For Better And For Worse: A Woman’s Best friend

Last week I came across an article in The Atlantic about friendships and how it changes throughout the years.

Since friendship is an important part of life, and by chance I am now in the US visiting an old friend, I decided that it was a good time to share my essay about friendship, and especially about the institution of the “best friend”:

My mom’s best friend called me on my mother’s birthday to let me know that she hasn’t forgotten that date. The friend is 97 year old and my mother has been dead for almost 20 years. Still I wasn’t surprised, isn’t that what best friends are all about, to be there for you forever and ever?

My mother met her friend in Tel Aviv in the 1930s when they were young and single. They have remained best friends throughout their lives and for us, the children, she has always been family. If, like my mother, we are lucky to have a best friend in our adult life, she is often closer than a sibling, we trust her completely, and depend on her for affirmation, strength, and advice. We may even share with her secrets that we won’t tell our partner.

Perhaps because of its significance, “a best friend” is quite a complicated institution, and the attitude to its mere existence is ambivalent. For example, husbands, who are aware of the power and influence of their wife’s best friend, sometime see her as a threat which could undermine their marriage. Moreover, they could feel that she sees through them, knows all their faults, and her compassion and loyalty always lie with the wife.

Ambivalence is also an intrinsic part of the relationship itself; one of its manifestations is expectations. Such strong emotional bond between best friends entails high expectations, and when those are not met it could lead to deep disappointment.

Thus it may not be surprising that in spite of its depth and intensity, friendship among women has traditionally been disparaged. The Victorian writer Charlotte Yonge observed in 1878: “It has been said that women are less capable of real friendship than men, and certainly historical friendships, such as existed between even Greeks of the highest type, do not appear to have been known amongst women; but this is because woman in her degraded state, uneducated and only her husband’s foremost slave, was incapable of more than gossip and rivalry with her fellow-women. Friendship could not begin till woman was refined and elevated… It requires that the woman should have a mind, and should go beyond the actual interest of dress, marriage and family, in order to have substance enough to make a real friendship with man or woman.”

The great feminist Vera Brittain also noted that historically friendship between women has been underestimated by society: “From the days of Homer the friendships of men have enjoyed glory and acclamation, but the friendships of women, in spite of Ruth and Naomi, have usually been not merely unsung, but mocked, belittled and falsely interpreted” (1942).

Similar conclusions were found in sociological studies, conducted around the middle of the twentieth century. Graham Allan suggested in 1989 that normally relationships between women tend to be viewed through the prism of negative conventional images and stereotypes, with their actuality usually masked in a fashion that favors the interests of more powerful groupings.

Lately social scientists have finally acknowledged close friendship among women as the most individualized and unregulated social relation. I am sure that all of us who have a best friend will agree with that conclusion.

When my best friend of over 30 years ceased to be my friend, I mourned that loss and the void it has left in my life. But while death is final, there is always hope that with your best friend things will somehow, miraculously be restored to the way they were, didn’t we say that a best friend is forever?

About the Author
I have a PhD in English literature from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and I usually write about issues concerning women, literature, culture and society. I lived in the US for 15 years (between 1979-1994). I am widow and in March 2016 started a support/growth Facebook group for widows: "Widows Move On." In October 2017 I started a Facebook group for Older and Experienced Feminists. I am also an active member of Women Wage Peace and believe that women can succeed where men have failed.