All friendships were NOT created equal

A recent study by MIT, which analysed the friendship bonds between a class of 23 to 38 year old students (87 participants in total) who were taking a business management course together found that we don’t have as many friends as we think… or more so, that over half the people we consider friends, do not consider us as such.  It was revealed that 94% of participants expected their answers to be mirrored or reciprocated, however only 53% of them were.

Participants were asked to rank each other on a level of friendship, from 1 to 5 (1 meaning “I do not know this person” and 5 meaning “One of my best friends.”) Even though the study was small and limited, the findings appear to be consistent with various other similar studies, reaching a larger demographic. The data showed that while you may rate a person a 5, effectively best friend material, the chances that they reciprocate the sentiment as not as high as you’d like to believe.

This was actually not a surprise to me; well, not at first anyway. I am the kind of person who maintains about 5 core close friendships. Any more than that and I become a bit overwhelmed, and any less than that and I start feeling isolated and lonely. I am not sure if most people have “an ideal friend number” or if 5 is universal (although the people from Wonderful Engineering indicate I am onto something with that!) Your number may be higher or lower or may change over time and with circumstance, but mine seems to be pretty universally stable at 5.

Of those 5 friends, all of them call me a best friend. I am their best friend.... (Pause for applause at my apparent awesomeness.... Lol!) I have been happy to fill this role for them. I love being the person who knows their inner secret thoughts, who is there for them and supports them through life. I love celebrating with them and commiserating with them. And if I am honest, I love feeling important to them. For the longest time I stayed away from the term “best friend.” It was exclusionary, and took away from my friendships with other women. Each of them offered me something I enjoyed, valued and even needed in my life. (There is that word again. Need. Hmm. Really must post on this)

Of course, friendships change; they ebb and flow, even end, and sometimes start back up again, sometimes not. I found myself at a point where a few friendships were ending, which is always painful, especially when you only really have 5. You would be surprised the hole this leaves in your heart and mind when it happens. Alas, happen it did. Post about group friendships to follow! Ugh.
Anyway, I digress. In the wake of the changes to my friendship group I made a few new friends. Luckily. And happily. I gave these friends the same time and attention I would give to any friend I valued. One of them found this quite overwhelming and actually our friendship fractured after a relatively short period of time. (Which was still immensely painful even given our short friendship, so I will post about that soon too. So many topics to cover!) The other “new friend” took to me like a duck to water. It wasn’t long before she was using the term “bestie” and I was caught off guard when I found myself reciprocating.  I still didn’t want to take anything away from my other friendships, and I didn’t neglect them, but there was something about this person. She was my soul mate, or one of them anyway, depending on your beliefs.

I came as close to being in love with someone as you can get on a platonic level. If I had participated in that study then, my other friends, I probably would have ranked at a 4, despite "knowing" they would rank me a 5, and I would have ranked bestie at a 5. I had 100% confidence that the new friend was ranking me a 5, too. So I was not surprised to learn that people didn’t always reciprocate friendship levels, as in my own experiences, I believed the people in my life all thought I was a 5, and it didn’t matter if they were only an 4 to me. Equally I believed anybody I ranked a 5 would unequivocally rank me a 5 too. At a time, perhaps this was true.

Alas, as I said earlier; things change, people change, and circumstances change. People move, find partners, have children, get married, get divorced, have health issues, lose weight, gain weight, face death or loss of loved ones, become carers, start work, stop work, change jobs, make new friends or a ton of other changes happen that can influence friendships. It is fair to say with my new found bestie, we did experience some changes, and some distance grew in the cracks of that 5.

I felt the distance and I lost that certainty that she would rate me a 5, if asked. (Thankfully we never were asked!) I was very aware of the power difference that now faced me. I had always acknowledged unequal friendships existed… but only in reflection of myself being the person with the lesser investment. I was very uncomfortable with the idea that I liked someone more than they liked me. And I had to question if I had been unknowingly causing my other friends discomfort by not mentally marking them as a 5, while obviously prioritising this one friend.

I also had to question if my other friends actually knew they would not rank as high on my scale as they might rank me on theirs? Perception is reality, perhaps they were just as certain they would rate a 5 on my scale as I had been certain of my bestie’s reciprocation?  I had thought it was obvious, yet we had NEVER discussed this. Even if I wanted to, how do you have that conversation?

Them: “I love you so much, I am so glad to have you as a best friend.”
Me: “Well, this is awkward, but while I am stoked you feel that way about me, and I don’t want you to think less of me, I need to be clear that I do not think of you as a best friend, and no, there is no valid reason for this?!....”

Yeah, I don’t think so! Did that mean I was effectively cheating on all my friends, with the others? By allowing them to think we were somehow exclusive, simply by not correcting them when they used the term bestie in relation to our friendship? On the one hand, they were allowed to decide how they defined me, but on the other, did my positive although passively vague responses to these comments imply I felt the same way? Did it matter? I didn’t think it did, until it happened to me. Then it mattered more than it probably should.

I don’t know that there is a great deal of difference between a friendship and a romantic relationship and that is a topic I definitely want to explore; because the term Best Friend does imply loyalty and exclusivity. Are friendships just platonic open relationships? Or do you need to pick one and commit to it above all others? While I am sure the answer to that differs for the individual, it was suddenly thrust into my consciousness and I actually wasn’t sure. I don’t think any of us are. Although I was not surprised to learn unequal friendships exist, I was shocked to find that this could happen to me – at least unfavourably!

The issue isn’t just with the term best friends; and the problems of these relationships don’t just lie in the petty jealousies, although of those there are many! They lie in the unspoken expectations that go with the term in general. The expectations we have will be closely linked with our values, which we tend to just assume a best friend shares. Unfortunately this is not always the case. A person who values family time more than you do, for example, may inadvertently let you down by cancelling girls nights out in favour of family nights in. Neither party is wrong. If your bestie didn’t have a family of her own when you met her, you may never have realised this difference in values before. And even if you have discussed it in theory, you never know how people will actually respond in any given situation. In any case we cannot and should not judge what we do not know.

Some of us call ALL of our friends ‘best friends’ - but tempting as that catch all is, I definitely have friends who aren’t my best friend and I don’t think I am theirs either. So that wouldn’t work for me. Is there a limit as to how many BEST friends a person can have? (5!! Haha) Surely the term itself implies that, say, for example; at an ice-cream shop, you would choose one flavour over another, unquestionably, because it was the best one? But it isn’t that simple with friends. (or ice cream, actually!!) Of course we probably do prioritise people unconsciously, however; situations, and how we are feeling emotionally often dictate who we spend time with... (or what flavour ice cream we are in the mood for. Maybe even a new one?!) As women, our feelings, moods and cravings  are unpredictable to say the least!

So this is how the name of this website: Best Friend ForNever, is born. It is simply unrealistic to think someone will rank you at a 5 today, and FOREVER. I am now pretty clear with all my friends that I don’t like the term best friend. That I value all of my friends and put in the effort to keep them close. If they choose to still call me a best friend that is ok with me. If they choose to call all their friends best friends, or a select few, that’s ok too. It is not bad word and the sentiment is kind. We just need to have more open discussions about what levels of exclusivity, intimacy and expectations are implied before we go ahead and assume someone else’s interpretation of the term is the same as our own or lead people to have unrealistic expectations of us as friends that we are unable or unwilling to meet but are afraid to say so.

Ultimately I came to understand that my 5 would probably still rank me at a 5, but it isn’t as important anymore. Whatever we rank each other, it would probably be roughly the same. And I was much happier before I started mentally comparing. Perception is reality and I am happy to perceive that my friends like me as much as I like them. I think my friends are happier too, not knowing that maybe I wouldn’t rank them a 5. Ok, it’s fair to say I probably dropped a ranking or 2 on their scale after they read this post, and that is ok. It’s semantics. If they rank me roughly where I rank them the differences shouldn’t matter. I know I value them and I feel valued by them all.

I do my best to be the best friend I can be to all my friends. And that’s the best I can do…. High 5

❤ Love,

Your Best Friend ForNever

Photo by Jonas Vincent