I didn’t really plan to write this one, but the basic point I want to make has been rolling around in my brain for a few days, so I thought I’d kick the hornet’s nest and see what roils out. Usually, it’s more than I bargain for.
I used to think, pursuant to some things I had learned in school and elsewhere, that the optimal solution in a relationship was to be the best friend of whomever it is you choose to love. As a result of recent events, both in my life and in others’, I now no longer believe this to be true.
The common wisdom seems to be (to my eye) for a couple to be each other’s best friend, to be the source of all support and validation, the keepers of secrets, the discussers of weighty matters and problems, the accepters of all that makes us…us. This seems to be reasonably sound in theory, but I find that in practice this falls short, and it can, in fact, be somewhat damaging.
In a good relationship, things are usually fine, and this sort of issue generally comes up but rarely or inconsequentially. However, if a relationship is less-idyllic or trending sour–but still has value to both parties–with whom does one confide, if one does not know how to approach some issues with one’s partner? Parents or siblings are sometimes “outs”, or perhaps a clergy member (if you’re into that sort of thing). Some friends can be good friends enough that you feel comfortable talking to them about deeply-personal, potentially-embarrassing problems. But for people who make few friends, and who rarely have casual friendships, this is not a likely situation: private people don’t like sharing such details very much, especially if any of the details may show us in a bad light or create a sense of weakness or humiliation.
This is where a best friend comes in really, really handy. Some wag long ago said that a best friend is someone who knows all about you but loves you anyway. This is partly why I now think that this a critical resource to have outside your relationship. Your best friend–if you are lucky enough to have one–isn’t going to judge you and find you wanting for discussing your embarrassing (or whatever) problems with him/her; a true friend will be what you need him/her to be…listener, advisor, sounding-board, reality-checker, second-opinionator, tell-me-if-I’m-overreacting-er, calming-down-er-er, and so on. Even sometimes just a friendly voice on the other end of the phone call when you’re feeling too frazzled to deal with something just now, and you know you’re not in a stable frame of mind. I think this is a critical component of keeping peace, communicating well, and solving problems effectively in a relationship.
My reasoning is that sometimes, your confrontations with your significant other (SO) can become too emotionally-charged or too heated, and rationality can fly out the window. Stepping back and talking to a friend before saying something you can’t take back can often cool you down enough to make better sense of whatever problem it was that set you off, even if it’s just from the time it takes to step back and call your friend. Most of the time, your friend will support you and validate your position/feelings; many times, he or she will ask a question about the story being told that makes you stop and think about something a little harder than you had. Sometimes, your friend will even be strong enough to say, “I think you’re in the wrong here, bud,” which is a resource beyond price. But you have to be strong enough to accept such criticism. Sometimes, it’s not a heated exchange with your SO: sometimes, you’re just confused as to what to do, or you don’t understand what your SO is saying very well, and you know you’ll both just get frustrated trying to get to the same terms of reference to be able to resolve things without resorting to vases and dinnerware. A best friend can help you navigate those waters better without things blowing up in your face. They still might, but the odds are much lower, and you can go back into that conversation with your mind clear and your emotions more levelled. And as a side benefit, your friendship also grows stronger as a result.
And a best friend can also serve as just a general pressure valve, helping you keep emotionally grounded by talking about things that are just minor things of no real consequence, some of which you know your romantic partner has no interest in hearing about, despite protestations to the contrary. You don’t need to worry about that sort of conflict–or boredom–with your best friend, because you and your best friend are generally on the same page…connected on a very close level, but differently from the one shared by you and your SO. And talking about what’s bothering you can help you decide that you just have to bring some of these peeves to the attention of your SO before they become real problems, or it may turn out that hashing it out with your friend can make you realise something was really No Big Deal after all and set your mind at ease.
Nor is the role of best friend restricted to bad things. A best friend is also the receptacle for all your wondrous news and items of interest that might also bore a lower-quality friend to tears…or fly them into paroxysms of annoyance. These can be crazy fun to discuss, too, depending on the subject matter and level of shared interest…or opportunities for the gentle mockery and teasing that exists between true friends. And one of the reasons for this need is that people are, by their natures, fairly gregarious/social: they must communicate with others; they must have feedback and validation. But the audience capable of true interest in these very personal topics–and worthy of the trust implicit in hearing them–is very, very small. There is no better source for that–and interest come by honestly–than from one’s best friend.
The other side of this is that each person’s SO must acknowledge that there is a best friend that may be hearing very personal details of their relationship, which can create feelings of awkwardness. But I think it’s also important for the SO to buy into this, because it relieves the SO of having to feign interest for some things, and it off-loads some of the drama/stress elsewhere, so that the couple can focus on the issues that are actually important in their relationship, and not “sweat the small stuff”, as the saying goes. This can be a “dangerous” situation, though, if the SO doesn’t buy into it, because the knowledge of someone else knowing what goes on behind closed doors can turn from a chip to a crack to a fissure to a fracture to a rift to a chasm. And we don’t really want that. So, that could be a dangerous shoal to be navigated: only the people involved can judge the correct course.
On the whole, though, I think having a best friend to talk to is an integral part of any successful, romantic relationship. And I think it’s something you don’t automatically think of or realise, until you go through a dying relationship with no one to talk to about humiliating and embarrassing details, because your SO was your best friend and had been for more than a decade. And then you start talking about them with someone who becomes your best friend, and you realise how much more sense it makes to be able to step outside the relationship and get some sober second thought. Or a few wisecracks. Whichever.