Greta Gerwig and Mickey Sumner in Frances Ha.
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Grown women don’t need to have a “best friend”

If “best friendship” is on the rise, what does it mean?

Emily Gould wrote her new novel, Friendship, in part because she wanted to “address … a lack of depictions of best friendship” in books and movies, she told me over the phone. If this is something we were previously missing, a lot has changed – even since Gould started working on Friendship in 2010. Portrayals of intense, co-dependent, adult female best-friend pairs are everywhere: Greta Gerwig and Mickey Sumner in Frances Ha, Leslie and Ann on “Parks and Recreation”, Jenny Slate and Gaby Hoffmann in Obvious Child, Maggie and Emma on “Playing House”. We don’t have to infer that these women consider each other besties; they make it explicit, taking pride in their exclusivity, declaring each other “best friends”. Are anxious millennials, lacking the security that might come from steady jobs or relationships, clinging to the childhood ideal of the “best friend” as they postpone adulthood? 

Gould’s novel, Friendship, follows a best-friend pair through a turbulent period of break-ups and bad jobs in their late twenties and early thirties. After Amy and Bev meet as editorial assistants at a New York publishing house, Bev “start[s] making friendship advances toward Amy”, going out of her way to engage her in conversation. One day, she invites her to a concert after work; they start to take their lunch breaks together. One thing leads to another, and while eating sushi and drinking wine on a roof in Brooklyn, they make it official. Bev confesses that she considers Amy her “best friend”. Amy says the feeling is mutual. Over the next several years, their friendship becomes the primary bond in both of their lives. They rely on each other to fill basically all of their emotional needs. Gould explicitly intended her novel to celebrate best-friendship. “The relationship dynamic is exactly like what I have with my best friend,” she said. Even the “defining the relationship” conversation is drawn from her real life. 

But the real-life-ness of the fictional “best friend” boom might not be all that widespread. Most of the adults I know – as well as most of the people I spoke to for this article – have a handful of people they’d call their “best friend”; the intensity of the friendships fluctuates along with everyone’s changing geographic and romantic circumstances. “I have a high-school bestie, a college bestie, a bestie from my DC days, etc. that all make up my ‘bestie tier’,” said journalist Ann Friedman, who has referred to various people as “my best friend” in writing. “I think of it as concentric circles – a small number of people are my core support/friend group, the centre of my social/emotional world, and I call them all ‘my best friend’ or besties,” she told me over email. In a 2004 study published in American Sociological Review, Americans reported having an average of two close confidants. In a 2011 survey of 2,000 adults, participants said they’d discussed “important matters” with an average of two people in the previous six month-period.

Data on “best-friendship” is hard to come by; it’s only recently that friendship has become a serious topic of inquiry for sociologists, who traditionally focused more on romantic and familial ties. And, as Jan Yager, a sociologist who has been studying friendship since the 1970s, points out, many friendship studies fail to distinguish among degrees of friendship, conflating casual acquaintances and best friends in a single category. Yager’s own research can offer some statistics: for her 1980 doctoral dissertation, “Friendship Patterns Among Young Urban Single Women”, Yager interviewed 27 single women who lived alone on a single block of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Nearly all of them – 24 – had at least one “close friend”, but just five could name one “best friend”. Eleven admitted they had no “best friends”; the same number said they had more than one. Yager has continued collecting data on friendship through a Survey Monkey quiz, and says that over the last ten years, even as she’s seen an increase in the number of “casual” friends people claim, the number of “best” and “close” friends has remained constant: On average, people say they have around one or two “best” and four to six “close” friends.

Regardless of whether a numerical uptick in the declaration of “best friendship” is taking place, anxieties about best-friendship are regularly being airedIn an xoJane confessional titled “It Happened to Me: I Don’t Have a Best Friend”, a grown woman agonizes over what she sees as a failure: even though she’s lucky enough to have “a litany” of friends both “good” and “great,” she feels inadequate for not having one to call “best”. In a 2011 book, MWF Seeking BFF, Rachel Bertsche documents what sounds like an exhausting quest to fill her need for a new best friend after following her boyfriend to Chicago. Some best friends, according to the Daily Mailget couples counselling when they hit a rough patch. 

The pressure to single out one friend as the best falls disproportionately on women. “The BFF (or “[same sex] Best Friend Forever”) seems to be a peculiarly female thing,” Oxford evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar wrote in an email. Men in heterosexual relationships, on the other hand, are comfortable naming their wife or girlfriend as their “best friend”. “Men, once they couple off, prefer their best friend to be their romantic partner,” said Yager. “I would say, ‘I have a best friend – well, other than my husband, who can’t technically be my best friend because he’s my husband.’ A man would say, ‘My best friend is my wife,’ and wouldn’t feel the need to qualify it.”

Sociologists confirm that women often do maintain more intense friendships than men. “Women have ‘face-to-face’ relationships where they confide in each other,” said Rebecca Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and author of several books on friendship, including Placing Friendship in Context. “Men tend to have more ‘side-by-side’ relationships where they do activities together. They tend not to talk about things that reveal their weaknesses. That makes men less worthy candidates for close friendship. Men tend to open up and confide more to women than to other men.”

If “best friendship” – even just rhetorically – is on the rise, what does it mean? Psychologists across the board agree that relying on one person to fulfil all your emotional needs is unhealthy; social scientists are even growing sceptical that the ideal of a lifelong monogamous romantic relationship is realistic or healthy. Labelling one friend as “the best” seems to combine the pressure and commitment of a monogamous relationship with few of the benefits. Because these relationships are very intense (in a non-sexual way), they are also very fragile,” said Dunbar. “When they bust, they bust forever and acrimoniously.” 

Having one all-consuming best friend may be more appropriate for children, who don’t have the distraction of adult responsibilities and haven’t had many opportunities to meet a range of people, than for adults. But psychologists have begun to re-examine the assumption that it’s A-OK even for kids to have a best friend, and other childcare professionals seem to agree. “I don’t think it’s particularly healthy for a child to rely on one friend,” Timber Lake Camp director Jay Jacobs told the New York Times in 2010. “If something goes awry, it can be devastating. It also limits a child’s ability to explore other options in the world.” Last year, the headmaster of a London prep school told parents to discourage their children from seeking “best friends”. He explained his stance to the Daily Telegraph: “It is much easier if they share friendships and have a wide range of good friends rather than obsessing too much about who their best friend is.”

The potential dangers of “best friendship” don’t seem to bother Emily Gould. She told me over the phone she’d never considered whether it’s psychologically healthy for an adult woman to have one friend she identifies as closer than all the others. “That relationship dynamic was something I wanted to be really careful to depict accurately,” she said. She’s glad there are more portrayals of best-friendship lately, but she hasn’t seen Frances Ha: Her best friend told her she wouldn’t like it.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.