A Creative Solution to ‘the Friendship Desert of Modern Adulthood’

Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with three women who are part of a group experimenting with “arranged friendship.” Inspired by the arranged marriages common in her home country of Iran, Ari Honarvar brought together a group of relative strangers who decided to commit upfront to be friends through thick and thin. In this interview, they discuss “the friendship desert of modern adulthood” and the oasis that this experiment created for them.

The Friends:

Jessica Harmer, 47, an artist and state-park employee who lives in Oceanside, California
Ari Honarvar, 49, a writer who lives in San Diego
Carolyne Ouya, 30, a nonprofit program developer who lives in San Diego

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julie Beck: How did you get the idea for approaching friendship this way?

Ari Honarvar: When I moved to California with my husband and my six-month-old, I really struggled meeting friends. All parents wanted to talk about was their kids. I wanted to have something else to talk about. I was like, Where’s my village?

I tried all these different community-building activities. I combined activism with hanging out with friends. I organized weekly potlucks. At one point I put an ad on Nextdoor and got our neighbors to go for a walk and get to know each other better. But I still didn’t have many intimate friends.

That’s how I came up with the idea of arranged friendships. I grew up in Iran, and I knew many old couples who had happy and loving arranged marriages. I thought, If it worked for them, why couldn’t it work for friendships?

[Read: What if friendship, not marriage, was at the center of life?]

Beck: How did you go about arranging friendships?

Ari: I went to women at different gatherings. I used my intuition. I explained the idea, and I asked if they would want to join me in this experiment. All of them said yes.

I met Carolyne after the group had been gathering for a year. We were roommates at a conference. We really hit it off, and she joined us.

Beck: Carolyne and Jessica, what was your reaction when she brought this up to you?

Carolyne Ouya: I understood it as an intimate women’s group. During that time, I was going through a lot. I tend to be extroverted, but I had become sort of disconnected from people. It felt like a safe place for me to build new relationships and test my skills out again. So I showed up, and I’ve been around ever since.

Beck: When did the group start?

Jessica Harmer: It was 2018. We’ve been together awhile.

I met Ari through another friend, who is also a member of the group. I found it really difficult to meet people in general, let alone form good, solid female friendships. When Ari approached me with this idea, I was like, Oh, that’s really odd, but I’m intrigued. Commitment first and then let everything fall into place—why not?

Ari: There is this pervasive myth that arranged means forced. In my experience, growing up in Iran, that was not the case. Counterintuitively, arranged offers more freedom because you can customize your group based on your own needs and desires. I wanted all women and nonbinary people, so that’s what we did.

the friend group sits in a garden
Courtesy of Ari Honarvar

Beck: Friendship can take so many different forms. So how did you decide what your arrangement was going to be?

Ari: I gathered people at my house for the first meeting, and we had a commitment ceremony. We vowed to be ideal friends to one another, to be honest and loving, and to share any misunderstandings with the other person so mending could occur. We vowed to work through things rather than just end our friendships.

At that very first meeting, one woman was like, “Well, this is definitely not for me.” And she left. If this is not for you, at any point, anyone can leave.

We did a really sweet ritual. We turned to the person to our left and said, “When I look at you, I see …” And we would talk about the attributes that we saw in the other person. It was remarkable how accurate those observations were.

Jessica: I was self-conscious at the time. To have somebody who’s never met me before see right through me and tell me I was beautiful and I was special … Sorry, I’m getting emotional … It was groundbreaking; it made me feel a part of something, and I hadn’t felt that in a really long time.

Carolyne: I wasn’t there for the first commitment ceremony. But when I joined, we did it again. The Black Lives Matter uprisings were happening, and I was going through some intense identity-crisis issues and feeling unsafe with new people—especially people that were not of color, because I didn’t know what everyone’s perspective was.

When we did that ceremony, I heard all these people affirm that I was valuable, that I was worthy, that I was extremely powerful. I made a commitment in my heart that when I show up in this space with these women, I am going to be as authentic and as vulnerable as my spirit allows me to.

Beck: Was there structure that followed that original meeting? Did you have set times when you would get together?

Jessica: We usually try to get together once a month. With COVID that changed, but most of the time we try for once a month.

Ari: We renew our vows once a year, at least. We go around and start a sentence with “I love you because …” There’s usually not a dry eye in the group.

Beck: What was the emotional experience of starting as strangers who committed to be friends, and the evolution as you actually got to know the people you committed to?

Ari: Maybe because arranged is part of my culture, it was really easy for me, as soon as we gathered, to be like, all right, you are my ride-or-die friends. I jumped in with both feet.

Jessica: It was really hard for me in the beginning. I would try and talk myself out of going every time. But I was like, You know you’ll feel better if you go. And I would show up.

There was a lot of storytelling. We built the connection by going around and talking about what was going on with us. Maybe six months in, I realized that I didn’t try to talk myself out of it anymore. I looked forward to everything; I wanted to cook more good food for my friends; I wanted to share good and bad things because I knew they would understand.

Carolyne: We were automatically dealing with matters of the heart. I tend to be very guarded and controlled with my vulnerability. It’s a very ritual-infused space. The “I love you because …,” I was like, Wow, how about “I like you?” How about “You’re cool?” A big turning point for me was using that language and seeing how much people actually meant it.

I’ve built a lot of friendships where it takes years to have some of the conversations that we were having instantly. Everyone’s leading with their heart first, and when you do that, you get to know people much, much quicker than the average friendship.

Beck: How many people were in the group originally? Are they all still there now?

Ari: We had nine people originally. One of them didn’t want to continue from the first moment. Then one person moved. Two more joined, and then one of them moved again. So we’re eight people now.

Jessica: We’ve had a couple of other people come and decide it wasn’t for them. It’s very quick for people to decide yes or no. They know I’m going to fit here, or not.

the friend group in a book store
Courtesy of Ari Honarvar

Beck: Was there anything that surprised you about the group?

Jessica: That I got along with everybody. I love every single one of these women because they’re so different.

Beck: You just snuck in an “I love you because …”

Jessica: It’s funny, I don’t have a problem with saying “I love you” to women anymore. I did before, and that is one of the big things I’ve learned in this group.

Carolyne: I was concerned about whether I would fit in. I am one of the youngest. I’m in a different space in my life. What surprised me is that I kept going back and that I do fit.

Ari: What surprised me most is that this actually worked, after I’d tried everything to find friends for over a decade and only a couple of seeds that I planted actually germinated in the friendship desert of modern adulthood. It was like a crusade for me.

Carolyne: One of the values of this arrangement, outside of the commitment, is there are less expectations than in some average friendships. It’s not like, If you don’t show up like this on this day for me, then we’re not friends anymore. I find that grace valuable as I’m maneuvering all the feelings and all the transitions.

Beck: Do you have any words of advice for people who might want to try something similar to your arrangement? Or even if they don’t want to fully commit to an arranged friendship, just to be more intentional and structured about their friendships?

Jessica: Go in with a completely open mind and open heart. Even if your old habits and voices in your head are telling you no—this is silly, this is weird—just do it. And it will change things for you. It did for me.

Don’t let the words arranged marriage get in the way of what could be really good friendships. Yeah we committed first, and let love follow, but it’s so much more of a connection than I’ve made before.

Carolyne: I agree. What you’re really committing to is that you will honor the time that it takes to build a friendship together.

Rituals are game changers. If you decide to enter into something like this, have conversations about: What will we do together that will remind us that we care and that we’re in this together?

There’s a lot of work to do on yourself to allow this space to be what it could be for you. So for example, I am still working on coming to this group for all the things that I am going through. It’s not because I don’t love them or trust that they would be there; it’s because I personally have to work on showing up fully and vulnerably. The “arranged” gives you the time to do that.

If you or someone you know should be featured on “The Friendship Files,” get in touch at friendshipfiles@theatlantic.com and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.