When I was thirteen years old I asked my uncle who his best friend was.
'It's your aunty.' He replied. 'Obviously!'
Obviously? Was that really obvious? To me it was the least obvious thing I had ever heard. How on earth could your wife be your best friend? He was just being ridiculous.
At the time of this nonsensical conversation I was best friends with a girl called Alice. She was ever so nice and we did everything together, but I certainly never planned to marry her. Why would I do that? She was my best friend, not my boyfriend. At that age I saw those two roles as being distinctly different, and if I am completely honest, I still do.
Nowadays it seems to be totally normal for your partner to also be your best friend. I was at the wedding of a very dear male friend of mine only last year, when at the end of his speech he proclaimed that his new wife was his best friend. I shot my glare over to the best man who, having just been denounced, I felt very sorry for. He didn't react at all. Maybe he didn't care? Personally I found the whole thing to be a quite awkward.
It got me worried, should I be aiming for this in my own relationship? I just don't know if my brain works that way. My best friend and I do things like walk around the house wearing nothing but tights and bras (men don't 'get' tights). We don't wait until the other one goes out before we bleach our facial hair because it makes us laugh when we are not allowed to smile with the cream on (men don't laugh at our facial hair), and we also talk openly about our past sexual conquests whilst laughing about it and high-fiving each other (men don't laugh and high five you when you talk about your sexual past). So taking all of this into account, how on earth could my partner EVER be my best friend? The role he plays in my life is entirely different. And that is what I love about it.
I recently came to visit my best friend, Louise, in Melbourne where she now lives, and it has really got me thinking about the role that she plays in my life. During our twenties we lived together with my Siamese cat, Lilu. We were really poor, so the three of us - that is me, Louise and Lilu - all shared a bed in the curtained off section of a living room in a flat that seven other people also shared. It sounds awful, but actually it was really fun. Louise had a job but I didn't, so she went to work every day while Lilu and I stayed at home writing, and trying to get my career off the ground. In many ways I guess we were like a couple - Louise and I, not me and the cat - but without sex or any sexual tension of course, which in times of stress and financial strain is a huge relief not to have to consider in a relationship.
Louise knows everything about me - literally everything. I talk to her with no inhibition, no guards at all. I never ever worry about upsetting her, or that she might judge me for something stupid I might say, because she knows me so well that if I say the wrong thing she will know what I really meant, and never give me a hard time for my mistakes. Which is great for someone like me because I tend to say too much and not think about it first. More often than not regretting it later.
In my relationship however, things are different. Arguments are more likely because more is at stake, so without even realizing that I do it I watch what I say, and plan things more because I want to make sure I get it right. It sounds like it's restrictive when I put it like that but it isn't, is just instinctive to work harder at my relationship and handle it well. I do that because I want it to keep going and for it to get better all the time. The one thing I don't want it to become is safe and obvious, which is exactly what my friendship with Louise is - safe and obvious. That is what is so great about it.
The thing with friendships is that they level out. They stay still for years and exist as a given. That is the nice thing about them, they just 'are'. You come and go from them, spending time together but then spending time apart and it just remains as is. A consistent friendship that you can rely on and presume will always be there. But with a lover the relationship has to keep moving forward, has to keep developing. You have to keep inspiring each other and trying for each other. You must be considerate and careful and make sure that you don't hurt each other by not taking into account their feelings in the things that you do. With a friendship the decisions you make for your life are your own to make. With a relationship there must always be compromise.
When I recently spoke to Simone Bienne, a TV relationship and sex counsellor, she explained to me how differently a mans mind works to a woman's. Here is one example that she gave, "If you watch a rom-com with your partner, and you cry at the end, his testosterone as a man, will decrease. Which means you won't be making love on your lovely Saturday night in. This is nature's way of letting us know that a man should always be allowed to miss the kind of roles best reserved for a best friend."
I do think she is right, and even though I don't think I should have to hide anything I am encouraged to do in the name of femininity (e.g shaving my armpits or having uncomfortable wind) I choose to, because I feel I get a better response from my man if I do. Of course if he ever saw me doing any of the above he wouldn't care a jot, but I still like not to do it while he is around. Louise on the other hand, well she gets the lot and who cares? She doesn't have to fancy me.
There are loads of reasons why I don't want my boyfriend to be my best friend, and I am sure I could keep listing minor acts of vanity that I think he shouldn't see, but the real reason is quite simple - I already have one. It matters to me that my friendship with her is separate from everything else and valued as much as my any relationship I might have. It wouldn't feel right to give the title to someone else.
My friendship with Louise doesn't need work. We just are what we are. Two girls who understand each other, who never need to explain, never need to worry and never need to question ourselves when we are together. We spend loads of time apart and that is just fine, we never make demands on each other and we always laugh at each others jokes because we genuinely find each other quite funny. There is no pressure. None. When I am with Lou I am exactly who I want to be in the world - I am 100% myself. She is calm, funny, clever and really naughty. When I'm with her I feel like I can act like a five year old and then a really strong grown up all within one conversation and it doesn't confuse her at all. When I talk to Louise about things that are messing my head up I am articulate and honest and if I am seeking advice or help she gives me exactly what I need. Not because she tells me what I need to hear, but because she genuinely thinks in a way that makes my life better. And that is why my friendship with her is so important to me.
Then there is my boyfriend. The person who makes me feel so special. Who supports me through everything I do, makes me laugh, keeps me pushing myself forward, keeps inspiring me. But this one isn't a given, this one takes work. I keep aiming to be the best version of myself that I can be so that he keeps falling in love with me. I never stop working at it, and that never gets exhausting in the way that it would if I had to do the same thing with my best friend. I love striving for his love and the way that he keeps pushing for mine. The work will never be done, there will always be ways for us to make our relationship stronger. But for Louise and I the work is done. We just are, and we know that will never change.
I recently asked my uncle who his best friend was and again, to see if all these years later I could catch him off guard. But he was as adamant as he had been nearly twenty years ago - "It's your Aunty" - he said resiliently.
Defiant as I am to separate these two roles in my own life, after 53 years of marriage my uncle obviously knows what he is talking about. Maybe I am getting this all wrong. But when it comes to relationships, when do we ever really know if we are getting it right?
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