When I was a little girl, I loved my best friend. Fiercely.
We were inseparable. We spent whole days at school together, and then spent afternoons together at one of our houses. We designed elaborate fantasy worlds, dressed up in all manner of costumes and choreographed intricate dance routines to our favourite 80’s hits. We dreaded the moment that one of our mothers would arrive to end our playdates, so we devised various schemes to delay our separation. One of our tricks was to tightly grasp each other’s hands, and insist that we were ‘stuck together.’ We would firmly intertwine our eight-year-old fingers, as our mothers literally pried us apart.
As a teenager, I had a different best friend. Though we never pretended to be physically stuck together, our connection was no less intense. We existed in our own little world – replete with secret code words and behavioural norms that only we understood. We shared everything with one another. If a feeling had not been described, a thought not conveyed, or an experience not shared, it may as well never have happened. We only had to look and lock eyes for a moment to know what the other was thinking. There was nothing sexual about our relationship; we were soul mates.
But as we moved towards our twenties, it became apparent that the intimacy of our teenage friendship would have to adapt to give space for a new potential soul mate: a spouse.
As modern women, we’ve been raised to believe that we should seek out a spouse who is a lover, a best-friend, a soul mate, and someone with whom we share interests, values and beliefs. Our spouse is not just someone with whom we have sex and possibly children. They are meant to be someone we want to socialize with and learn from – to spend time with both inside and outside the bedroom.
This has not always been the case. Marriage is an ancient institution, and while the concept of romance is by no means new, romance and marriage rarely went together. Throughout history — and in many societies today – marriage was an arrangement of convenience. Partners were often chosen by powerbrokers within the family, and these choices were based on economic or social convenience. Even if a man or woman chose their partner themselves, love was not at the forefront of the decision-making process. Social appropriateness was always primary.
And so female friendships – relationships between women – remained the primary place of intimacy for most women. Rebecca Traister, author of “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation,” maintains that female friendship has been the bedrock of women’s lives for as long as there have been women.’’ Historically, women would continue to turn to their female friends for emotional intimacy and companionship, even after a husband had entered the picture. There was little overlap between the two types of relationships, and so they could coexist nicely.
But now that marriage is supposed to offer more than just an economic or socially convenient arrangement, what is to happen to our female friendships?
Most women seek in their spouse an intimacy similar to the sort we shared with best friends at school. Our relationship with our spouses are to be sites of connection, enjoyment, confirmation, humour, intellectual stimulation, inspiration and sensuality. That is a lot of pressure to place on one relationship. And what of the intimacy we had with our best friends when we were younger? Were they just slightly immature practice-runs?
Before I got married, my mother made a passing comment that only made sense to me later. She said, ‘the key to a successful marriage, is having a good best friend.’ A few years later I got married. In my wedding speech, I addressed my husband with the following words: “You are my companion, my lover, my teacher, my entertainer, my political and philosophical sparring partner, my counsellor and my partner in crime.” And to date, he has lived up to the job description.
But he is not my ‘everything.’ He is certainly the primary relationship in my life. But that relationship is not enough.
My friendships with others have nourished me emotionally, intellectually, even spiritually alongside my marriage. These relationships sustain each other. I turn to my friends – in particular, my girlfriends – all the time. If things get hard in marriage, something that inevitably happens (if you say it doesn’t, you’re lying!), my friends act as my barometers, my confidants, my cheer-leaders, or my moral compass. And my husband supports my friendships. He ensures I make the time to cultivate them and that I put in the energy to sustain them. I’m sure he is relieved that I don’t rely on him to process every single event in my life. And I know that he is glad I have others to turn to if I need some perspective on a conflict with which we may be dealing.
There is something qualitatively different about my friendships with my girlfriends. There is a type of trust and intimacy I could never attain with a lover. In fact, perhaps that is precisely why these friendships are so powerful: the power-dynamic that invariably exists between sexual partners is absent. Traiser writes: “For many women, friends are our primary partners through life; they are the ones who move us into new homes, out of bad relationships, through births and illnesses. Even for women who do marry, this is true at the beginning of our adult lives, and at the end — after divorce or the death of a spouse.”
My friendships hold me as I move through life.
After over a decade living away, I recently returned to my place of birth in Australia. This has given me the opportunity to reconnect with my best-friends from childhood. We no longer pretend that we are stuck together or use our secret code words to communicate. But I feel more secure with them back by my side. And funnily, my marriage feels more complete as well.