The concept of having a singular ‘best friend’ is pervasive in Western culture, but is having a BFF imperative for connection and fulfillment?
Wanting to be liked and accepted is intrinsic to human nature; our ancestors relied on the safety of belonging to a group in order to survive the harsh elements and dangerous predators.
While modern technology has made it much easier to survive independently of others, this primal instinct to find our tribe can help explain why social rejection activates a similar neurological response to physical pain.
The concept of having a singular ‘best friend’ is pervasive in our Western culture, including thousands of films and television shows centred on the adventures of two inseparable pals who always stick together.
I’ve always been a bit of a social drifter, and while I have had lasting, close friendships, I have never had a single, lifelong bestie.
I spoke to Amy Rogers*, a social worker and somatic therapist with 20 years’ experience in the community sector, about the ‘myth of the BFF’, and whether you really need a best friend to be happy and socially fulfilled.
The perks of having a bestie
Having a reliable best friend can be incredibly validating, reassuring and fulfilling, bolstering one’s sense of safety and security.
Having close and healthy platonic friendships can also cultivate a sense of comfort from which to build and nurture other relationships.
Some women even choose to settle down with a best friend as their ‘life partner’ rather than pursuing marriage or romantic love.
The mutual support that many women find in platonic relationships can be just as satisfying and, in some cases, even more intimate than with a romantic partner.
“Social connection is important to humans, and in particular the quality of ‘intimacy’ has at times had high value,” explained Rogers.
“Research shows us that, broadly speaking, connection heals and the isolation of disconnection harms. However, when it comes to valuing certain forms of connection over others, for example the ‘BFF’ dynamic, we need to consider the drivers and consequences of this social dream.”
While having supportive friends sustains emotional and psychological wellbeing and resilience by meeting core human needs like safety, satisfaction, and connection, Rogers said placing rigid ideals on what that social support looks like comes with risks.
“In my work I regularly speak with people harbouring painful, self-destructive, negative thoughts from comparing themselves to what appears to be ‘normal’, without recognising it is simply a socially constructed image propagated by society,” she said.
“The reality of conforming to the best friend norm is not possible, accessible, or does not hold value for some individuals or groups.”
Is the myth of the BFF harmful?
While meaningful connection is undeniably positive, the idea of a singular best friend implies some level of exclusivity and an expectation to prioritise this friendship above other people or commitments in your life.
This can lead people to neglect or miss out on other, equally important relationships, or undervalue connections that aren’t at the level of the romanticised bestie.
“Exclusivity is controlling by its nature. In a relationship, exclusivity draws a boundary around two people, which can be dangerous when it is used to manipulate, dominate, control, or isolate someone, or when the bond is hijacked by co-dependency,” said Rogers.
“I believe life is a wonderfully rich and vast adventure and that life gains richness from having a multitude of connections with different people.”
Putting all your friendship eggs in one basket also puts one at risk of isolation if that relationship breaks down, shifts, or becomes unhealthy.
Undying, unconditional loyalty to a person can even lead to becoming trapped in a toxic friendship, losing touch with your own needs, or limiting your opportunities for personal development out of fear of ‘growing apart’.
Concerningly, the social expectation for women to have vibrant, active social lives, or an intensely close best friend, can damage self-esteem and perpetuate feelings of inadequacy that then make forming new connections more difficult.
Rogers works with people who have had traumatic interpersonal experiences and believes that social disconnection and friendship needs to be treated with more sensitivity, and acknowledgement of contextual influences like attachment trauma, oppression, discrimination, and other systemic issues that make forming friendships difficult.
Failing to do so feeds a harmful and false narrative that something must be ‘wrong’ with those lacking in close social bonds.
“There is great pain in this theme for many individuals and in view of this, the concept of a BFF feels quite utopian and harmful as a discursive category of haves and have-nots,” she explained.
“In my work with survivors of sexual trauma, examples of horrendous, covert and insidious victim-blaming are rife, and people internalise this and come to believe they are unworthy of love, friendship and joy.”
Friendship and connection have no right and wrong
Having a best friend has potential risks and benefits, so it really comes down to your personal preferences, boundaries, and what you value in a relationship.
If you value freedom and variety, perhaps a multitude of diverse relationships will feel more satisfying to you.
If you feel safer and more fulfilled by a singular or small group of close friends, the intimacy of a lifelong bestie might better meet your needs.
There is no definitive, one-size-fits-all outline of what makes a special or worthy friendship.
If your relationships are mutually enjoyable, respectful, and meet your social support needs, there is no reason to feel badly if you don’t have a best friend, or if your version of companionship looks different than what you’ve seen in films or on your social media feed.
Evolutionary psychological studies suggest that life satisfaction and happiness is influenced by the quality and satisfaction with one’s friendships, rather than the number of social connections.
It ultimately comes down to what feels right for you.
Freeing yourself from expectation or judgement about what your social life looks like in comparison to others is the first step to creating friendships that make you feel supported, happy, and able to live your life to the fullest.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.