Whether we like it or not, we end up submitting a large part of our lives to the yawning abyss of the Internet. Our breakfasts and holidays, the environment of our professions, our opinions and our outfits are all posted online for evaluation on social networks. We dump our lives on the grid and talk about things in peculiar ways online, using brain-poisoned phrases and terminology that might raise more than one eyebrow if heard in the pub. But there are few subjects more complicated to navigate online than our own romantic relationships. From “this one” to “the favorite human” to the delicate art of soft launch, we have invented entire paradigms to talk about our partners on the internet. One trope stands out from the others as particularly inescapable: variations on “best friend”, as in “I’m so happy to marry my…”.
How we choose to describe the people we care about most is undeniably important: there’s as much to a nickname as there is to a name, and how we use them to frame those relationships can tell us a lot about our lives. expectations within them. Personally, I’m not a fan of the “best friend” trope most often used by women in heterosexual relationships. My close friends are hugely important to me, but painting a romantic partner with the same brush as their platonic counterparts seems like an oversight, or at least a way to overload that particular relationship – it’s not fair to expect from a partner that he addresses the sum total of his emotional needs.
Calling someone a best friend or a close friend is meaningful and distinct, a low-key and special category established over time and through mutual experiences. While that can certainly apply in some cases, it shouldn’t just be a superlative to throw at a romantic partner – an already extremely socially validated form of relationship. To take an admittedly harsh view, the best friendship also involves equal partnership and respect – something that historically has not been a feature of heterosexual marriage and relationships.
Maggie Kalenak, a historian of romantic culture who is completing her doctorate at the University of Cambridge, explains that the ideal of “companion marriage” – which she describes as “the idea that affection and romantic love should be valued in marriage” – is nothing new, even though it hasn’t been around for so long. This more social aspect emerged in the 19th century: previously, marriage was perceived rather as based on family allegiance and inheritance. Our idea of an ideal marriage became more complicit in the 20th century, as women gained freedom and cultural capacity: freedom to work, own property, vote, and participate in public life in general.
For Sara, a 24-year-old in the 21st century, calling her partner her best friend – in public or in private – is an acknowledgment of their comfort. “It means they’re someone I can share anything with without fear of judgment,” she says. “My best friend besides my partner has always been my biggest advocate and my partner is the same! So it would be a bit odd if they weren’t also listed as best friends.” Rob, another proponent of the trend, share the same feeling: “For me, [my partner] is someone with whom I can share everything, without hesitation and without fear of being judged”.
However, not everyone favors the romantic “best friend”. “I sometimes talk about my fiancée on the internet,” says James (25). “I’m happy to describe her with all sorts of superlatives, but not ‘my best friend’. I guess she is in some ways, but I think those are separate categories. We’re not just friends – I love her in a very different way than the way I love my friends. It does both her and, I guess, friendship a disservice to pretend otherwise. I’m comfortable with her in a very different way than I am with my friends”.
Maggie Kalenak’s suspicion is that women who post their best friends on their partners are also trying to signal that the object of their affections is basically a good guy. Describing your partner as your best friend lends some implicit consistency and stability to the relationship. It is also understood as a ‘green flag’ for a man to have girlfriends. Culturally, we also hold to the idea of friendship as being calmer and more cohesive than romance; you can switch partners, date, but your friends will still be expected to support you. It also explains why we have countless social scenarios for breakups (“it’s not you, it’s me”; “we broke up”; “we realized we wanted different things”) and few , or even none, for the dissolution of friendships. Love is conceptualized as “friendship on fire”, which is fine if you ignore the implication that your partnership may now be a burning wreck.
On a fundamental level, talking about your romantic endeavors online is inevitably quite cringe-inducing. Although it’s ‘inevitably new’, Alice, 28, overcomes a wince every time she admits her partner is really just her best friend; “He would be my first choice of person to hang out with in most scenarios I can think of.” But cringing might just be the key feeling in the human experience: what we think of as cringing is often just sincerity, which is wrong in our irony-based age. Your partner and your best friend may very well be one – far be it from me to judge how friendless that makes you seem. To joke! We’ve all rolled our eyes at the sugary messages from the overly online couples we know and are therefore subject to; better, however, to be sincere, cringe and free.
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