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Mining the Digital Depths of Friendship

We were able to cultivate that confidence in one another across states, not tables.

Published on:
November 2, 2021
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8 min.
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In my early teens, I (Tabitha) started making friends online. Before Facebook, Instagram, and ages before anyone recorded a Tik Tok dance, I was active on a popular forum for zealous evangelical youth. We were Christian teenagers eager to “do hard things” and change the world. Many of us were homeschooled and had few opportunities for friendship beyond our generously sized families. 

Eventually, I became part of the forum’s moderating team and I started spening hours every week on Gmail’s instant messenger bantering back and forth with the other moderators. Our friendships developing through lively discussions about missions, evangelism methods, and the merits of Calvinism or Arminianism. You may expect me to tell you that these friendships could never be “real” or that because they were digital they went wrong. But that’s not my story. Almost ten years after meeting on that online forum, two of those forum members stood up as bridesmaids at my wedding.

Maybe the boundaries between online and real life friendships are more fluid than we realize.

Social media is often vilified for being a collection of shallow “highlight reels,” a museum of our most gilded moments, yet in this golden age of social media more and more people are turning to apps like Instagram for authentic connection and antidotes to loneliness. But is it possible to find the connection we crave in online friendships? Or is “real life” where it’s at? Maybe the boundaries between the two are more fluid than we realize.

My friend Jenn and I think online friendships can flourish just as much as IRL relationships. Our friendship is proof. We met through Instagram in 2019, and no, we still haven’t met in person. But before we get there, let’s back up and consider what makes friendship so beautifully necessary in our lives. Jenn is a trauma-informed psychotherapist, so I’ll let her explain.

Neurobiology says we need friendship.

By the Creator’s design, we are relational creatures, needing tender love, compassionate care, and deep connection, especially friendship, from the people in our lives. Our most popular songs, unforgettable movies, and stunning paintings bear witness to humanity’s desire for true friendship. Think of Lois Lowry’s The Giver and the tender, clandestine friendship the older man and Jonas shared, their form of love and friendship considered so deadly they had to be hunted for it! Camaraderie matters to us so much that having friendships is simply the backdrop of our stores both real and fiction: we could not conceive of a world without friendship, at least not a pleasant one. 

From ancient scriptural texts, literature, and the latest neuroscience research, the evidence is clear: friendship is a biological, emotional, and spiritual imperative, built through marvelous bonds of love. We need friendship like we need breath in our lungs, nourishing food in our bodies, and restful sleep for our weary souls. 

When friends offer one another their time and support, pick up the phone and make a call to stay connected, invite each other into the intimate details of their lives and hearts, and even share knowing laughter, they put on display one of the most beautiful and underappreciated art forms of life. As poet David Whyte writes in Consolations,

The ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self, the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of the another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.[1]

In fact, research on the social engagement system from Polyvagal Theory shows us exactly how connecting with safe and supportive friends regulates our nervous systems for peace.[2] Innovated by Dr. Stephen Porges and taught widely by clinical therapist Deb Dana, Polyvagal Theory beautifully demonstrates our reality as embodied creatures longing for safety and relational connection, allowing us to “live and move and have our being in God” as Saint Paul has taught. 

These times of feeling physiologically safe with our friends strengthen our emotional ties to one another and create the possibility for even more times of shared connection, in essence practicing Christ’s command to love each other well in John 15.

Our nervous systems respond to cues from the environment through three distinct pathways, mediated by the long cranial vagus nerve running from our skulls to our heart, lungs, and abdomen. These three marvelous pathways work in concert to help us navigate through our lives in a variety of ways. They allow us to have the energy to escape peril (seeking safety), but they also allow us to rest and recharge after a long day of work, connect with our friends and family, play with our children and laugh (relationally connect). 

From a Polyvagal perspective, when our good friends make us laugh, support us when we are struggling, or hold space for us in our sorrows, we experience a visceral feeling of safety in our bodies and carry each other’s burdens gracefully. Known as co-regulation, when we feel warmly supported by our friends who listen to us, validate us as we share our stories of pain, and cheer us on in our triumphs, we experience a sense of physiological ease within our nervous systems. We exhale and breathe peacefully, for we have been witnessed in the kindest way and now have the emotional energy to extend to our dear friends as well. As trauma psychotherapist and author Aundi Kolber wrote in Try Softer, “we all need people who will spread their arms and create a space for us to be.”[3] What a beautiful gift a long-lasting friendship can be.

Another wonderful aspect of the neuroscience of friendship is that our friends can also help us stay in our window of tolerance (WOT). When we have a place to experience our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations without falling into physiological overwhelm, we are in what Dr. Porges coined our WOT, feeling at ease in our bodies as we connect vulnerably with our dear friends and share from our hearts. The particular emotional state of feeling comfortable is known as ventral vagal complex, it allows us to connect with others on a deep level when we can sense safety in our bodies.[4] These times of feeling physiologically safe with our friends strengthen our emotional ties to one another and create the possibility for even more times of shared connection, in essence practicing Christ’s command to love each other well in John 15. 

As I learn more and more modern neuroscience, I see more and more scripture reflected back to me. Paul instructs the Galatian believers to “carry one another’s burdens.” In his letter to the church in Rome, he encourages them to “rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” The story of David and Jonathan reminds me that while having some anxiety is a normal and even important part of being alive, friendship offers a safe harbor against the storms that life throws at us. God crafted our bodies not just to be able to follow his word, but to flourish when we do. 

The life of flourishing friendships Jenn describes sounds great, but is it really possible in the world of social media? Is it really possible to be “seen by someone” and be “granted the sight of the essence of another,” as David Whyte says, when you’ve never met in person? 

We all know the curated nature of social media feeds the monsters of comparison that haunt all of us, but Jenn and I believe that with intentionality and the right ingredients, online friendships can flourish. All friendships require certain ingredients to flourish, and many of them can be cultivated in online spaces as well as in IRL relationships. We believe our friendship is proof. The seeds of real connection were present in the soil of my and Jenn’s Instagram friendship and over the last two years, we have seen them sprout and bear fruit.

The Necessary Ingredients For Flourishing Friendships

“I shouldn’t text Jenn. She’s probably too busy.” That thought has never crossed my mind. I don’t expect her to respond right away to my every need, but we have an open door—or rather, open text—policy because even if we can’t respond to a prayer request or check-in right away, we have confidence that the other person has seen our message and cares.

Jen showed scientifically what we know experientially—long-lasting friendships thrive on mutually supportive ties, shared vulnerability, and attuned listening (among other things). Friendships die when one member reaches out for connection and is turned down again and again. But they flourish when we experience the mutuality of knowing our close friends have our back, that we can call upon them in times of distress, they will respond to us with affection, and that they will receive the same from us. 

We were able to cultivate that confidence in one another across states, not tables. 

Having struck up conversations on Instagram, Jenn and I wanted to talk more and regular DMs became regular phone calls. It was early in the days of my (Tabitha) pregnancy and I was so excited to finally be pregnant and eager to share my joy. During one of our phone calls, Jenn took a deep breath and confided in me. “I’m so excited for you to become a mom,” she said, “but I have to be honest that it has reopened a longing in my heart for a child I may never have, so it’s been painful at times to hear you talk about being pregnant.” Tears sprung to my eyes. I was overwhelmed with the beauty of Jenn’s honesty and the privilege of holding space for the complexity of our emotions. Then I told her if she needed space I would wait for her to ask me about pregnancy and motherhood instead of springing it on her in every conversation. 

Brené Brown wrote in Braving the Wilderness, “trusting . . . other people is a vulnerable and courageous process.”[5] We found that phone lines and WiFi networks did just as well as coffee shops or a living room at hosting a place for the vulnerability and courage Brené Brown writes about. 

Despite the distance, we listened by paying attention to each other in every way, allowing us to look beyond the superficial appearance of things and reach into the essence of our friend. 

I remember Jenn paying especially close attention to me during one of our FaceTime calls. Jenn sat patiently listening, her brown waves bobbed up and down on the screen as I shared my frustrations and fears about a close family relationship. When I paused she said, “I’m so sorry, Tabitha. That sounds really hard.” I hadn’t asked for solutions or advice, so she didn’t offer them. I felt heard because I was. I felt seen because I was. 

Then Jenn asked, “What do you have planned to take care of yourself today?” Jenn and I often share our challenges, fears, and disappointments with one another, but we try not to feed those things, instead listening compassionately and asking what we can do to care for ourselves. In this moment, Jenn had reflected back to me what I had shared with empathy, asked for me to share more, and pointed my attention to something helpful. When our friends listen and then show us love, they are God’s stand-in at that moment. Jenn was showing me God’s loving care of me in that moment. 

As Vietnamese monk and poet Thich Naht Nanh reminds us, we listen deeply to our friends as an act of service through recognition of shared humanity, knowing that one day we will be the ones in need of attuned listening as life will overwhelm all of us.[6] In some ways, the long-distance nature of our friendship makes it easier to listen intently to one another in these ways, because that is what we can offer each other across our glowing phone screens. 

While I’m certainly looking forward to the day I can make two cups of tea and place one in Jenn’s hands, I’m glad I don’t have to wait until then to consider her one of my dearest friends.

The closest friends may be far away.

Jenn and I have never met in person, but I know that when one of us shows up at baggage claim in the other’s hometown it’s going to feel like we’ve known each other forever. The distance between us keeps us from sharing the same food or giving each other a long hug, but the most important ingredients for strong friendships, like shared vulnerability, attuned listening, and co-regulation are not impeded by FaceTime calls or text conversations.

Yes, perhaps online friendships require a bit more intentionality than the IRL variety, especially in the early days if they have begun in the context of social media, but the boundaries between online and in-person friendships are more fluid than we may realize. They don’t have to stay within the boundaries of curated lives and shallow likes—online friendships grow, like real-life ones from simple to complex to intimate. From a Polyvagal perspective, our nervous system can recognize the markers of friendship regardless of where it comes from and the data of my cell phone call log seems to agree. So, while I’m certainly looking forward to the day I can make two cups of tea and place one in Jenn’s hands, I’m glad I don’t have to wait until then to consider her one of my dearest friends. 

Tabitha McDuffee
Tabitha McDuffee is a mom and social media specialist for a Christian publisher who writes in her spare time. She holds a BA in Biblical & Intercultural Studies from Moody Bible Institute and an MA in International Refugee Law from the University of London. She lives in the beautiful Palm Springs area of Southern California with her husband and baby boy. You can find her writing attabithamcduffee.comand occasionally on Instagram@tabithamcduffee.
Jenn Zatopek
Jenn Zatopek is a writer and psychotherapist living in Texas. She attended Brite Divinity School, and her work has been featured in places such as Ruminate MagazineBearings OnlineSheLoves Magazine, and elsewhere. Find more of her writing about the intersection of psychology and theology at her website theholyabsurd.com and across all social media at @theholyabsurd.

Cover image by Nathan Dumlao.

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[1] Whyte, David. Consolations:The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. S.L., Canongate Books Ltd, 2019, pg. 74.

[2] Dana, Deb, and Stephen W. Porges. The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation (Norton Series On. New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.

[3] Aundi Kolber. Try Softer : A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode-and into a Life of Connection and Joy. Carol Stream, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 2020, pg. 135.

[4] Ibid, pg. 11.

[6]  “Thich Nhat Hanh on Compassionate Listening.” Oprah.com, www.oprah.com/own-super-soul-sunday/thich-nhat-hanh-on-compassionate-listening-video?fbclid=IwAR3nBf-fkAWZ8wJhW4-xM3fhPnaIwyhJaBWGTKD3k8tOnHizh8Mfqx_wCuw. Accessed 24 Oct. 2021.

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