‘Best Friends’ Are a Surprisingly Recent Phenomenon
We weren’t always so taken with dynamic duos. But in recent decades, we’ve come to expect that people should have one closest companion.
The concept of best-friendship is responsible for the worst birthday party of my life. I was 11 and hosting a sleepover. We were all having fun, eating pizza and comparing our Beanie Babies—until someone referred to someone else as her best friend. Suddenly, we were at war. Another girl had thought she held that title. Other supposed best-friendships were revealed to be asymmetrical. The phrase second best friend entered the mix. We attempted, miserably, to define all of the hierarchies in our relationships; who meant what to whom? Someone ran out of the bedroom, wailing.
Even after that disastrous party, though, it would take me years to stop subscribing to best-friendship. Having one has often felt like a necessity. Pop culture is full of inseparable pairs: Cher and Dionne of Clueless in their matching plaid, SpongeBob and Patrick jellyfishing in tandem, Daria and Jane from MTV’s animated Daria hating everyone but each other. And who doesn’t find that kind of bond—just the two of you against the world—alluring? Who doesn’t want to be the best of something, the most important in another person’s eyes?
But the truth is that many people don’t have a single favorite friend. In one survey, Americans named an average of three closest companions, and that number was even higher in other countries. Studies show that people with networks of friends can turn to different people in order to get different perspectives, or just because one person might be busy. And yet, the trope of best-friendship persists. It encourages us to quantify and compare relationships that are each uniquely meaningful and challenging. Even in adulthood, it hurts people’s feelings.
So why are we so taken with dynamic duos? Perhaps it’s because they mirror a long-held romantic ideal in American culture: monogamous partnership, in which love is considered more real for its lack of competition. But many people’s ideas about romantic relationships are changing. Can our friendship paradigms change with them?
According to Barbara Caine, a historian at the University of Sydney and the editor of Friendship: A History, the notion of a “best friend” is a relatively recent invention. Before the mid-to-late 20th century, Caine told me, people didn’t usually use that term. They referred to sentimental friends and beloved friends—but not best friends.
For much of history, women—especially those in the middle class, who were expected to be homemakers—didn’t tend to have a large number of social connections. “In order to have friends, you need independence. You need to be able to leave the family and the home. You need to be a legally and socially independent person. And women weren’t,” Caine said. Friendship was considered a largely male phenomenon. But after the Industrial Revolution, urbanization led more men and women to start going to college, working in new industries, joining social clubs—essentially, living a life outside the home and family. The average person’s social circle expanded.
It stands to reason that as larger social groups became more common, people began to elevate one “best” connection. And in the mid-to-late 1900s, feminist movements championed female friendships, leading many women to assign particular importance to them. Best friend caught on in child psychology, fiction, music, and commercials; by 1971, it was a common enough phrase to appear in the title How to Be Your Own Best Friend, a hit guide to self-reliance, and by the ’90s, it was ubiquitous in books for kids. And much of the language around it seemed to mimic that of monogamy—the model for love, deeply rooted in heteronormative institutions, that many people knew most intimately. “Nobody closer,” went the jingle for a 1970s McDonald’s ad about a friend duo. “You’re two of a kind.” Best-friendship was defined by its exclusivity.
Today, the term is still widely used. But most of us don’t naturally fall into friend pairs. Seeking them out, then, can lead to hurt—if we choose one friend over another, if the best-friend designation isn’t reciprocated, or if we don’t have a closest friend but feel that we should. For those who do have one, prioritizing them could mean turning away from other, potentially fruitful friendships. And relying on one person for all of your emotional needs creates a lot of pressure: No one is available to be a great friend 100 percent of the time.
The rare times I say “best friend,” I know I don’t really mean it. What I mean to convey is intimacy, that this person is a big part of my life. And yet, even though most of us have multiple close friends, the term both reflects and influences how we approach these relationships. “There is a very human impulse to want to hoard love and affection even on a platonic level—a kind of scarcity mentality,” Aminatou Sow, a co-author of Big Friendship, told me. Afraid of losing our closeness, we might call someone a “best friend” as a kind of protective incantation, a declaration of our commitment that comforts us but doesn’t leave much room for complexity or change. When a friendship inevitably evolves and best doesn’t fit anymore—at least not in the same way—that feels less like growth and more like loss.
In recent years, friendship is arguably enjoying greater appreciation than ever. People understand more and more that their emotional needs cannot all be met by a romantic partner. But as we champion the power of friendship, many of us still view it with a very monogamous mindset: that one of our relationships should be the primary one, and that its status should be unwavering over time. The best friend becomes spouse-lite; just as sexual betrayal is a threat to a spouse, emotional betrayal—not matching the intensity of the bond, becoming closer with another person, naturally growing apart—is a threat to a best friend.
But perhaps we ought to reconsider the merits of such an arrangement. After all, many people are letting go of monogamy even in romantic relationships. And most of us already have full and varied friend networks—even if we don’t typically celebrate them in the same way we do “best friends.”
Ultimately, it’s not our friendships that need to change; it’s how we talk about them. We can and should have people who are close to us, whom we can confide in, whom we trust with our most tender selves. It just doesn’t have to be a competition. No one has to be second best.
When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.