Your Beloved Need Not Be Your Bestie Too
Lately, I have come to notice a certain shared impulse by coupled-up friends, acquaintances and post-Bachelor influencers in the way they talk about their beloved. It shows up all year, but really crops up around Valentine’s Day. You have no doubt witnessed it in countless Instagram captions, and maybe you have even experienced it in real life. It goes something like this:
“Happy Valentine’s Day to my partner and BEST FRIEND of 3.5 years.”
“My BEST FRIEND asked me to marry them and I said YES.”
“Can’t wait to marry my BEST FRIEND in 932 days!!”
The trope has become so ubiquitous that it wouldn’t be out of place on bumper stickers, T-shirts and novelty mugs. And perhaps you even shared the same confusion as I have, wondering, since when is everyone dating their “best friend?”
On one hand, it is sweet. It sounds like a pretty nice package deal — companionship, pure affection, unconditional loving support, plus you get sex on the regular. Behind it, however, lies a humble-braggy undertone, like a slick salesman shilling a sort of nouveau codependency with a fresh PR spin — but I am not buying. The goal of partnership is not to conquer monogamy wholesale, ruling all romantic as well as platonic territories under one flag. It is lonely at the top, made lonelier when you liquidate those two significant roles into one person. Balance is important, as are boundaries, which is where this whole thing seems the most precarious — it is a relationship ideal that seems to valorize this exact lack of boundaries.
Once, after I found myself in the fresh stages of a breakup about a year ago, I would plummet nightly into a YouTube hole of Esther Perel videos at the behest of a friend who swore that she was the smartest relationship counselor streaming for free. Perel’s distinctly authoritative Belgian accent and dry sense of humor were a balm for my wounded heart and woozy brain, especially when delivering one particularly wry observation about how modern relationships have become a pressure cooker — namely, that we expect our partners to be everything to us all the time, and it is bumming us the hell out in the long run.
In her 2018 SXSW talk, Perel succinctly explains how our social and cultural evolutions have shifted us from villages to urban landscapes, making us freer but also more alone. “For the first time, we are turning to our romantic partners to help us transcend that existential aloneness. We still want all the same things that traditional marriage was about (family life, companionship, economic support and social status), but now (we) also want (our partners) to be a best friend, a trusted confidant and a passionate lover to boot, and all for the long haul, and the long haul keeps getting longer. What we have created in a romantic ambition is one person to give us what once an entire village used to provide.”
Our most corn-fed romantic conventions would have us believe that “True Love” makes this all possible, but in reality, those ideals have made us more lonely, and loneliness is a leading public health crisis, comparable in harm to cigarettes and obesity. This profound epidemic has even prompted the U.K. to create a cabinet-level position, Minister of Loneliness, which sounds like something out of the Harry Potter universe, but is very real.
The crux of the matter is this: No one person can give you everything you are ever going to need or want, nor can you do that for someone else — not that we are likely to stop trying. But don’t get me wrong, I love when people find fulfillment and true authentic partnership in others — it fills my heart with pure, unbridled hope, giving worth to all other romantic pratfalls as if they were part of some divine plan all along. And I have absolutely felt so enamored with partners of relationships past that when I would try to describe the depths of my love, words failed me, or else felt like bad poetry. In the simplest terms, those exes were, for a time, my favorite person. But best friend? No, that seat was always taken.
I wonder, what it is about wife, husband, partner or spouse that suddenly doesn’t cut the mustard anymore? I understand that “best friend” denotes a shared joy in each other’s company and personhood, as well as a certain dynamic equity that the gendered titles historically lack, but those titles at least hold a specific distinguished hierarchy of importance in your life.
Some of you may be thinking: When you meet The One, then you will see how they are your best friend too. Honestly, yes, that would be swell. But this whole “I am marrying my best friend” thing has become so ubiquitous, such standard fare for the Marriage Industrial Complex Mad Libs, that there is just no way it is all true.
Look, I am on your side: the side of love. I want that kind of partnership too — the kind that is fun and funny, supportive, egalitarian, stingy with judgment and generous with patience, one that allows us to both confidently grow together while simultaneously holding space for each other in times of insecurity. I am getting better at choosing partners with those kinds of qualities, which is all we can hope for — that the people who we reserve a place for in our hearts will deserve it. If it all works out, maybe one of them will want to marry me and I will want to marry them back. But make no mistake, when I get up to that altar, I will make it crystal clear to every witness in attendance that I did not come here to make friends.