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“Best Friend” Isn’t a Person, It’s a Category

There’s room for more than one.

06.01.17
Graphic by Maria Jia Ling Pitt. 
Friendship Month
Friendship Month

My first best friend was a scrawny blond girl named Stephanie. In kindergarten, we’d scramble into adjacent bathroom stalls and swap outfits, head-to-toe. We always preferred what the other was wearing and we liked to confuse our teacher, Mrs. Edens. We were attached at the hip, and spent hours after school doing homework and playing house. If she got in trouble, so did I, and vice versa. We were on the same sports teams, performed together in talent shows, logged countless sleepovers, truths and dares. Her mom kept the kind of jelly I liked (no seeds) in the pantry. My mom was always finding her jean shorts in my laundry.

In fourth grade, we found a third. The three of us would meet at the park between our houses on our matching Razor scooters, discuss our crushes in sleeping bags after lights out, chat with strangers over AOL Instant Messenger like little creeps, wonder what it’d be like to French kiss. We combined our names into one for easy group identification. Later, we bought our first thongs together, took our first swigs of whisky in the garage, snuck out through the back fence to hang out at Ricky’s, got our first boyfriends, had our first kisses.

We were as cliché as best friends come. They were my secret-keepers, my weekend plans, my safety net. More than all of that, they were a given. I defined them as my BFFs with a kind of definitive, youthful certainty. We were sure we’d go to college together, build lives next door to each other, eventually die, knobby knuckles interlocked.

When we drifted apart in high school, I tried so hard to hold on. I remember the moment we called it quits with strange clarity. It was July 4, 2005, I was sitting on the curb outside my house in the beating sun and I texted one of them, hands shaking: “I keep expecting too much and getting hurt. So maybe we should just be friends instead of best friends, to save us both the pain.” It was a very teenaged thing to say. She agreed; I was distraught. The title downgrade felt like a breakup.

I felt so untethered without our little tribe. From that point on, best friend felt like a void I had to fill. After growing up with go-tos, I didn’t know how else to be. Good friends never felt good enough until I could call them best. Until we knew each other’s deepest secrets, had a long list of inside jokes and preferred each other to everyone else in the world. I spent the rest of high school and college operating that way. My world consistently orbiting a dominating few. I found comfort in social tunnel vision.

As I got older, I started to feel silly using the term “best friend” to describe someone — it felt so childish, like having a favorite color — but I struggled to find another way to explain what I meant. No, this wasn’t just someone I sat next to in Spanish, this was a person whose bed I cried in after a breakup, whose apartment I could drive to with my eyes closed, whose freckles I could draw by memory. But as my world expanded, and not all my friendships had so much history, a pecking order felt less appropriate. Adult relationships are more nuanced than that. Sometimes they’re short but deep, or weird but perfect, or long and low-humming. I felt attached to the term anyway.

Then one day last year, Amelia said something in passing that I never forgot: “Best friend is a tier, not a person.” She said she’d heard Mindy Kaling’s character say it on The Mindy Project and, random as that was, it had stuck with her. It stuck with me, too. When I heard it, I felt my confused relationship with the term click into place. It’s probably a personal sickness, my love of applying structure and scaffolding to feelings, but maybe I’ll always be that way. Best friend is not a superlative nor does it mean anything specific: years known, time spent, calls made. It’s a level of intimacy, a shared space and language known only to those inside of it. Something about that makes friendship seem much more limitless. It can be re-imagined, in those terms, to infinity.

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  • Hazel

    I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the place of a best friend as an adult, too! I also prided myself on always having a best friend, up until the age of 21 when my best of best friends and i had a horrible falling out. She even said she felt like we were breaking up. I was in therapy at the time, and my therapist said, “I guess you’ve realized the best friend model doesn’t work anymore,” as if this was a universal truth. The falling out was centered around her new boyfriend (I won’t go into details, but she treated me as her housemate very unfairly) and the ways she was now valuing him over me.
    It made me sad to think that just because people are in romantic relationships, they can’t still be somebody’s best friend. Im in a serious relationship now and have been especially vigilant about letting my friendships slide. I think it’s going alright, and even though i spend most of my time with my partner who meets my emotional needs, i know nothing can replace the individuality of all the friendships i have!

    • ihaveacooch

      wow i had a very similar thing happen to me around the same age. it really did feel like a terrible breakup. but people also need to realize that just because someone has been labelled as your “best friend” does NOT mean you need to keep them in your life if they behave in a certain way towards you.

  • ValiantlyVarnished

    Yeah I don’t have a best friend. I have friends that I am closer to than others, but I grew up with my Mom telling me that some people are merely “associates” and not everyone can or should be afforded the title of “Friend” or especially Best Friend. As a result I always had just a small handful of people that I hung out with. I had “work buddies” and “acquaintances”, but I could count my friends on one hand. As for having a best friend. I feel like as an adult it doesn’t hold as much weight as some think it should. If I had to think of the one person I can turn to and tell anything and trust implicitly and count on no matter what – that’s my Mom. Plain and simple. She IS my best friend.

  • BarbieBush

    omg when I read the title I thought of Mindy’s voice, “Best friend isn’t a person, Danny, it’s a tier.”

  • Agree 100%!
    As I’ve moved around for school and work, and come in and out of different periods over the course of my life, there’s been groups of women who I’ve been lucky enough to move into the “best friend” tier for a particular time in my life. While distance may separate us after a few years, I’ve always felt they were still my best friends, because they made it into that tier in the first place. I’m lucky enough to have little bunches of them!

    • JennyWren

      I’ve moved around a lot too. If I insisted on keeping the one and only best friend from high school, I would have not had anyone to hang with for the last 10 years. I think I’m lucky to have been close to a number of amazing women, who have all taught me valuable life lessons. And I know that even though we are all doing our separate things now, I could call any of them up and they would do their best for me like I would for them.

  • Anne Dyer

    OMG – the pride I had when I purchased my first two hearts that fit together best friend necklace.

    • Haley Nahman

      YES

  • Lib

    I love this piece! I think that line is going to stick with me too. My best friend memories are flooding back, bittersweet because we also has a big falling out. It’s a lot of pressure to grow up with someone you expect will always be close to you. I think the tier idea takes the pressure off.

  • pennyjenny

    I really like this. I have pretty bad anxiety, and it seems to center around relationships of all kinds (but especially friendships). I moved back to L.A. a year ago and got back in touch with some of my best friends (I’d lived in NYC for a few years after college and we kind of lost touch since none of us are “phone people”). It’s been kind of hard for me to realize they have OTHER friends now, some of whom they’re just as close to. I’ve been trying really hard to let go of the idea of “best friends” and just be grateful to have these deep friendships I care about. And stop trying to decide if my former BEST best friend still considers me her best friend, you know? Because it really doesn’t matter.

  • Charlotte D

    MR is always reading my mind! Lately I’ve been grappling with friendships because I basically assumed that as an adult, I would have a group of friends a la Sex and the City. I soon realized that viewing your best friends as soulmates puts an incredible amount of pressure on the whole thing and viewing it as tier is actually so refreshing!

    • Lizlemon

      This! In my mind, I’ve down graded some friends from soulmates to just friends and the relationships have been so much easier.

    • Lil

      Srsly I used to think weekly or even daily hang out with the same handful of women were supposed to be the “thing” until I realized how dependent and clingy I was being ):

      • Charlotte

        It’s interesting that you bring up being clingy because I’ve been thinking about that too. At what point do you become a clingy friend? Those who I would consider to be at the top of my best friend tier all live far away and I send them lots of snapchats and messages but I worry that I am becoming *that* annoying friend.

  • Diana McNeill

    I have like 10 best friends. But really only 3 or 4 of them are best-best friends. And if I’m honest, only 2 of them are really BEST-best-best friends. But I love the idea of Best Friends as a tier not a person.

    • Haley Nahman

      Lolll

  • Ramey Dallimonti

    Ok, but like…who is at the TOP of your best friend tier? <3

    • Haley Nahman

      OBVIOUSLY YOU!!!!

  • Lil

    I struggled with shedding this ingrained BFF mentality a few years ago because no one person can ever be your everything. Every tv show, SATC or Girls, depicts people with the same core group. But TV ain’t real life and it’s funny how wrapped up we can get in trying to live out fantasies.

    • Hell, even the girls in Girls end up out growing each other…

      • kellymcd

        As heartbreaking as it was to watch, it was so real. Everyone moves at different speed and directions as you grow older and forcing yourself to stay friends with someone just because they’re considered your “best friend” can be detrimental to your own growth or direction

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