantic relationship stuff in our friendship stuff and vice versa, I think a lot of the same love languages can apply. I don't think we use physical touch a lot in friendships, maybe some friends do. But I think we can ask our friends, how do you like to receive that I appreciate and value you? And I will also say that we should be thinking about how to give our friends love, but we should also be thinking about how we can receive our friends’ love better. I talk about in the book how I have this friend and every time I give her a compliment, she's like, “no, not really, I'm not that great, sorry.” And when I went into the research, I realized that (not saying that this is her) if you have low self esteem, receiving love actually feels like an identity crisis because someone is telling you that you are valuable and you're worthy, and you don't actually feel that way. And so you feel misunderstood and it feels very threatening to receive love. And in that way, people with low self esteem are actually more likely to push the love away so that it doesn't feel so threatening to them.
I think there's a lot of times when avoidantly attached people, for example, (according to research) when people were primed with avoidance and they thought about something nice someone did for them, they then assumed that people just did that because they wanted something out of them. It’s actually also a skill to be able to say “this is just pure-hearted love someone's giving me and let me pause and actually receive that.” Because just like we talked about earlier how sharing love is a form of vulnerability, if our friend’s trying to show affection towards us, that's a vulnerable act we might be rejecting them in all the time. I think love languages are both learning how to love someone better and, on the other hand, learning how to receive our friends’ love better.
Dr. Joy: You shared earlier but I'm curious if there's anything else that you've learned about who you are as a friend from writing the book, that you feel like would be valuable to share with the rest of our community.
Dr. Franco: Dr. Joy, I come from the Northeast where we are not an instrumental support culture. Which means we don't do things for each other. I know in the south, it's like oh, I'll pick you up at the airport and stuff and I'll drop off some food. Especially being from New York, we're just not used to, I don't know, those acts of service, I guess. And so for me, it was like wow, I'm really missing out, I think, by not having instrumental support be part of my friendships. And I just wanted to become a more generous friend because I really want to center my whole life around human connection more than work, to be honest, after writing a book like this. And I think that our society would be a lot healthier if we did because that's like our most fundamental of needs.
So for me, I had started to not only practice more generosity, but it's about acknowledging how much you are benefiting someone. Like thinking about how this is making someone feel loved and this is making someone feel appreciated. And actually taking that in. Pausing to take that in. Like I talked about Rick Hanson's work that actually changes how our brains are wired. When we can pause and take love in and we can pause and take the positive impact of our actions in. I think writing this book really made me a more generous person. But not only that, I think people think I can be a little maybe radical about friendship because I really question the scripts that we have about friendship, which are so limited. Let's just hang out once a month and have coffee. But I've realized throughout writing this book that anything that a traditional spouse can be, a friend can be. And now there's this whole movement of people choosing friends as life partners and raising kids with friends and I'm just like, why the hell not? Honestly. Especially as black women. Because I think, especially if you're a black woman that dates black men, the market is so skewed. It’s just, because of history and racism, really limiting the population of black men, like why can't you also just have a life partner that's a friend. And that's just as valid and just as significant.
It's really made me unravel all of the social messaging. To me, I'm like this actually makes sense. And actually, it’s not actually radical because this was traditional if you look back into history. So that is I think another way it's changed the way that I've used friends. Actually, I talk about, what does it mean to not love on a hierarchy? To see my friendships as just as valuable to me as like a romantic relationship. And it's really hard, Dr. Joy. I got invited to speak at a conference and they were like, you have a plus one. And I had to take a second and be like, do I bring my romantic partner or do I bring my friends? Because if I don't love on a hierarchy, I think about who would benefit the most from this experience. But then the conference was like, oh, you actually have to bring a spouse. And I was like, okay, this is why it's so hard.
Dr. Joy: That seems like an interesting requirement. I don't know that I've heard that the plus one had to be a romantic partner. That's interesting.
Dr. Franco: Yeah, it was interesting. I was gonna send them a piece of my mind, but...
Dr. Joy: We don't want to damage the book sales. Gotta stay on platform! I will join you in this radical movement to center friends because I think it's important. And again, with the overlap in our work, I think especially for black women, this has been our history. And so I'm just really excited that we are having more conversations around it and making sure that we are centering each other. Because I do think the hierarchy is not necessary. Like it's not an exclusion; it's more of an expansion. Like how can we get love from lots of different people?
Dr. Franco: Yes! Because romantic love is beautiful and it's amazing but platonic love is beautiful and it's also amazing.
Dr. Joy: Yes, yes. Where can we stay connected with you, Dr. Franco? How can we stay connected to all the incredible work and all you have coming up for the book?
Dr. Franco: My book is finally out, Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends, which goes deeper into all the things I talked about today. And then if you want even more, I have a newsletter at my website. www.DrMarisaGFranco.com. You can take a quiz that assesses your strengths and weaknesses as a friend. I speak about how to make friends and how to find belonging at work so you could also find that on my website. Or follow me for more friendship tips @DrMarisaGFranco on Instagram.
Dr. Joy: Perfect. We will be sure to include all of that in the show notes. Thank you so much for joining us again, Dr. Franco.
Dr. Franco: Thank you so much for having me, Dr. Joy.
Dr. Joy: I'm so glad Dr. Franco was able to join us again today. To learn more about her and to grab your copy of Platonic, visit the show notes at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/session277. And don't forget to text two of your girls and tell them to check out the episode right now. If you're looking for a therapist in your area, check out our therapist directory at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/directory.
And if you want to continue digging into this topic or just be in community with other sisters, come on over and join us in the Sister Circle. It's our cozy corner of the internet designed just for black women. You can join us at Community.TherapyForBlackGirls.com. This episode was produced by Fredia Lucas and Ellice Ellis, and editing was done by Dennison Bradford. Thank y’all so much for joining me again this week. I look forward to continuing this conversation with you all real soon. Take good care.