A recent article in Marie Claire magazine caught my eye. The title asks, “Are girlfriends the new husbands?” As the article explains, young adult women are increasingly turning to best friends for the kind of support that one might expect only from a romantic partner. As they choose to remain single later into life, women’s best friends become intimate partners (though not sexual ones). Cohabitation, “family” vacations, even some type of co-parenting between best friends is becoming more common. I should note, the article doesn’t discuss race, sexuality, class or any of the other intersecting social categories that affect women’s lives, so we cannot make sweeping generalizations, but among an abstract category of 20- to 30-something year old women, the nature of friendship appears to be changing. And I’d like to argue that this change is a good one.
The author, Whitney Joiner, seems mostly optimistic about women’s friendships, sharing several women’s stories of the value and joys of having a BFF (best friend forever). But she goes on to suggest two downsides: first, that friends have no binding commitment and when times get tough, they can easily “call it quits”; second, these ‘besties’ may use their relationship with one another to avoid the dating scene. I don’t have much to say on the first point, except the exceedingly high divorce rates in the US suggest that it is pretty easy to “call it quits” in a marriage. The second is where I have qualms.
Joiner relies on a fairly common cultural assumption, namely, that family and marriage are more significant relationships than friendship. At the heart of this assumption are problematic heterosexist beliefs about men’s and women’s “natures” and the necessity of childbearing (especially for women). These beliefs militate against cross-sex friendships, for example, because we assume that men and women must, deep down, want to sleep with each other. They militate against strong and intimate friendships between men because of these friendships carry the stigma of homosexuality. And they militate against women’s friendships because women are supposed to compete with one another to secure a male mate, and fulfill their “biological destiny” of birthing a child (in the confines of marriage, of course). I want to be clear that these are cultural assumptions, not facts—men who are friends are not necessarily gay, women need not compete with another for male attention even when they are heterosexual, and men and women can clearly be friends without jumping into bed. But the cultural norms infiltrate our thinking and how others perceive us, so they do affect our behavior.
So when women engage in these deep friendships, they are challenging some of the fundamental ideas undergirding heterosexism. Is there something wrong with women pursuing friendships instead of pursuing husbands? I don’t think so. In fact, I think just the opposite. I think that intimate friendships between women are a practical enactment of feminism—when we allow ourselves to embrace and celebrate the women in our lives, we challenge the heterosexist structures that tend to keep us apart (see Lisa Wade and Caroline Heldman speak on this here; also bell hooks (2002), ch. 14). We refuse to conform to society’s expectations at each other’s expense. We resist the homophobia and heterosexism implicit in other’s judgments of our friendships (that we are secretly lesbians, that we are spinsters who cannot find a man, and so on). We recreate the very notion of family in these relationships. And we are still free to pursue any other kind of relationship we desire—be it a traditional, married relationship, other friendships, even motherhood. But, if we don’t want to get married or don’t want to have children, why should we deny ourselves a support structure, an intimate with whom we can share our triumphs and tribulations? These friendships, it seems, enable women to decide when or if they want what society expects, without giving up the psychological, emotional, and physiological benefits of having a life partner.
So, are girlfriends the new husbands? Well, if I were to evaluate my own life, the answer would be a resounding yes. I’ve lived together with my BFF for six years; we share our finances, our chores, our families, and a deep love for one another—we are each other’s “lady husbands.” We are friends, sisters, partners, intimates. I can attest to the fact the many people are skeptical of our relationship, even intimidated by it, and definitely make assumptions about our sexualities because of it. The fact that they are intimidated, I think, indicates the true feminist potential of friendships like ours: they threaten the social structures that maintain heterosexual/male privilege, and they may provide a foundation for organized resistance to those structures.
I’d love to see more sociological investigation of intimate friendships. Previous research has indicated that men’s friendships are somewhat different from women’s. Do we see similar forms of intimacy occurring among men, and why (or why not)? Joiner’s article says nothing about the race or sexuality of the women in her article (though they seem to come from middle-class, professional backgrounds), and my friendship experience is rooted in my own social position as white, hetero-appearing, American-born and middle-class. How do intersecting categories (race, sexuality, citizenship status, class, etc.) affect the form and content of friendships, and how might intimacy within and across these social categories encourage new types of resistance? To what extent do intimate friendships lead to actual engagement with feminisms or other social movements? Previous research (see an example here, but take the biological determinism with a grain of salt) shows the psychological and physiological benefits of friendship, so do intimate friendships enable healthier relationships with others or even greater gains in self-esteem?
On boys’ (and men’s) friendships: Way, Niobe. 2011. Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection. Harvard University.