Lucy and Ethel, Laverne and Shirley, and Oprah and Gayle have nothing on these four circles of friends, who share what’s kept them tight through thick and thin
By Cory Olesen
As an only child, friendship has always been incredibly important to me. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to having siblings, except I get to pick who my friends are. I’ve been fortunate to have kept many of my friendships from as far back as preschool, but I’ve always wondered why and how we’ve remained friends for so long. What makes some friendships endure while others fade away? Are there particular elements that make for a solid friendship?
Dr. Richard Slatcher is a professor of psychology at the University of Georgia who studies close relationships. Like me, he has friendships from childhood that he has held onto into adult life. “Friendships are the glue that holds society together,” he explains. “If you go back to our ancestral times and early evolutionary history, friendships were people who you could literally trust with your life.” These days, there’s a bit less spear-throwing involved, but friendships remain integral to our survival, just in slightly different ways. We still rely on friends to help us, whether it’s moving apartments, navigating the loss of a loved one or just cheering us on. According to Dr. Slatcher, the making of a good friendship comes down to several key factors:
• Reciprocity — a give and take.
• Responsiveness — a person’s interest in what you’re saying or doing.
• Self-disclosure — the natural process of opening up and being vulnerable with someone.
• Trust — the most important factor of them all. To see these elements in action, I spoke with different sets of friends around the city, including my own, in an attempt to unravel the mystery behind these ties that bind us so tightly to one another.
Lifelong Friends—Nancy Brooks and Bobbie Pope
“You can never replace old friendships,” says Dr. Slatcher. “I can never meet a new person who knew me and my family when I was 5. Those people all fit special roles in our lives. We have these friends from different points in our lives who allow us to reconnect to those times.”
Such is the case with Nancy Brooks and Bobbie Pope. “We’ve been friends since we were 14,” says Nancy. The two met their freshman year at Clarkston High School after Bobbie moved to Atlanta. “I can’t remember exactly how we met, though,” Nancy admits with a laugh.
“We went to the same church and the same school,” Bobbie reminded her. “We were just kind of always around each other.” And they’ve continued to be around each other for the last 52 years. Together, they have gone through college, marriage, divorce, parenting and the loss of loved ones.
“I just think I can be with Nancy and never have to explain stuff,” says Bobbie. “It’s just so natural. And she’s the closest thing to a sister, so a lot of things go unsaid. But we share everything, too.”
The pair has been lucky enough to live close to one another (less than 2 miles apart) for more than 35 years, which has been a huge factor in being able to stay close. Their kids went to the same school; they even went on joint family vacations.
As they reminisced, an inside joke came up that has been going on since college, causing both women to erupt with laughter. “I think that’s what keeps you connected, too,” says Bobbie, “because you have so many memories together.”
Recently, the two were brought even closer when Nancy’s husband, Mel, passed away. In the months since, Bobbie has been with Nancy every step of the way, inviting her over to dinner, taking her to Disney World with her daughter and grandchildren, reminding her to enjoy life just as Nancy did when Bobbie lost her father a few years before.
“As you lose family members, it does bring you tighter to the others in your life who are still there,” says Nancy. “Because there is still life, and we have to remember that.”
Professional Friends—Sherri Adair and Patti Stephens
As noted earlier, trust is a major factor in a successful long-term friendship. Another place where trust is important is business. And one of the quickest ways to build up trust is to spend time together.
Often we measure friendship in terms of how long we’ve known someone versus how much time we’ve spent with them. For Best Self Atlanta founder Sherri Adair and publisher Patti Stephens, it’s both. They have spent nearly every day of the past 23 years together.
“I don’t even think I realized until we were having this conversation how much time we’ve spent together and how special it is that we’ve been able to navigate so many waters,” Sherri tells Patti. “And that you still speak to me!”
As business colleagues, Sherri and Patti discuss every aspect of the company’s dayto-day dealings, constantly communicating and problem-solving. “It’s a partnership,” says Sherri. “It’s almost like a marriage.”
And it was the groundwork for a great friendship. Rather quickly, the synergy that the two shared in the workplace naturally found its way into their personal lives.
“We really balance out well,” says Sherri. “We learned that early on, and we’ve refined it and developed it over the years. And that’s what made me feel safe to completely dive into the friendship.”
“We’re two very different people, with very different personalities,” adds Patti. “But we respect what the other one brings. That’s a huge part of why it has lasted so long.”
Not only have the two found their way through tough personal times, but they’ve also maneuvered around a number of professional hurdles as well, especially considering how much the print industry has changed over the past two decades. “A lot of that is based on our relationships with clients and business associates,” says Patti. “We’ve both always strived to play fair, do the right thing, and I know that for both of us, that’s a very important element.”
New Friends—Tran Bui Smith, Michele Thomas and Lisa Washington
“As we get older, we tend to prune back our friendships, particularly as we enter our 30s, 40s and beyond,” says Dr. Slatcher. “We tend to want to focus on deeper friendships rather than superficial ones.”
Tran Bui Smith, Michele Thomas and Lisa Washington will attest to that. The three women met through Best Self Atlanta’s 2017 Over 40 & Fabulous! contest, where they were all in the top 10.
While they met at different points during the contest, they all agree that the night of the reveal party for the cover of the magazine is where their friendship was sealed. “If it wasn’t for this magazine, I don’t think we would have traveled in the same circles,” says Michele. “One of the things that I appreciate about Best Self is that you bring people from various backgrounds together.”
At the party, the ladies took a picture together that has since become a sort of signature move anytime they get together. “We have like six or seven now,” says Lisa.
But what was it that drew them to one another?
“It was their authenticity, and they just wanted to get to know who I was,” says Lisa. “We’re interested in each other, not about what we’re doing, but just about who we are. It’s the energy about who they are as human beings. Every time we’re together, it’s like these are my women, these are my girls. We call ourselves the ‘Best Self Besties.’”
“Authenticity is a big word,” says Tran. “At this stage in life, I think we know who we are and who we want in our space. When I was younger, I wanted to be friends with everybody, and now, it’s not that I don’t want to be friends with people, but for the heart of my world, I only want certain people with a place in it.”
Male vs. Female Friendships
Earlier this year, Best Self Atlanta ran a feature on men’s emotional health, and one of the things I took away from the story is that men seem to struggle to have friendships that are as close as the ones women have. I shared my observation with Dr. Slatcher, and he had some interesting insights to share on the subject, including a saying that goes, “Women’s friendships tend to be more face-to-face whereas men’s friendships tend to be side-to-side.”
Women typically socialize through speaking and connecting emotionally. A typical outing for female friends usually consists of going out for coffee or having a meal, both of which are very conversation-focused.
Men, however, tend to do activities together, such as playing sports or video games or watching movies and TV together. The time they spend together isn’t centered around conversation like it is with women.
“That’s not to say that male friendships aren’t close,” says Dr. Slatcher. “But men don’t have as many friends that they really are disclosing [things] with. When men pair off and have intimate relationships, their partners tend to be the ones they go to for really intimate, emotional conversations.”
But having people you can confide in and share both good times and bad times with is as important for men as it is for women, as it’s been shown that individuals with strong social connections are typically less stressed, and have lower blood pressure, and even have a tendency to live longer.
Childhood Friends—Cory Olesen, Kimberly Patton and Natalie Webber
I have been friends with Kimberly Patton and Natalie Webber since elementary school, second and third grade, respectfully. Not only did we make it through puberty together, we’ve made it through college, marriage and kids.
“We’ve just been there every step of the way together. I can’t imagine not being friends with you guys,” says Kim. Of course, we’ve long since passed the point where we’ve been in each other’s lives longer than we haven’t been.
“It doesn’t matter how weird y’all are going to get. You’ll still be my friends,” says Natalie. “Because I know you’re going to accept me no matter what weird stuff I do.” Adds Kim, “We’ve maxed out our weird. We know what the threshold is, and it would be pretty hard to pass at this point.”
Being odd was always kind of our defining trait, and it still is. We were the kids who were really into “Lord of the Rings,” anime and lots of “Harry Potter.” Essentially we were and still are giant nerds. I used to think that our niche tastes and awkwardness were what bound us together, but after talking with them, I see what really kept us together was a universal effort. We wanted to stay friends, so we made the time to see each other and talk to each other.
We’ve since traded in our bikes for cars and our Friday night sleepovers for game nights. Our lives are completely different now than they were 20-plus years ago, but very little about us, about our friendship, has changed.
“You’re just like ingrained in my brain,” Natalie says of Kim, who went to college in a different state, while Natalie and I went to the same school. “As soon as I would see you again, I’d just feel like we were right back to where we left off.”
“Picking up where we left off” was a theme I’d noticed among these sets of friends. It was mentioned in three of my four interviews. When I asked Dr. Slatcher about it, he said, “People generally remain more the same than they do change. So when you see someone with whom you are quite close, it’s like that friendship never changed. That we can do that is, I think, part of the magic of friendships.”