Who We’ll Be After This

Why You Should Tell Your Friends ‘I Love You’

It’s as important to express love to your friends as it is your partner or family. Maybe more.

Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

It hit my phone like a symphonic gong. “We should tell our friends that we love them as much as we say it to our partners,” my best friend, Carmen, texted me one day a couple years ago. The message was at once revelatory and, I thought, fundamentally correct. That it came from a friend who, unlike me, is married and a parent, made it all the more resonant.

That text was a turning point. I haven’t always been the most demonstrative friend, but making a point of routine love declaration changed not just how I see my friendship with her, but all the close relationships in my life. After two years of saying “I love you” to Carmen and other friends, I now see it as a daily or weekly contract for a relationship type not governed by a contract. It’s one of the only ways we have to commit to our closest friends — especially now, when we can’t see them in person the way we used to.

Call it wisdom if you want. As Father Time loosens my grip from the cliffside of Young Adulthood, and I plunge, screaming, toward the valley of How Do You Do, Fellow Kids, my gratitude for friendship has spiked. Or, at least, I’ve accepted that I’ll need some sort of linked-arm network to break the fall.

So I say it. Not with every exchange or interaction; maybe fewer than half. Sometimes it happens after a quick back-and-forth, when one or the other of us has to run off and redirect our attention. Sometimes, but not always, when we’re parting ways in person. I said it more in March and April, those gray months of wailing ambulances and hand-sewn masks that urged a collective taking of stock. But now when I say it, the words feel affirmative — an assurance of a future amid the eternal now.

It’s no surprise that friendship is literally good for us. A 10-year Australian study on aging found that the people with the most friends lived an average of 22% longer than the people with the fewest. Friendship, according to that influential study, may even be more vital to our physical and mental well-being than our relationships with close family and spouses. Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently argued that healthy relationships with family and friends are as essential as ventilators and vaccines for our global recovery from the pandemic.

Most of our lives are structured, in some way, around the full-time workweek, which can leave only enough time and energy to tend to those of our relationships that are literally closest to home. But we need to see “I love you” as an incremental investment. It takes little effort to eke out the words themselves; it’s less a grand gesture than a recurring pledge to keep showing up. To love is to opt in, again and again.

As writers/podcasters Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman write in their new book, Big Friendship, “Action is especially important to friendship, which carries no familial expectations or marriage license. If you don’t take action to mark it as important and keep it alive, a friendship will not survive.”

And that’s where the friend-love is key. To say “I love you” is action, yes. But most of all, it’s a way of committing to action.

Currently: Writer, editor, author at-large | Recently: Senior Books Editor @ Forge

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