Are You a Second-Best Friend?
When I was a child, children, but not adults, had ‘best friends’. Now it’s become common for adults, too, to have a ‘best friend’. But some aspects of playground culture don’t translate well into adult life – and for good reason.
The main reason is this. Suppose someone you regard as a friend tells you about her ‘best friend’. You automatically become a second-best friend – or perhaps someone even lower down her ‘hierarchy of friends’. This might not be so bad if you also have a hierarchy of friends in which her name features somewhere fairly low down on the list. But it’s hurtful if you’ve known her for years and thought she was a close friend.
Perhaps we all have to get used to being ‘second best’ – the person who isn’t picked for the school sports team, or who doesn’t get the job. Of course, there’s no point in trying to pretend that we’re all equal – that we could all win an Olympic gold medal, or run the World Bank. But, as long as we can manage to make some kind of useful contribution to society, most of us can probably live with differences of that kind. Being told you’re a second-best, second-rate friend has the potential to be much more damaging – because it’s much more personal. Perhaps you could have got that job if you’d done a different course of training. But there’s a limit to the extent to which you can train to be a better friend. Being a second-best friend means that, as a person, as a human being, you’re just not good enough – and that there isn’t a lot you can do about it.
But, you might say, it’s not socially acceptable to have more than one partner or spouse (even if some people do it) – so why should we have more than one ‘best friend’? One’s partner or spouse is supposed to be ‘better’ than other possible partners or spouses – he or she is the ‘chosen’ one – so why not also apply this to friendship? But there are good reasons for limiting the number of partners or spouses one has. For example, it avoids disputes about paternity and property, and reduces the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases. These reasons don’t apply to friendship. Restricting ourselves to one ‘best friend’ excludes people – and deprives us of relationships which may be supportive and fulfilling.
Many people have more than one child and manage to love their children equally. Some don’t, of course – but this often causes considerable psychological damage lasting well into adulthood, so isn’t really a model to be recommended.
So, as adults, can we not enjoy a range of fulfilling relationships without inflicting unnecessary pain, by refusing to talk about ‘best friends’? Let’s make this divisive term as socially unacceptable as other forms of childish behaviour. Let’s abolish the cult of the ‘best friend’ – and grow up.
© Elizabeth Burns, 2016