• We can try to be more like Oprah and Gayle in our close friendships, but we often miss the mark.
  • When the negatives in your friendship start to drown out the positives, it may be time for friendship therapy, which is like couples therapy for friends.
  • Friendship therapists employ many of the same techniques used in marriage counseling to enhance communication and reinforce relationship strengths.
  • Deep friendships are worth saving, especially right now, when we can all benefit from a robust support system.

Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King are in their 60s now, but they first became friends in their 20s, when they were both single women in TV broadcasting. This means that for over 40 years they have stuck together through marriages, children, divorce, and career ups and downs. Their BFF status is legendary. What’s the secret to their enduring friendship? They’re happy with their own lives, they trust each other, and they’re like-minded. They’re Gayle and Oprah. 

And then there’s the rest of us mortals. I once had a falling out with a friend because she was mean to a cat. I relate more to John and Paul, the Beatles whose creative egos sometimes interfered with their bond. Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, who had a celebrity friendship breakup because of backup dancers. Meghan Markle and Jessica Mulroney, who apparently split due to British royal politics or something. If my best friend had the gall to marry a prince, I would definitely send a series of long, passive-aggressive text messages.

The point is, we can’t all be Gayle and Oprah. Close friendships are often more News of the Weird than O Magazine. Unless our people are completely toxic, we can’t just ditch them when they make us mad. We’re supposed to act like grownups. We’re supposed to find healthy ways to manage conflict instead of holding grudges forever and abandoning the friends we love because they hurt our feelings or stole our backup dancers. And fortunately we can get professional help and keep our drama out of the tabloids—and maybe even off social media?—with licensed couples counseling for friends. Otherwise known as friendship therapy.

What Is Friendship Therapy? How Does It Work?

In friendship therapy, friends are treated with the same deep consideration and compassion befitting intimate partners. Many of the effective approaches used in marriage counseling to help spouses can also apply to important platonic bonds

Nearly 1 in 5 of the mental health providers at Thriveworks have actually treated friends together. Shontel Cargill, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Thriveworks in Cumming, GA, says that “the dynamic that exists between long-term friends is very similar to that of a couple.” That means that friendship therapists might seek to do the following:

  1. Reinforce existing strengths in the relationship. Sure, you and your BFF have been having the same argument over and over for years, but you can always make each other laugh. A friendship therapist can help remind you why you like each other in the first place. 
  2. Improve communication. True intimates need to be able to listen actively, reflectively, and empathetically. A friendship therapist can help coach both parties on effective communication techniques.
  3. Help friends express their true feelings. It can often feel scary to talk about sensitive subjects, but friendship therapists provide an emotional safety net so you and your friend can work on feeling more securely attached
  4. Change perspectives on the relationship. A therapist might give friends insights into their interactions, leading to a new, mutual understanding that isn’t based on blame or distrust.

In friendship therapy sessions, friends can articulate what they need from each other in an environment of psychological safety. Then the counselor can help find the disconnects and provide the resources that friends need to process, find resolution, and heal. A friendship therapist can even prescribe homework, like recommending that friends go on a “date night” to refill their intimacy bucket and reignite their friendship flame. Dress code: pajamas.

Pandemic Friendship Loss

Let’s get real for a second (which is something I imagine J.Lo tells Leah Remini in their friendship therapy sessions): Our friendships have suffered during the pandemic. Over two thirds of Thriveworks clinicians reported a surge in their clients’ anxiety and depression related to friendships in the past year. (“It’s because we were on a break!” says Jennifer Aniston to Courteney Cox in their friendship therapy session.) People are grieving the losses of deep friendships that didn’t survive the coronavirus. It’s hard to be a good friend when we’re all basketcases. 

But our buddies are essential to our mental health. We have to find ways to nurture these support systems, even when we’re in distress. Times of crisis are when we need our friends the most.

So don’t hesitate to propose an online counseling session to your estranged friend. Offer to pay for the session as a sign of goodwill, or split the cost as you used to when going out to eat in the olden-timey days. We need all the help we can get to keep our communities alive during these trying times, and friendship therapy might be one of the decisive paths to reconnection.