Like many people, when I was growing up I was never without a best friend and never questioned the concept of having one. As far as I knew, it was just something every child did. Before I started in full-time education, my best friend was a girl who lived near me. When she went to a different school, a girl in my new class took on the role. At secondary school, I had a bigger group of friends than before but there was still always one who stood out as ‘best’ in some way, even though I changed my mind on this a couple of times. At school, a best friend is usually the person in your class whose house you constantly visit, whose parents you know as well as your own, and is the person who is always the first you share exciting news with.
What defines a ‘best’ friend? Is there a single definition? Before the age of 16, it would seem that pretty much everyone has the same definition of a best friend, but as we age the connotations of the term become more varied with a handful of universal themes. The reasons you define someone as your best friend could be intellectual, geographic, or all about the emotional connection. They could be the person you have the longest deepest one-on-one conversations with, someone you see every day, someone who lives in a different part of the country but who you still chat to weekly, or the person you hardly see any more but who you know you can always rely on when things go wrong.
Best friends are often the person you think to call first, the one who has always been there for you, and that person who you can spend hours with talking about both everything and nothing. They will cheer you up when you’re down and always know what you mean, even when you can’t seem to explain yourself properly. They forgive you when you mess up and love you despite your flaws, which they see more clearly than other friends but will never let anyone criticise. You sometimes get angry with them, but not for long. Best friends appreciate each others’ similarities and differences, finding connections and balance. They are your most fervent cheerleader and also your harshest critic.
Ultimately, the definition of a best friend is very personal to each and every one of us, and will depend on our circumstances and history. As we grow older, we also realise that many of our friends are worthy of the title ‘best’ rather than the single one of our childhood years. You might have a BFF who is your longest serving friend, a ‘bestie’ who lives nearby, and another at work who you spend more time with than your partner. A best friend for every aspect of your life, who you will be able to seek advice from no matter what particular type of problem has landed in your lap.
Despite the concept of a best friend feeling like a significant relationship, another factor that many of us come to realise is that this doesn’t actually have to be reciprocal. Childhood BFFs declare their undying platonic love for one another and unite in mutual adoration, much like a couple in a monogamous romantic relationship do. The unwritten rule was that you can’t be best friends with someone else if you are my best friend. As a kid, hearing the person you thought was your best friend declare someone else as their BFF was pretty much like being dumped.
However, as adults, the vast majority of us let go of that sense of ownership and realise that ‘friends’ is the mutual part whereas the modifiers are all down to personal preference. You can be my oldest friend, my big night out pal, my work spouse, my beer tasting bestie, or my favourite evening class companion, but I’m perfectly happy to be referred to simply as your friend. Some folk really are friends with everyone they’re connected to on Facebook, while others would only use the word friend to describe those closest to them. The same goes for best friendship.
I really don’t mind if you’re my best friend but you wouldn’t describe me as yours. I’m not fussed if I have one best friend and you have five, because that’s not how things work now that I’m no longer ten years old. We all interact with people differently, form bonds and personal connections differently, have varying amounts of spare time and preferences on who we spend it with. As long as you appreciate that what you mean to me and what I mean to you are different yet still significant, I think we’ll get along just fine.