Before a flood of happily partnered couples rush to the comment section with impassioned cries of “I wake up next to my best friend every day and it’s the greatest thing in the whole world and how dare you say otherwise,” allow me to explain: I get it. I get the sentiment. I am in a long-term relationship myself, and I am certainly closer to him than anyone else in my life. We know and share and do things that I don’t do with anyone else, including family and close friends. That’s the way it should be, it’s what makes our “others” so significant. So I get the immediate connection made here: “Hey, this person knows more about me than anyone and I trust them more than I can anyone else — ergo, they are my best friend.” However, on a cultural level, I’m not sure if the expectation that a truly great relationship will imply that the lovers are also best friends is a good one.
First, we should define a friend. Dictionaries will usually define it as people who “share mutual affection, usually exclusive of sexual or familial relationships.” We can all remark on how close we are to friends and lovers in a way that mimics the intimacy we have with friends, (“my sibling is my best friend, etc”) but “friend” itself usually denotes a platonic, non-familial love in its own category. A best friend, therefore, is a friend with whom you have become closer than all others. It is true that a best friend can become a lover, or even a spouse, but the actual title refers to a platonic relationship. When we call someone our best friend with no other context, usually people assume someone we are not in a relationship with.
And what’s more significant is that “best friend” is often a title that comes with its own profound implications. Calling someone your best friend is not easy, and it’s certainly not a title we give out lightly. It’s a process that, in many ways, reflects the slow-growing intimacy and history that romantic relationships do. For many people, a best friend is someone who has become surrogate family — someone you know so well, and for so long, that you feel you can be fully yourself with them in a way you cannot with most. Speaking personally, my best friend is someone with whom I’ve had a relationship of invariable closeness and trust since I was 11 years old. She is family I have chosen, and our friendship is as precious to me as any relationship could be. “Best friend” is a title that has been developed over years, over shared experiences, over a conscious decision to love another person without any ties romantic or familial. It is its own very special thing.
If someone were to ask me who my best friend was, I would say her without hesitation. I wouldn’t say my boyfriend, even though we’ve been together for some time and I feel closer to him than anyone else. For me, these two categories are inherently separate. The love I have for each of them — just like the love I have for my family — could not be compared, interchanged, or replaced. Each love (familial, platonic, romantic) represents a distinct part of who we are as people. I do different things with each, enjoy different parts of their personalities, and feel fulfilled in different ways. And the problem, to me, comes when we are encouraged — if not forced — to put all of these very important, very distinct loves into one person.
How much of who we are, and the love we have, should be based in one other person? It is true that marriage and children turns a couple into a new family — but does that mean their respective families exist any less, or are needed any less? Of course not. A husband or wife isn’t a replacement brother or sister, they are simply their own, distinct part of the family. And yet, we often seem to say — when we get into a serious relationship with a level of closeness we might not have experienced before — that this person is now our best friend. What of our other, original best friend? The title itself implies that it is a role for one person, and yet it seems to be the default title we are supposed to bestow on a significant other when they reach a certain level of closeness. It’s as though our platonic best friends are merely placeholders, keeping us entertained and moderately fulfilled until a “real” love can come around and teach us something new and better.
But I learn things from my best friend that I don’t learn from my significant other. The way we argue, the thing we laugh at, the secrets we keep — they’re all their own distinct, special things. This doesn’t mean that the closeness I have with my boyfriend has some magical level that it hasn’t reached because I share these things with her, it simply means that a best friend and a partner are different — and so they should be. Because when we start tying every kind of love we have in one person, in one kind of relationship, we start putting pressure on ourselves to “fulfill” our purpose by finding it.
The truth is that a love one has with a platonic best friend is extremely special, and can’t be replaced or replicated by a lover. The truth is that you’re not a failure if you consider these loves to be distinct and important in their own way. And you shouldn’t spend your life looking for your “real best friend,” as though yours isn’t enough. Why would we want to narrow the kinds of love we can have in life down to such a small number? Why invest everything in one person? We each have so many different facets of our personality — so many things we could share with different people — and just because one person considers their significant other their best friend doesn’t mean you have to.