The Problem With 'Best Friends Forever'

Growing up without siblings as the daughter of a single mother, the bubble of two always felt like the most natural thing in the world to me. I was in my forties when it occurred to me that I had been recreating the intense intimacy I shared with my mother again and again with girlfriends beginning in elementary school and continuing on through college.

My college friend was "the love of my life" in terms of BFFs. We shared a friendship others yearned for. At my recent 30th class reunion another mutual friend said, "You two were it. To me, that's what friendship looked like." For two decades through dating and marriages, cross-country moves, growing our careers, a parent's death and having kids, that closeness was as fierce as the day we met. But the one thing our friendship could not weather was her divorce. Suddenly, our paths were too different. Unspoken was the sense that I did not understand what she was going through as she maneuvered child custody, separation of property, her ex-husband's remarriage and Rightly or not, I began to keep details of my happy marriage from her, not wanting to rub it in. Imagining she might think, "Yeah, sure, you're happy now, but just wait."

My friend and I "broke up" -- not in a flash of anger, but in a gradual waning I experienced like a long-term illness, until what died was a shadow of the living thing once between us. She stopped returning my calls. I finally got the hint and stopped calling.

My husband and mother grew tired of my need to hash over every detail, analyzing her behavior for clues about why she dropped me. Don't people change and move on? Hadn't we just outgrown each other? Had she really been that great a friend to me anyway? They tried to make me feel better. Why couldn't I let it go?

The reason for the gut punch I felt finally came to me: "Oh, this is unrequited love. This is a broken heart."

If young girls form their ideas of Mr. Right based on romantic comedies like Say Anything, Pretty Woman and When Harry Met Sally, don't we also dream of friendships like those in Thelma and Louise, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Bridesmaids? I know I expected to have the sisterly closeness of Marianne and Elinor Dashwood just as much as to have a soul mate like Mr. Darcy. I naively thought it would be easier to find my Elinor than my Darcy.

When I fit the loss of my best friend into the more familiar framework of romantic love, I began to heal. I recognized my need to pore over our breakup just as she and I had examined failed relationships with men. I recognized my hurt masked by sarcastic eye-rolling and snide comments whenever her name came up. And eventually, I recognized the gratitude I felt for having had the relationship at all. My daughter, a teenager by then, reminded me of my friend when we first met in college -- so cool and beautiful, so wry and badass. I appreciated my friend all over again.

Yet, now that the pain of losing her is behind me, I'm not looking for another BFF. In fact, I think I'm better off without one. Don't get me wrong; I have several female friends. We enrich each other's lives emotionally, spiritually and intellectually. But my need for the intensity of the bubble of two is behind me. Part of my growing up has been transitioning from that bubble with my mother to the dynamics of a family of four that includes my husband, son and daughter. My heart now stretches beyond two to make room for more. I can share my loved ones with each other in ways I never learned as a child. Perhaps if I hadn't defined my best friend as "best," clinging to the privileged place I thought I should have in her life, we might still be friends.

Today, rather than a to-the-death Thelma and Louise sister, the friendships I want are closer to the final scene in About a Boy in which the boy says, "I used to think two was enough. But I don't think couples are the wave of the future. You need backup." Today, instead of one friend who is my everything, I have writer friends, yoga friends, mom friends. Today, I can be more generous with my love and spread it around. Today, the bubble of two is too small to contain me.

This is a companion piece to Jarrell's essay in the anthology, My Other Ex: Women's True Stories of Losing and Leaving Friends.