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 aired. In 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 Mail, get 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