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Personal Love Between Friends

Friendship and feeling at ease when witnessing each other.

“Best friend” is a term that seems to have been invented in the twentieth century, perhaps even in the second half of that century. My parents never used the term “best friend,” but my friends and I did.

I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s and I always thought in terms of “best friend” and “other friends.” In my view, my best friend was someone with whom I had a deep and lasting rapport. We felt at ease with each other quickly and no matter how long we were separated we could feel the rapport and ease return after separation, almost as soon as we were reunited. We seemed to be accurate and empathic witnesses for each other. We were always interested in catching up with the other one's life and in finding out what the other’s immediate situation was like. We wanted to know.

True love with a best friend usually means that you feel at ease in witnessing each other. In most cases that ease seems to come from a sense of deep similarity. Most people tremendously enjoy finding another person who says, “Oh, me too!” in relation to beliefs, tastes, styles, and opinions. The same-same feeling is one of naturally being mirrored and is one of the strongest motivators for falling in love and finding yourself in someone else’s eyes.

This happens in non-romantic situations as much or more than it does in romantic connections. Often with friendship, the original ease comes from idealizing each other and feeling so completely seen and held and understood that it seems almost impossible that the other person even exists. How can this be? This person seems to be my twin.

There is a catch, however. In a non-romantic friendship, the complexity of developing from the early witnessing experience into a commitment to go on being friends over time often involves working through and accepting feelings of competition. When we meet a friend, someone who feels like an equal and reciprocal other, someone who is also a mirror, we naturally will feel competitive in some ways. Adults often feel confused, ashamed, or sheepish about these competitive feelings, especially since they can be experienced as envy, jealousy, or conflict. If you feel suddenly put down by or contemptuous of your friend over something that may even be trivial, you may be experiencing this sense of rivalry or competition.

Envy is a special kind of a resentful longing for some resource (money, attractiveness, good luck) that another person has but you seem deprived of. Many put-downs (Oh, you didn’t really need that! What’s the point of taking a vacation now? I wouldn’t want one of those!) are motivated by envy. Between friends who are both parents, envy is often expressed or implied in relation to their children’s achievements, attractiveness, good health, and so on. Sometimes we envy the career or family assets of our best friends. But while envy, when it is expressed, does have some powerful put-down effects, it’s also par for the course, part of friendship.

When envy pokes its nose into a close friendship, friends may need to use the skills they use in their partner relationship. To practice the three Cs of commitment, containment, and constraint, best friends will need to use dialogue to understand and accept each other’s experiences in regard to painful and prickly feelings.

If you do not use the skills of dialogue and mindfulness and learn to speak for yourself and paraphrase, you will not be able to continue the closeness and pleasure of being witnesses. If one or the other of you has too many painful or hateful feelings, the feelings, and potentially projection and projective identification, will undermine your trust.

Loyalty, support, and care are important components of friendship, as they are in all forms of true love, but they will take on resentful or obligatory tones if the competitive themes of friendship are not sorted out, allowing each person to feel tolerated, accepted, and witnessed, even in the midst of competition. When it comes to tolerating the various reactivity and impulses of your friend, it’s a matter of seeing that person in a bigger picture—in terms of the other’s vulnerabilities and strengths—as well as understanding that competition and rivalry are expected aspects of good friendship, even in those cases that have begun with the most extraordinary witnessing.

What I have said here about best friends also applies to your beloved partner if that person is your best friend. If your best friend is not an intimate or sexual partner, then love on a two-way street may be easier to develop than it is in a sexual relationship. Sexual relating, with its power dynamics and pair bonding, adds both excitement and stress to an intimate relationship. In non-sexual friendships, the development from personal love into true love can seem smoother and easier than in sexual partnerships. Sometimes people have sex with a best friend and find that intimacy changes the friendship pretty quickly and significantly. Sex and sexual desire change the power dynamics of friendship and it’s a good idea to know that before you jump into bed with your best friend.

The major difference between love with a dear friend and love with an intimate partner who is a best friend is that the intimate love is more intense, more challenged by power and desire, and it can consequently become a kind of spiritual fire of purification. What I mean by “purification” is the burning off of certain aspects of your self-protectiveness and self-interest in learning more and more about your own hidden power dynamics and controlling ideas as you explore the two-way street of intimacy with your best friend who is also your partner.

With our closest non-intimate lifetime friends we may encounter some of the fire of purification, especially in regard to our competitions, but since sexual love includes the demands of pair-bonding and sexual power dynamics, a lifetime relationship with a non-sexual friend can be both more spacious and less transformative than a lifetime of true love with your best friend in marriage.

From Love Between Equals by Polly Young-Eisendrath © 2019 by Polly Young-Eisendrath. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications.

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