I met Marta in 2016, when we were both working at a clothing store for teenagers in Dallas, Texas, and quickly realized we had a lot more in common than being the only two Black girls on staff. When our manager pushed all the women on staff to wear their hair straightener, Marta and I would conspire to show up with our curly hair, in its natural state. We called ourselves radicals.
Our friendship remained strong when we were living in the same city, and when we weren’t. We shared family holidays; we traveled together to Europe. I made more memories with Marta than I had with any significant other.
But when the pandemic hit, our relationship began to fall apart. I moved back home to Dallas to quarantine at my mom’s, and soon after that, Marta and I went a week without speaking. Weeks turned into months, and one day I found myself blocked from her Instagram story, which felt like the friendship equivalent of getting ghosted.
I played along like things were normal, and when stay-at-home orders were lifted, we began a new routine: making plans to spend time together, only to cancel at the last minute. The unaddressed tension made the idea of being around Marta uncomfortable and even seeing her online started to give me anxiety, so I muted her posts and stories. Before I knew it, I was avoiding her company completely. I figured at this point, I would just let the friendship die.
But then one night I ran into Marta at a party in Brooklyn. Drunkenly, tearfully, she admitted that she had been resenting me for not being available to her. Quite drunk myself, I joked that we should go to therapy, that our damaged relationship was like a marriage falling apart.
At the time, I didn’t even know if couples therapy was an option for two friends. But the next morning, the idea was still in my mind, so I looked into the practice.
For decades, romantic couples, co-parents and families have called on mediators for help in communicating and working through conflict. But as people have emerged from their pandemic bubbles, therapy for platonic partners, including friends, is garnering more interest, says Dr Allen Wagner, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. “I think there’s a lot of people that left their friends on the wayside, and they’re now missing them and looking to build those relationships back up,” he says.
“Sometimes people need a third party to be able to help them to articulate their point of view that the other person’s not understanding,” whether they’re in a romantic relationship or a platonic friendship, Wagner said.
To Wagner, friendships can be just as important as familial or romantic ties. “I think people are beginning to realize that having people in your life that will really be there for you, unconditionally, at a time of loss, or if you’re going through a divorce, or whatever you’re dealing with, is really important and valuable.”
It was that kind of relationship Fontella Bishop, a 26-year-old production assistant in Los Angeles, sought when she and her ex-girlfriend decided to begin couples therapy – after they broke up. “We always wanted to continue being friends, but we weren’t sure what capacity would be healthiest for us,” Bishop says.
Internet searches turned up zero results for a friendship therapist, but the pair contacted various couples therapists to see if anyone would take on two platonic partners. They’ve been attending weekly sessions together since January 2022. “The way we communicate was not very cohesive,” Bishop says. “So having a middleman therapist to kind of translate the way that we communicate to each other has been really helpful.”
Dr Emily Anhalt, a San Francisco-based clinical psychologist and the co-founder of Coa, a gym for mental health, says that therapy should be an constant resource in relationships, as opposed to a reactive solution to a problem. “If there’s a really important friend in your life or someone that you want to have a long-term relationship with, it’s a worthy investment to understand what the strengths of your friendship are, what the struggles are, and how you can show up for each other in a deeper and more meaningful way.”
Anhalt says that it’s important to acknowledge the role of platonic relationships in our lives, which, she argues, may be even more fulfilling and meaningful than a romantic relationship.
She notes that friendship therapy is more common among women than men, perhaps because women generally feel more permission to work on their relationships in this way.
Anhalt works with a variety of platonic pairs, including co-workers, business partners and co-founders. “If you and another person are creating something together then ensuring your relationship is strong is really important, because anything going on between the two of you will leak into the project,” she says. Couples therapy between co-founders boomed during the pandemic, when external stressors intensified startup culture. “Similarly, for two friends who are starting a business, the stronger their relationship is, the less likely it is that the business will end up holding the weight of their struggles,” she says.
Beverly Allen, 36, and Ann Dorn, 37, who both live in Tacoma, Washington, have to witness the benefits of therapy for business partners first-hand. The pair met at a party seven years ago and became close friends. Three years later, Allen asked Dorn to join her law firm as a paralegal; eventually they left that firm to start one on their own.
That’s when Allen suggested couples therapy for friends. They have been doing in-person therapy together since January 2020, and claim the benefits are endless. “Having a therapist helps me facilitate difficult conversations with Ann. It just ultimately strengthens our relationship, our communication, and our trust with each other,” Allen says. Dorn agrees: “We share a lot of life – I work for Bev, and we’re also close friends. Therapy has really helped us keep sight of what we really value in each other and work through some of the conflicts that come up in normal life.”
As for me and Marta, we turned a mindless joke into a serious pact. The morning after our run-in at the party, I texted her a medium article about Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, two friends who went to therapy together and wrote a book about it. We both agreed we should try it out at least once, with no other strings attached. If either of us felt uncomfortable during the sessions or no longer wanted to continue, then we could quit.
Once we were in agreement, moving things along was simple. We searched for couples therapists online and went with the first person who accepted my insurance, was a woman of color, and could meet over Zoom. I was anxious before our first session. Marta and I had barely talked since the party, other than to schedule therapy. I wondered what she would say about me, and whether I would become defensive. Did she know that I had muted her on Instagram? Did she know that I knew that she had blocked me from seeing her stories? Would she even call in?
Surprisingly, our first session was a pleasant experience. We were both honest and respectful. Marta revealed that at the height of the pandemic she lost her job, went through a breakup, and her grandfather had died. At the same time, I had been dealing with my own list of problems and grief, including the death of my grandfather, that I hadn’t told Marta about. I felt embarrassed to learn what she had been dealing with, but Marta was very understanding and forgiving.
We quickly realized that we both had been neglecting the friendship and keeping our struggles to ourselves because we felt that everyone in our social circle was dealing with too much of their own stuff to take on anyone else’s baggage. We needed to actually talk about our separate situations and share how we wanted support from each other. This became easier with each session. Our therapist would often rephrase how we were saying things to each other, so that our statements would be welcomed as opposed to rejected.
After meeting bi-weekly for four months, Marta and I decided we were at a comfortable place to pause on the sessions. We had learned how to communicate effectively with each other and deal with disagreements in ways that didn’t result in ghosting and blocking. We also learned that despite growing older and taking on new and differing interests and opinions, we remain invested in being close friends.