it's high time we DTF (define the friendship)
welcome to strong feelings! Essays by writers we love, in which they share their most impassioned opinions on a given subject. If you love our usual advice column — don’t worry it’s not going anywhere. In today’s strong feelings, Berlin-based writer and editor Michelle No makes the case for getting as much clarity on the parameters of your friendships as you might your romantic relationship(s).
When I met Liz 10 years ago, I remember my eyes dilating with excitement. I had recently moved to New York to experience life outside my suburban hometown and begrudgingly accepted the emotional price of that migration: I, a grown woman, was forced to make new friends.
Liz liked to banter, hailed from California just like me, and, most importantly, was an excellent listener who asked thoughtful questions. At first, our hangs seemed to reflect a tentative-but-sure build to a long-lasting friendship. I remember going to a New Year’s house party once where she told me she had stopped looking for new friends, leaving me to believe that I was the reason for her satisfied pause.
But through it all, I sensed an obvious lacuna in the relationship. “I suck at texting,” she said abruptly one day, locating my emotional phantom itch. Her Luddite habits meant that she was hard to reach, even harder to rely on, and constantly left me on read. But with zero practice on how to define a friendship or its perimeters, I felt paralyzed in our relationship’s new limitations. It was that deep ambiguity about where we stood in each other’s lives that kept me from simply asking her, “Well, could you try?”
The ironic thing is, defining relationships is something we, as a society, are objectively good at — or are at least experienced in. But this emotional intelligence and discourse tends to revolve mostly around romantic relationships. Whether they’re open, polyamorous, monogamous, or something else on the spectrum, setting clear guidelines for navigating our love lives is something we have, in our western society, not only normalized but wrung our hands over since time immemorial.
So what’s keeping us from DTFing (Defining the Friendship)?
In some ways, even our technology has done a better job of catering to our need for platonic clarity. Those in the early aughts will remember the “MySpace 8,” which let users of the OG social platform define and advertise their “top” eight friends. Instagram has a privatized version of this feature, letting you share your content with an audience of “Close Friends.” (I can’t be the only one who's felt happy about how many people consider me part of their green circle elite.)
And if you’ve ever found yourself sharing your location on Find my iPhone with select friends, well, you may as well be wearing friendship necklaces. But it’s my firm belief that, at the end of the day, nothing can heal the anxiety of modern friendships better than actually defining them, just like we do with romantic relationships.
It’s not just about understanding where you stand in someone’s life — it’s about being able to articulate your needs and have the kind of intentional relationship we have too long reserved for our significant others.
“Ambiguity can create a lot of anxious thoughts,” says friendship journalist and author of forthcoming book “Modern Friendship” Anna Goldfarb. “‘Am I important to you? Are you going to pick up when I call? What does my friendship mean to you?’” As Geena Levy, a 29-year-old non-profit HR professional in NYC, puts it, “You can’t give side hoe treatment and expect a wife in return.”
As our career paths diverge, our families disappoint, and remote-everything becomes the norm, our need for new, committed support systems can’t be ignored. Every DTF conversation will look different, but here’s how I would approach one:
start the conversation by reaffirming your feelings
Simply communicating your feelings for a friend can be the precursor to a bigger conversation about the friendship.
Goldfarb says that when she reunited with a friend after months of no contact during the Covid-19 lockdown, the first thing she said to her was, “I know we haven’t gotten together in a long time, but I think about you all the time and I’m not going anywhere.” She said her friend replied that it had been really hard not seeing her, to which Goldfarb reassured her that she would always pick up any call from her.
Prefacing any bigger conversation about your needs with an affectionate reminder will set a non-confrontational tone and make any ensuing emotional disclosure feel organic.
clarify what you can offer the friendship
Let’s all acknowledge that the label “best friends” has, in today’s increasingly fluid world, sometimes felt limiting and outdated. That’s not to say that we should do away with all its variations.
Goldfarb says that when she’s referring to her own favorites, she says, “You’re in my jacuzzi,” and follows it up with an explanation of “jacuzzi benefits” (i.e. “I reply to your texts right away”) Mutually acknowledging each other’s value in this way can give you both the permission to approach the friendship with less hesitation and more vulnerability.
You don’t literally have to define a friendship with a label to set it up for open communication. You can also clarify things by being direct on what you can offer the friendship — whether that’s someone who’s willing to unconditionally be there for all of a friend’s romantic woes, or tag along to every single show your friend wants to go to. By communicating what you can offer, you’ll also be flagging what you would expect back.
make your friendship expectations about your experience, and not their limitations
Levy says when she recently confronted a friend about their tendency to become unavailable when in a romantic relationship, she highlighted her changing needs. “I told her that as I’ve gotten older, it’s become important to me to have a friend who’s reliable and communicative, or else I start feeling unwanted.” In putting the spotlight on her own experience, Levy made the talk more focused on the solution, and not her friend’s shortcomings.
Her friend’s response might sound similar to anyone who’s found the courage to articulate such thoughts: “She just didn't realize how much it was affecting me,” Levy says.
A friend’s availability in the friendship, and the frequency with which you see each other, can honestly be one of the most nebulous things to pin down. Especially in the early stages of a new friendship. With romantic partners, we are culturally expected to increasingly prioritize them in our lives (our evenings, our Friday nights, our work events, etc.). But with a friend, clarifying where you land in their vast social ecosystem is delicate, to say the least. Personally, applying any of the above three DTF-ey concepts helps me get a sense of how aligned we are as friends, and how receptive they’d be to a regular hang. And as with romantic relationships, steering clear of love-bombing while slowly risking a few invites here and there will usually reveal how compatible you are.
kicking friends down into your “swimming pool”
Finally, there’s another hidden advantage to banishing ambiguity in a friendship: When things don’t work out, you’ll both be a little more receptive when, as Goldfarb puts it, you kick a friend from your jacuzzi down into your “swimming pool.”
That’s eventually what happened with Liz.
Talking on the phone one afternoon, Liz mentioned the number of outstanding texts that she’d yet to reply to. I took my chance, offering that our text thread too, featured a long blue trail of unanswered messages. “As a writer, I think I just appreciate texts more than most people do,” I said.
A pause. “It’d just make me really happy if we texted more.”
Liz replied with surprise, stating her thanks for my honesty.
But the changes never came. And eventually, after many months of trying to adapt to her analog ways, I felt zero guilt, when I began relegating her to my version of the swimming pool: the group hang.