Friendships Are Work, and It’s Worth It: Loving Your Friends Like You Love Your Dates

I am deeply in love with my friends. I am one of those people who thinks it’s chill to sleep with your friends – if you’re both down, if you’re in the mood, if you can do it without making it weird, anecdotally I think it’s helpful if all people involved have Mars in Aries on their natal chart – but what I want to talk about today doesn’t have anything to do with dating your friends in a specifically sexual way or a way in which you’re hoping to shift the terms of your friendship from “friend” into “something more” whatever that means to you. No, today I want to talk about dating your friends as friends. I want to talk about loving and investing in friendship with the same fervor many of us have been taught to grant romantic relationships only.

If you’ve spoken to me for longer than five minutes – let’s say maybe ten minutes! – you’ve probably heard me reference this quote from an essay by Dean Spade from 2006, “For Lover And Fighters.” The first time I read it, it changed my whole life:

One of my goals in thinking about redefining the way we view relationships is to try to treat the people I date more like I treat my friends — try to be respectful and thoughtful and have boundaries and reasonable expectations — and to try to treat my friends more like my dates — to give them special attention, honor my commitments to them, be consistent, and invest deeply in our futures together. In the queer communities I’m in valuing friendship is a really big deal, often coming out of the fact that lots of us don’t have family support, and build deep supportive structures with other queers. We are interested in resisting the heteronormative family structure in which people are expected to form a dyad, marry, have kids, and get all their needs met within that family structure. A lot of us see that as unhealthy, as a new technology of post-industrial late capitalism that is connected to alienating people from community and training them to think in terms of individuality, to value the smaller unit of the nuclear family rather than the extended family. Thus, questioning how the status and accompanying behavior norms are different for how we treat our friends versus our dates, and trying to bring those into balance, starts to support our work of creating chosen families and resisting the annihilation of community that capitalism seeks.

Honestly if you get me on the right day I will start crying while talking about this quote, because it encapsulates everything I think is important when we talk about friendship and community building and family and love. The ideas Dean Spade presents in this essay inform the way I live my whole life, but most deeply, they inform the way I treat my friends.

A lot of queer people I know complain that making and keeping close friendships as an adult is hard, and I hear that. But I think something we don’t often take into account is how much effort actually goes into deep sustaining friendships, and that might be normal and good. A friendship is a relationship, and as the well therapized among us know, relationships take work, and they should! Some of the work is hard, but some of the work can be really fun. Dating your friends is really fucking fun. Here’s how I would suggest you go about doing it.

1. Everyone loves a sweet gesture

You know that cute shit you do for new dates? Like bringing them their favorite donut on a work break just because you “happen to be in the neighborhood” (lez be real you are absolutely not), or leaving flowers on their front porch with a cute note so they’re surprised when they get home from a long day? Do that shit for your friends! Obviously you should tailor the sweet gestures to your specific friend’s desires and personality, but here are some ideas to get you started: write love notes in chalk on their sidewalk or driveway, bring them flowers, make a mix CD, send a postcard, offer to squeeze a blackhead on their back, give them first pick when you clean out your closet, do their makeup, watch their dog, pick up their meds, ask if they want to borrow your car… the list is literally endless. Do you see the theme here? Anything you would do for a date because you really really like them and you want to be cute and helpful and make them feel special, you can do for your friends and achieve the same results!

2. Be emotionally available

It’s really trendy these days to talk about performing emotional labor, and I actually don’t want to have a conversation about the true implications of that phrase right now because the internet dialogue surrounding it makes me want to stab my eyes out, but the main truth I want to get to is: being a good friend to someone is not “emotional labor,” it’s just being emotionally available for your pals.

Of course not everyone has the capacity to be emotionally available for all humans at all times. No one is asking that. But the thing is, when we sign on to friendship, when we agree together that we are existing in society together and choosing to be friends, we actually are agreeing to be somewhat emotionally available for each other a lot of the time! It’s nice! It’s not the same thing as forcibly extracted emotional labor! It’s good for everyone and it shouldn’t be reserved for femmes or mascs or your girlfriend or your spouse! It’s a good nice practice that strengthens your empathy and your relationships, and makes those around you feel seen and heard. Please don’t tell your friends to pay you for the literal act of friendship or make it transactional. We do not need to invite capitalism into our hearts in that particular way.

We can all hold space for each other, and if you actually do not have the capacity to hold space that’s okay you can be upfront with your pal and they will understand because they are also a human with an understanding of empathy, reciprocity, etc. If you never want to be emotionally available for a particular person or if you find they do not reciprocate your time and energy and are never emotionally available for you, I would invite you to reexamine if you truly consider that person a friend. And if a pal comes to you with something too big for you to hold on your own, it is perfectly within your bounds to suggest they seek emotional support from others, perhaps even a professional. That’s very valid. Just don’t be the friendship equivalent of a fuckboi – no one wants to feel like their friendship is only valued when it’s fun and convenient. Friends are there for each other through the good times and the bad – honestly, especially through the bad. Goddess bless good friends, amen.

3. Bestow sincere compliments in the group thread and IRL

The coolest part about a close friendship is that you get to know everything about your pal: what they feel good about, what they’re insecure about, who they admire, where they feel at home… the list goes on. You know what you can do with all that amazing insider info? Compliment them in sincere and meaningful ways! Maybe I’m projecting because words of affirmation are my ultimate number one love language, but I’ll tell you what, I’ve never met a babe who doesn’t enjoy some personalized compliments. If your pal is shy these can be low key, or if they’re a brat like I am they can be over the top grand gestures. I like to compliment my friends in public – in Instagram comments, in front of other friends, in group chats – and in private – via text, via email, via DM, via my literal human mouth up against their literal human ear. I also like to be really specific with my compliments so they feel personal. So instead of saying, “Oh my god you’re so smart,” to my friend who is a brilliant overachiever but has a lot of anxiety about her abilities and constantly second guesses herself, I’d say, “Wow babe, you’ve worked so hard this month and I know it probably doesn’t feel like you’ve accomplished much because you’re so hard on yourself, but holding this zine you made with all your scientific research in my hand is such tangible proof that you’re a boss and a genius, not to mention highly organized and competent at following through on a project!” I know it’s a mouthful, but it’s also like, a goddamn love letter. Write your friends impromptu love letters via sincere compliments, trust me.

4. Spend intentional time together

Dates! Go on literal dates with your pals! Absolutely anything that you might take a romantic and/or sexual activity partner to do? Take a friend instead! Go to the movies. Go to the roller rink. Go out for ice cream. Go out for dinner. Make dinner at home. Have a Netflix and Chill night in. Take the dog for a walk. Go out dancing. Go to a concert. Walk in the park. Go thrifting. Go hiking. Take a road trip. Go on vacation together! Move in together! Buy a house together! Raise a baby together! MAKE A FAMILY TOGETHER!!!!!! If you and your pal don’t live in the same place, think about what you would do for a long-distance relationship — schedule phone calls! Watch a movie synced together! Send mail! The list goes on and on and on and on and I am fully serious. Be intentional about the time you make to spend with friends. Don’t always prioritize your girlfriend or your partner or frankly even your mom or your dog. Your friends matter – make sure they can feel it.

5. Invest in your future

Dean Spade told us what to do, y’all. Many other people have weighed in on this too. Heck, I weigh in on this all the goddamn time! We are queer and we own our narratives. We do not have to follow any particular path the patriarchy has laid out for us. Think about where you see yourself in the future, and where you see your friends in relation to you, and then dream that future into reality together. If you’re single, think about how you might continue to live life as a single person with your friends. If you’re partnered, be clear with your partner that some friends are close enough to you that you’d like to include them in your visions for the future. Talk about what will happen when one of you gets sick. Talk about what will happen when you age. Talk about kids, about where you’d like to settle down, about values, about what you want your life to look like. Treat your friends like the loves of your life, because in my very humble opinion, they usually are. Invest in your future with your friends; it’s good for all of us.


Okay, that’s my manifesto for creating a culture of genuine community care. What did I miss? How do you show your friends they’re special and important to you? How can we all support each other today and tomorrow and the next day? As Dean Spade wrote: How can we “invest deeply in our futures together”?

Vanessa is a queer feminist writer and photographer currently based in New York. She really misses Portland. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 295 articles for us.

21 Comments

  1. Thank you for leading me to the Dean Spade essay!

    In therapy and in my primary relationship, I have had trouble articulating how non-monogamy, maintaining extensive close and medium friendships, and resistance to capitalist accumulation in household-building are tied together. Last week it came out as a bunch of nonsense crying along the lines of “I don’t want what your parents have!!!” This is quite a bit more elegant, and I’ve just sent it to my therapist and my primary partner!

  2. !!! I was literally just talking about Caleb Luna’s pieces on these topics yesterday!! I love this kind of content and want it everywhere. Thank you, Vanessa!

    For people who want more life-changing reading, here is the piece called “Treating My Friends Like Lovers: The Politics of Desirability”

    https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/how-to-be-fat-caleb-luna-sub/

    And here is the somewhat-famous piece “Romantic Love is Killing Us: Who Takes Care of Us When We Are Single?”

    https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/romantic-love-is-killing-us/

    <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

  3. LOVE THIS SO MUCH! Friends are the greatest loves of my life and probably always will be! I love doing date like things with friends. If a friend and I have both been going through some rough stuff, I love to intentionally set aside a few hours for us to do something soothing and talk about future plans and how we are going to take care of ourselves and heal from whatever has been happening. For me this always includes some fresh baked goodies, but often hikes, day trips to the coast, long park hang, or making art together, can be a great way to spend that time together.
    The part about how friends are there for you in good and bad times, maybe especially bad times, is one of those things you know but need to be reminded of. I think I’ve not told enough people who have been helpful to me lately how much I appreciate them, because I was sad that the people I thought would show up for me didn’t at all. I have some love letters/deep compliments to write

  4. This is great and really tells me I am on the right path with the things I do with some of my friends. Like for one friend, I’ll show up with a pack of her favorite cigs(she’s not into flowers). I also text her on the dot every Friday a Shabbat Shalom, despite both of being non-religious, & good luck every Monday morning. Here is compliments and words of wisdom are helpful. Tell your friends that it’s not home when you two aren’t in the same city or if one can a coffee break during work.

  5. There is literally no shame in making a bullet journal tracker (or Remember the Milk list) for friends to check in on daily/weekly/monthly.

    At least that’s what I am telling myself and my mountain of colored pens.

  6. Vanessa this is so thoughtful and articulate I want people like you as friends!
    And, reading this I realised I have some really healthy friendships because of these things, and ways to strengthen others, so thank you <3

  7. Love this, thanks so much! I’m sort of… Not the best at maintaining friendships or relationships but I think these are such good points. My best friend since high school died last year and mostly I’m fine about it now but my grandmother turned 90 this year and *her* childhood best friend [Kitty]’s kids brought her [Kitty] to my grandma’s 90th birthday party and I’ve been a tiny little bit wrecked about it for a few months. So, so far I’ve invited two of my friends to my 90th birthday party. All this to say that “to give them special attention, honor my commitments to them, be consistent, and ***invest deeply in our futures together***” really stuck out to me as Important!

  8. wow I love this and you and also JUST reframed one of my yearly goals to be about caring about/for my friends better. the TIMING!

    again, love you. thanks for this sage advice, see you in the group chat

  9. This post is so sweet and full of great ideas!

    I feel like some of the time, folks can get tied up in thoughts such as “this person could be a better friend to me by doing/saying XYZ”. And shifting the mindset to “I CAN BE a more supportive and better friend by saying/doing XYZ” is so great and much more healthy and positive.

  10. This is beautiful! I think it’s missing something about navigating conflict. I’ve lost some extremely close friends that I truly thought I was building a future with because the relationship couldn’t withstand conflict and people bailed.

  11. THAT DEAN SPADE ESSAY I TELL PEOPLE ABOUT IT ALL THE TIME THANK YOU

    It is deeply affirming to hear this said by someone other than myself, it honestly almost made me cry.

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