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“Our boyfriends, our significant others, and our husbands are supposed to be No. 1. Our worlds are backward.”
Story by Rhaina Cohen
Kami West had been dating her current boyfriend for a few weeks when she told him that he was outranked by her best friend. West knew her boyfriend had caught snatches of her daily calls with Kate Tillotson, which she often placed on speaker mode. But she figured that he, like the men she’d dated before, didn’t quite grasp the nature of their friendship. West explained to him, “I need you to know that she’s not going anywhere. She is my No. 1.” Tillotson was there before him, and, West told him, “she will be there after you. And if you think at any point that this isn’t going to be my No. 1, you’re wrong.”
If West’s comments sound blunt, it’s because she was determined not to repeat a distressing experience from her mid-20s. Her boyfriend at that time had sensed that he wasn’t her top priority. In what West saw as an attempt to keep her away from her friend, he disparaged Tillotson, calling her a slut and a bad influence. After the relationship ended, West, 31, vowed to never let another man strain her friendship. She decided that any future romantic partners would have to adapt to her friendship with Tillotson, rather than the other way around.
West and Tillotson know what convention dictates. “Our boyfriends, our significant others, and our husbands are supposed to be No. 1,” West told me. “Our worlds are backward.”
In the past few decades, Americans have broadened their image of what constitutes a legitimate romantic relationship: Courthouses now issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Americans are getting married later in life than ever before, and more and more young adults are opting to share a home rather than a marriage license with a partner. Despite these transformations, what hasn’t shifted much is the expectation that a monogamous romantic relationship is the planet around which all other relationships should orbit.
By placing a friendship at the center of their lives, people such as West and Tillotson unsettle this norm. Friends of their kind sweep into territory typically reserved for romantic partners: They live in houses they purchased together, raise each other’s children, use joint credit cards, and hold medical and legal powers of attorney for each other. These friendships have many of the trappings of romantic relationships, minus the sex.
Despite these friendships’ intense devotion, there’s no clear category for them. The seemingly obvious one, “best friend,” strikes many of these committed pairs as a diminishment. Adrift in this conceptual gulf, people reach for analogies. Some liken themselves to siblings, others to romantic partners, “in the soul-inspiring way that someone being thoughtful about loving you and showing up for you is romantic,” as the Rutgers University professor Brittney Cooper describes some of her friendships in her book Eloquent Rage.
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