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big friendship [feature]

on platonic and/or romantic relationships


To sign “best friend” in American Sign Language, hold your hand in front of your shoulder, palm facing in. Cross your middle finger over your index and gently close your remaining fingers. Hold it the way you might hope for something half-heartedly. Perhaps a best friend.

~

Throughout grade school and high school, I always had a best friend. The one who wore sticker earrings every day before finally getting her ears pierced. The one I signed a handwritten friendship contract with in fourth grade. The one I spent hours with over Skype. 

And to this day, the one who makes me laugh until I cry and who knows what I’ll dislike on a menu. The one who holds my secrets within the lines of her palms.

There were occasional transitory periods between best friends, fade-outs and fade-ins, but I never felt platonically lonely until college. Throughout my first semester at Brown, I met more people than ever before while also feeling unbearably lonely at times. I was jealous of the newly formed best friend pairs who I saw confidently and exclusively confide in each other. Meanwhile, I dispersed bits and pieces of myself among many, but I didn’t have one college best friend with whom to share my whole self.

~

It seems like a rule when graduates speak of their time in college that they are required to sound so desirous they become delirious. Bestfouryears. Friendsforlife. What do I do with myself if I haven’t experienced this? Will my eyes never roll back into my skull with nostalgia?

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Olivia is the funniest person I know. When we met in sixth grade, we cultivated reputations as studious, promising students. By the time we reached high school, teachers trusted us, and we got away with spending class time with our heads bent toward each other, whispering, talking shit, and guffawing. My mom called us “two mean girls.” At the time, and maybe still now, we couldn’t understand why some adults talk about their college best friends and not their high school ones.

One rainy day at the beginning of our last year of high school, we sat in her car and fantasized about going to UC Berkeley together and being roommates. By continuing our best friendship into college, we would establish ourselves as a best friendship for life.

~

During my sophomore fall of college, a lonely semester endured online, Rhaina Cohen published an article titled, “What if Friendship, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life?” In it, she explores relationships between best friends who prioritize their commitment to each other over romantic or sexual partners. Some of these best friend pairs marry each other, using the societal importance of marriage to symbolize their lifelong platonic love and promise to each other. These pairs create new names for themselves—best soul friends, platonic life partners, Big Friendship. 

In the article, one woman describes her experience of losing her best friend to suicide. Goosebumps spotted my arms as I read her heartbreak. Those around her, witnessing her grief, did not react to the death of her best friend the way they would have to a family member or a romantic partner—who traditionally, through marriage, transitions into a family member. Without the legal recognition that spouses and family have, Big Friendships—and their loss—are not seen to be as important. 

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When I was seven years old, I thought “girlfriend” and “boyfriend” were bad (but also mysterious) words. My parents would tease me by asking if I had a “boyfriend” or whisper-hypothesize about my brother’s “girlfriend,” all while smirking in that confident, older-than-you way. I would blush and feel defensive, knowing there was something zesty in their question, but unsure what. One day, I sat in front of a blank Word document on my family’s desktop, the vertical line blinking the seconds. I was intent on uncovering the mystery of these words. With my little heart racing, I quickly typed out “girlfriend,” clacking the keyboard with my two index fingers. Then, I right-clicked the word and in the drop-down menu, I moved my cursor over to the Synonyms tab. No Suggestions. I was stumped. Was a girlfriend such a bad thing that there was no other word for it?

Looking back, I’m amused that I thought this was a curse word. But at the same time, in romantic relationships, I cringe at the idea of naming myself a girlfriend with a boyfriend. Somehow, having a boyfriend as a woman makes me feel lesser. Less independent, less of a feminist. Something about fitting a stereotype and wanting a man. Perhaps seven-year-old me was right to fear this word after all.

~

One of my English professors published an article called “The Other Dancer as Self” in which he calls Toni Morrison’s characters Sula and Nel, girlfriends. He explains the idea of “selfhood as the dynamic relationship between one woman and her other, her girlfriend.” It is the “identification with, and identification as” one’s girlfriend. The physical and emotional boundary delineating where the girls’ selves begin and end is blurred, uncertain. They are, and they are each other. To describe their closeness, he omits the space between the words girl and friends.

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Becca and I met during my gap year between high school and college and her gap year between college and graduate school. We spent 10 months volunteering on an AmeriCorps NCCC team together, sharing a room with two twin beds wherever we went. She was my last new best friend before college and the best person I know. 

She supports local art and donates monthly to organizations she believes in. She tips an absurd amount—I once saw her leave a three-dollar tip on a six-dollar coffee (Boston). She won’t enter a restaurant an hour or less before closing because she knows the workers are cleaning up to leave. She adopted the most frustratingly energetic and needy dog from an animal shelter. She studied social work in college and grad school and now works as a homeless liaison in Cincinnati public schools. She sits beside you and listens to you speak, empathy and care evident in her responses. She makes me feel a little bit more hopeful when I get lost in the world’s cruelties. She is my role model.

~

The recorded origin of the word girlfriend is from 1859. It meant “a woman’s female friend in youth.” By 1922, girlfriend was taken over by straight men and came to refer to “a man’s sweetheart.” And so, throughout time, a girl’s childhood friend becomes a man’s girlfriend. Is she always someone’s?

~

During sophomore fall, I surprised myself by entering my longest romantic relationship yet. I initially refused monogamy despite weeks of intimacy and dates. I had recently experienced the end of a relationship, and the finality of losing a partnership and, admittedly, its friendship hurt twice over. I wanted a best friend, not a boyfriend. A best friend wouldn’t one day exit my life with the brutal wall of a breakup. But slowly, the two converged.

~

I once heard that people who fall in love lose two of their closest friends. Thinking about two people I no longer talk to, this is true of my life, too. Perhaps this is why couples often call their partners their best friends and expect twice as much.

If I fall out of love, will I regain those friendships?

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This romantic relationship has taught me how comforting and warm it can feel to be with the same person for a long time. The way we know what the other will find hilarious or devastating. The way our palms hold each others’ bodies with gentleness and familiarity. The security of knowing we have each other. I think I want all my best friendships to be Big Friendships and to feel this way, too.

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I’ve been with my partner for over a year now, and I think he has become my college best friend, despite my resistance to calling a partner a friend. Society’s separation between platonic and romantic relationships makes it feel impossible, or at least embarrassing, to have a best friend boyfriend, one person occupying two distinctly important roles. I feel like I’m missing something, someone, by having one man be my partner and best friend. In response, I seek out and prioritize other relationships, trying to find a balance, but that has sometimes hurt my partnership instead.

~

A writer I met told me she’s exploring an untraditional living situation. She and her partner live in a house with another couple they’re friends with as well as that couple’s child. I’ve been wondering if I could have something beautiful like this, multiple relationships under one roof. I hope I can, but I’m not sure.

Between college semesters, when I visited Becca in her Cincinnati apartment decorated with plants, watercolors, and origami cranes, she told me, “I’ve been thinking a lot about what it’ll be like when we live together.”

“I like that you say ‘when’ and not ‘if.’”

“I’ll follow you wherever you go.”

~

My best friendship with Olivia, our laughter and mockeries, has lasted over half of our lives now. Our relationship will likely last longer, I hope, than any romantic relationship. It’s unsatisfying that my loneliness from not having a singular college best friend seems to have been resolved by having a college boyfriend. A best friend boyfriend is only your best friend as long as he is your boyfriend, too.

But I also wish I didn’t get so caught up in labeling platonic relationships versus romantic ones. I don’t want to compare the love and care I’ve received from (platonic) relationships with the comfort and stability of my (romantic) relationship. I don’t want to push them against each other. I want to value all the moments of connection and laughter and care that make a relationship feel intimate and big, even if only for a moment.

~

At the end of emails or letters in French, people sometimes write the word “Amitiés” as a sign-off. So, these messages are literally signed off with “Friendships.” But in context, the meaning is closer to the English sign-off “Best” or “Best wishes.” 

Are friendships the best wishes come true? I think so. Some add that the best romantic relationships are also best friendships. I still struggle to think of a boyfriend as a best friend, but perhaps I can think of every intimate moment, every Big Relationship, as a best wish come true.





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