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When Friends Are ‘Like Family’

“My friends are the sisters I was meant to have,” a woman told me. Another said that her friends are more precious than her sisters because they remember things from her past that her sisters don’t and can’t, since they weren’t there. And a man commented that he didn’t enjoy a particular friend’s company all that much, but it was beside the point: “He’s family.”

I interviewed over 80 people for a book I’m writing about friendship, and was struck by how many said that one or another friend is “like family.”

These comments, and how people explained them, shed light on the nature of friendship, the nature of family, and something that lies at the heart of both: what it means to be close.

For friends, as for family, “close” is the holy grail of relationships. (In both contexts I often heard, “I wish we were closer” but never “I wish we weren’t so close.”)

What people meant by “close” could be very different, but their comments all helped me understand how friends could be like family – and why I often say of my friend Karl, “He’s like my brother.” First is longevity. We met at summer camp when I’d just turned 15, and the seeds of closeness were planted during one of those wondrous extended self-revealing teenage conversations, when we sat side by side behind the dining hall. Our friendship continued and deepened as we exchanged long letters that traversed the distance between our homes in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

After college, Karl was the one I called at 2 a.m. when I made a last-minute decision not to join the Peace Corps. Two decades later, we were traveling together when I showed him the photograph of a man I’d just met, saying, “It’s crazy but I keep thinking I’m going to marry him” – and I did.

I was there when Karl left Brown for Julliard, and, years later, when he came out as gay. Karl knew my parents, my cousins, my first husband and the other friends who have been important in my life, as I knew and know his. I visit his mother in a nursing home just as I’d visit my own, were she still alive. We can refer to anything and anyone in our pasts without having to explain.

If I’m upset about something, I call him; I trust his judgment, though I might not always follow his advice. And finally, maybe most of all, there’s comfort. I feel completely comfortable in his home, and when I’m around him, I can be completely and unselfconsciously myself.


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