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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 daily calls with Kate Tillotson, which she often placed on speaker mode. She is my No. In what West saw as an 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 romantic partners would have to adapt to her friendship with Tillotson, rather than the other way around. West and Tillotson know what convention dictates. In the past few decades, Americans have broadened their image of what constitutes a legitimate romantic relationship: Courthouses now issue marriage s 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 with a partner.
Read: The Friendship Files: Friendly conversations with friends about friendship. By placing a friendship at the center of their lives, people such as West and Tillotson unsettle this norm. These friendships have many of the trappings of romantic relationships, minus the sex.
Adrift in this conceptual gulf, people reach for analogies. Some alternate between the two comparisons. These partnerships are custom-deed by their members. Many of those who place a friendship at the center of their life find that their most ificant relationship is incomprehensible to others. But these friendships can be models for how we as a society might expand our conceptions of intimacy and care. For most of the next four years, they were stationed thousands of miles apart, including when Tillotson eventually deployed to Iraq.
From afar, they coached each other through injuries, work woes, and relationship problems. Their friendship really blossomed once they both ended up in the Tulsa area for college, and they started to spend nearly every day together. By then, Tillotson was waiting for her divorce paperwork to be notarized, and West was a single mother caring for her 3-year-old, Kody.
Read: How friendships change in adulthood. When West got a job at a bar, Tillotson watched Kody during the day so her friend could sleep. Tillotson frequently ed West at preschool pickup. It would take too long for West and Tillotson to explain the complexity and depth of their friendship to every curious questioner. They use terms such as best soul friendplatonic life partnermy personride or diequeerplatonic partnerBig Friendship. Others, such as West and Tillotson, search for language that can make their relationship lucid to outsiders.
West and Tillotson realized that people understand boot camp to be an intense setting, the kind of environment that could breed an equally intense friendship. Before Hebner suspected that she might be pregnant, Sonderman made her buy a pregnancy test, steered her into the bathroom, and sat in Ultimately seeking a best friend adjacent stall as Hebner took it. Four years later, the roles reversed: Hebner had the same accurate premonition about Sonderman. Read: What you lose when you gain a spouse. But once Hebner divorced her husband and Ultimately seeking a best friend dating, her romantic partners got jealous, especially the women she dated.
After those years in Alaska, the pair spent a few years several time zones apart, as Sonderman and her then-husband moved around for his work. Eventually Sonderman moved back to Alaska, but Hebner had relocated to Indiana. Sonderman said that Hebner reached out less and less as she grappled with a cascade of difficulties: She was in an abusive romantic relationship and she lost her job because she had no one else to take care of her daughter while she worked.
She was depressed. In OctoberHebner died by suicide. The women had envisioned one day living near each other in Alaska, where the two of them had met, and where Hebner longed to return. Now Sonderman had none of that to look forward to. Sonderman found it hard to translate her grief to others. Because Hebner was bisexual, Sonderman said, some people believed that they were secretly lovers, and that Sonderman was closeted.
Because friendship is outside the realm of legal protection, the law perpetuates the norm that friendships are less valuable than romantic relationships. This norm, in turn, undermines any argument that committed friendships deserve legal recognition. People might have understood that, for Sonderman, losing Hebner was tantamount to losing a spouse. Sonderman described one such friend who was an especially attentive listener.
For two hours, he and Sonderman sat in a car, engine off, in a grocery-store parking lot. She talked with him about Hebner, cried about Hebner. Intimate friendships have not always generated confusion and judgment. And you could not, for she is first. Two well-known women who put each other, rather than a husband, first were the social reformer Jane Addams and the philanthropist Mary Rozet Smith.
After meeting in at the pioneering settlement house that Addams co-founded, the women spent the next 40 years entwined, trudging through moments they spent apart. There is reason in the habit of married folks keeping together. When the two women journeyed together, Addams wired ahead to request a double bed.
No scandal erupted in the newspaper. Same-sex intimacy like theirs was condoned. The love of them was my tender point, and shook my decision more than all things else. One question these friendships raise for people today is: Did they have sex? Writings from this time, even those about romantic relationships, typically lack descriptions of sexual encounters.
Perhaps some people used romantic friendship as a cover for an erotic bond. A blend of social and economic conditions made these committed same-sex friendships acceptable. Beliefs about sexual behavior also played a role. While sexual acts between people of the same gender were condemned, passion and affection between people of the same gender were Ultimately seeking a best friend. The author E. Men could feel unthreatened by these friendships because few women were in the financial position to eschew the economic support of a husband in favor of a female companion.
By the late s, exceptions to this rule started to sprout. Colleges and professions were opening up to middle-class and, almost exclusively, white women, enabling these graduates to support themselves, no husband required. These committed relationships allowed women to pursue careers and evade heterosexual marriage.
Sexologists declared same-sex desire—not merely same-sex sexual acts—perverse. The Northwestern University psychologist Eli Finkel identifies three distinct eras in American marriages. Throughout this evolution, Americans started relying more and more on their spouses for social and emotional support, with friendships coned to a secondary role. Carroll, 52, thinks this is an impossible ask; experts share his concern.
These expectations also stifle our imagination for how other people Ultimately seeking a best friend fill essential roles such as cohabitant, caregiver, or confidant. Carroll and Rivera, 59, escaped this confined thinking. They built their lives around their friendship—at times deliberately, at times improvising in the face of unanticipated events.
InCarroll discovered that the house next door to his was up for sale. Rivera just needed to. After buying the house, Rivera did in fact log fewer miles in traffic, but that was a trivial benefit compared with the life-altering ones that came later. The next day, Rivera drove Carroll to a recovery center, and cried as he filled out the paperwork. Their friendship did change after Carroll finished the program, but not as Rivera had feared.
Once Carroll finished his own stint in a sober home, Rivera suggested that Carroll move in with him. By the time Carroll unloaded his bags, Rivera was already months into his own sobriety, a commitment he made even though he never had an alcohol problem. Must they bring each other regular mutual sexual satisfaction? Are they faithful Ultimately seeking a best friend each other? Brake, the philosopher, takes issue not just with cultural norms that elevate romantic relationships above platonic ones, but also with the special status that governments confer on romantic relationships.
She proposes that states limit the rights of marriage to only the benefits that support caregiving, such as special immigration eligibility and hospital visitation rights. Though he and Rivera never considered dating, Carroll had already learned to be at ease with nonsexual intimate relationships with men.
In many ways, Americans are already redefining what loving and living can look like. Just in the past several months, experts and public intellectuals from disparate ideological persuasions have encouraged heterosexual couples to look to the queer and immigrant communities for healthy models of marriage and family. The coronavirus pandemic, by underscoring human vulnerability and interdependence, has inspired people to imagine networks of care beyond the nuclear family.
Polyamory and asexuality, both of which push back against the notion that a monogamous sexual relationship is the key to a fulfilling adult life, are rapidly gaining visibility. Other changes in American households may be opening up space for alternative forms of committed relationships. Fewer and fewer Americans can count on having a spouse as a lifelong co-star. In a survey, one-fifth of Americans reported always or often feeling lonely.
Being alone does not portend loneliness—nor does being partnered necessarily prevent loneliness—but these data suggest that plenty of people would appreciate a confidant and a regular dose of physical affection, needs only amplified by the pandemic. A platonic partnership may not feel right for everyone, and as is true with dating, even those who want a mate might not be able to find a suitable one. But these relationships have spillover benefits for those in close proximity to them. Tillotson told me that she thinks all her relationships have been brightened by her closeness with West.
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What If Friendship, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life?