“Our boyfriends, our others that are significant and our husbands are supposed to be No. 1. Our worlds are backward.”
Kami West had been dating her current boyfriend for a few weeks when she told him that he was outranked by her best friend. West knew her boyfriend had caught snatches of her calls that are daily Kate Tillotson, which she often placed on speaker mode. But she figured that he, like the men she’d dated before, didn’t quite grasp the nature of their friendship. West explained to him, you to know that she’s not going anywhere“ I need. She is my No. 1.” Tillotson was there before him, and, West told him, “she will be there after you. And if you think at any true point that this isn’t going to be my No. 1, you’re wrong.”
If West’s comments sound blunt, it’s because she was determined not to repeat a distressing experience from her mid-20s. Her boyfriend at that time had sensed that he wasn’t her top priority. In what West saw as an wing sign up attempt to keep her away from her friend, he disparaged Tillotson, calling her a slut and a bad influence. After the relationship ended, West, 31, vowed to never let another man strain her friendship. She decided that any future partners that are romantic have to adapt to her friendship with Tillotson, rather than the other way around.
West and Tillotson know what convention dictates. “Our boyfriends, our others that are significant and our husbands are supposed to be No. 1,” West told me. “Our worlds are backward.”
In the past few decades, Americans have broadened their image of what constitutes a legitimate romantic relationship: Courthouses now issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Americans are getting married later in life than ever before, and more and more young adults are opting to share a home rather than a marriage license with a partner. Despite these transformations, what hasn’t shifted much is the expectation that a monogamous relationship that is romantic the planet around which all other relationships should orbit.
By placing a friendship at the center of their lives, people such as West and Tillotson unsettle this norm. Friends of their kind sweep into territory typically reserved for romantic partners: They live in houses they purchased together, raise each other’s children, use credit that is joint, and hold medical and legal powers of attorney for each other. These friendships have many of the trappings of romantic relationships, minus the sex.
Despite these friendships’ intense devotion, there’s no clear category for them. The seemingly obvious one, “best friend,” strikes many of these committed pairs as a diminishment. Adrift in this conceptual gulf, people reach for analogies. Some for you is romantic,” as the Rutgers University professor Brittney Cooper describes some of her friendships in her book Eloquent Rage liken themselves to siblings, others to romantic partners, “in the soul-inspiring way that someone being thoughtful about loving you and showing up.
Some alternate between the two comparisons. From the night Joe Rivera and John Carroll met at a gay bar in Austin, Texas—Rivera was the emcee for a strip competition, and Carroll won the $250 cash prize—they felt like brothers. “Brothers that really want to hang out and be around each other,” Carroll clarified. Yet when Carroll considered their shared domestic life, he told me that “we have a little married-couple thing going on even though we’re not married.” These mixed analogies suggest that neither wedlock nor siblinghood adequately captures what these friendships feel like.
Intimate friendships don’t come with shared scripts that are social lay out what they should look like or how they should progress. These partnerships are custom-designed by their members. Mia Pulido, a student that is 20-year-old Drew University, says that she and her “soul mate,” Sylvia Sochacki, 20, have cobbled together role models in what has felt like a “Frankenstein” process: Through reading about intimate female friendships from centuries ago, the pair discovered a framework for a relationship that doesn’t neatly fit the contemporary labels of romantic or platonic. They found their complementary personalities reflected in the characters Sherlock and Watson, and they embraced the casual affection (and the terms of endearment “Bubble” and “Spoo”) that they came across in a note between a wife and husband; it was tucked into a used book they found at a garage sale. Pulido has found it freeing to build a relationship around the needs and desires of Sochacki and herself, rather than “having to work through this mire of what society has told you this relationship consists of.”