My friends used to tease me about the men I dated in college, who they referred to as "women in disguise." Typically sensitive and emotionally open, I confided my innermost thoughts to them. They followed me on every expedition: breakfast with the girls, baking at a friend’s house, gathering with roommates in pajamas to re-watch old Disney musicals.
The obsessive attachment that typically characterizes early-onset love transformed these men from boyfriends into best friends and then some; they annexed the territory usually reserved by a dozen other people. I thought I’d beaten the system by finding a man I was attracted to that I could also relate to on a BFF level.
All these relationships, within a matter of months or years, died out. Some with a bang, some with a whimper.
The inevitable moment when things fell apart looked something like this: we are camped out at home, sitting on the couch, in what looks like a cozy, intimate moment. There is a lull in the conversation. Instead of basking in contented silence, panic bubbles to the surface. I look at this man who I spend all my time with, who I identify with completely, who I keep no secrets from.
With terror I realize I cannot tell where he begins and where I end: we have melted into each other. I had let one person permeate every boundary of my life including my own sense of self. He and I had become the same person, and I was effectively alone on this couch. What now? I thought. Where do we go from here? This existential crisis launched the beginning of the end.
After watching so many thrilling relationships dissolve in front of me, I began to worry. Do I have a personality disorder? What makes me incapable of a sustained, monogamous partnership?
Some wouldn’t see this melding together (two becoming one) as a threat. In fact, the media Americans lap up thrives off the ideal of all-consuming love. Falling in love is a lucrative plotline; seeing a couple unite gives us the resolution we crave. We are addicted to romance.
From the steady stream of engagements, anniversaries and wedding posts that crop up on my Facebook feed, I see that many of my millennial comrades are living their own rom-com storylines. In these posts, the phrase "my best friend" is inescapable. People all over the social media universe are so glad they married (or are going to marry, or are in the process of marrying) their best friend in the world.
In the past, I would’ve been all about it; today, however, I find the concept cloying and unhealthy. I can’t help but see the partner-as-best-friend model as the first step of romantic love’s total encroachment of your identity. I’ve heard people wax poetic about their spouse as their friend, their lover, their partner-in-crime, their mentor, their other half… at what point does your husband or wife stop bleeding into every aspect of your life? Where do we draw the line?
Here is my proposal: consider letting your boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife, be just that. They play a role in your life, and it’s a big one, but it isn’t the be-all-end-all of your existence.
It’s better for you
Life goes on after you fall in love. The story less celebrated and with far fewer retellings in the media is that of “standing” in love, or loving someone past romance and intoxication. When I contemplate marriage, it is this second side of love — post happily-ever-after — that I picture. And what do you expect will happen to your life if you let one person become your only story line, the centerpiece of your existence?
One side effect I suffered from my all-consuming relationships was profound loneliness. It turns out one person cannot be your entire community. I missed my girlfriends, my siblings, my parents, my roommates – I missed myself even, having forgotten the pleasure of doing things alone. You’ll feel far more fulfilled if you invest energy into all your relationships, and in yourself.
Another reaction to these unhealthy relationships was hardcore jealousy. I used to feel a stab of envy when I saw the glee with which an ex-boyfriend looked forward to meeting up with people who weren’t me, thinking, I wish I still made you that happy.
If I’d opened up about it to someone at the time, they likely would’ve had the wits about them to explain that it had nothing to do with any failing on my part. Instead, I should be glad that my partner has a healthy social network, and should go off and nurture my own, as opposed to being bitter that he doesn’t want to dote on me all day long. Take care of yourself and your own needs, and jealousy is far less likely to pounce on you.
Even the minor characters in our life can serve an important purpose. Consider a phenomenon known to researchers as the Benjamin Effect: talking to someone we are not very close to forces us to honor social expectations and put on a cheerful face and – in the process – actually cheers us up. Ever had a moment where your partner was moaning and miserable over some predicament in life, only to perk up like a dog at the sight of a leash when someone else spoke to him? It’s nothing to do with you, and doesn’t mean you aren’t needed and wanted. Everyone needs interactions with acquaintances as much as they need close-knit confidants.
It’s better for your partner
As insinuated above, a single man or woman is not equipped to shoulder the entire force of your love. You’re bound for disappointment if you expect one person to wear every hat in your life.
Imagine the pressure your partner must feel — all that love, that energy, that need placed on them, resting 100% of your weight on a single outlet — it would feel like playing God to someone’s small universe. That kind of power and intensity might have felt exciting at the beginning, but eventually it will wear you and your partner to the bone.
Give your partner a break. He or she wants to love you and share space with you, but no one wants to feel entirely responsible for their significant other’s well-being and happiness.
Your community misses you
As naïve as it sounds, it didn’t occur to me for a long time that my friends needed me just as much as I needed them. When I disappeared down the relationship rabbit hole, I was touched to learn how much I’d been missed upon emerging out of the ground.
You are a person with a lot of love, time and companionship to share. Unfortunately I sometimes find myself taking my friends for granted. It’s a constant battle to carve out enough time for everyone.
A real life balance means that you call your parents when you’re feeling lost and you call your siblings to complain about your parents trying to tell you what to do. You send that funny YouTube video to your roommate. You have a friend you can call on when you want to make poor choices out on the town, and a friend who will gladly crawl under blankets and watch Netflix with you.
Your bond to each person you love is entirely unique: every single person you know carries a different part of you, and you carry a special part of them. As you grow older, you realize these bonds are far more essential to your life satisfaction than your career, your house, or the city you live in, and must be cherished and nurtured.
It’s better for your relationship
Aside from growing lonely in a relationship where one man emotionally occupied speed dial numbers 1, 2 and 3, I also lost my sense of lust. Loss of sexual attraction is a common obstacle for monogamous partnerships, caused by what scientists call “habituation,” the fancy way of saying, “getting used to something.” Nothing hastens this phenomenon faster than inviting someone to be in your physical and psychological space all the time.
To avoid such emotional and sexual doldrums, make your time together deliberate instead of perfunctory and constant. Don’t go on autopilot and follow each other everywhere: maintain communities outside of each other; breathing room is healthy.
Aside from the amount of time you share, there is the matter of identifying with your partner. For example, my boyfriend Nick and I share similar values but our personalities and perspective are a world apart. Instead of immediately understanding each other, we must often translate ourselves for each other.
At first I worried that this was a bad sign, because I assumed the potential for becoming long-term partners was contingent on being able to easily anticipate each others’ thoughts. As our relationship continued to blossom, however, I realized our differences might make our relationship stronger.
Make no mistake: our relationship takes work, and patience. We’ve unwittingly hit each other in soft spots. Dating someone so different has forced me to examine myself more closely, and sometimes that means seeing aspects of myself I’d rather sweep under the rug: for example, I can be dependent. Sometimes I’m rash. But whatever frustrations I’ve laid in his path, he’s still attracted to the opposite side of the coin: I’m very loving. I’m spontaneous and fun.
Similarly, when we disagree, he can rub me the wrong way as being cold or too pragmatic. Deep down, though, his reserved nature and intellect make him wildly sexy to me and keep me engaged. And I’m not alone: some research indicates that couples who are dissimilar in particular ways report greater sexual satisfaction.
In other words: some of us don’t really want to have sex with our friends. That’s why they are our friends and not our lovers. Personally, I look to my friends for a different kind of fulfillment.
In the end
I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t be emotionally close to your significant other, or that you shouldn’t be able to relate to them and enjoy their company in a way that is separate from your sexual interests; rather, I'm suggesting that it’s normal and healthy to want all sorts of people in your community. These days I share a lot with my boyfriend, but I reserve my darkest jokes for my brother and my mushy movie marathons for my best girlfriends.
At the end of the day, everyone wants something different out of a life partner (assuming they want one at all). There are so many ways to create a happy, meaningful union, tailored to you and your partner’s needs. When I glance at those glowing relationship-status updates, I can’t really see the interior of that person’s relationship, and should reserve judgment. Perhaps there is a sector of the population that requires their partner to be their best friend, to feel secure and happy.
Yet I’m not one of those people, and learning this was a long and bumpy road. I looked to the world at large to tell me what my relationship should look like. It turns out that for me, a boyfriend is not simply a best friend I’m sexually attracted to, but a different animal entirely.
Ultimately, you must heed your own intuition. But whether you call your partner your best friend or not, remember to nourish all the other people in your life – including yourself.
Image credit: Flickr/CC