BY ALAINA LEARY
This piece is part of the Relationship Issue. Read more here.
It’s happening again. That’s what I remember thinking as I sat across from my best friend on her Queen-sized bed and listened to her describe her ex. I was starting to have feelings for my closest female friend.
This was a pattern I knew well, and I’d been holding my breath that it wouldn’t happen again. I was incapable of having a best friend. I fell in love with all of them. I loved every moment that came before—long nights, sitting up in the dark, telling our shittiest life stories back and forth without judgment; laughing at the same inside jokes over and over again; catching glimpses of one another and understanding what was being felt without a single word.
It was everything that happened afterward that haunted me: the death of the friendship. I just wasn’t meant to have a best friend, I figured.
About a month ago, I read a fantastic personal essay called “I’m Having a Friendship Affair,” in New York Magazine’s The Cut, and I almost had my answer. Almost. Somewhere in the middle of the essay, the writer has an identity crises and wonders, “Am I into women?” and her friend urges her to think about whether she wants to have oral sex with a chick. No, she doesn’t. The writer shakes her head and moves on with her life.
While I appreciated so many of the complexities of female friendship described in that essay, they didn’t quite add up to my lived experience. When I say I’ve fallen in love with my last four best female friends, I mean it. And I hate that I do.
Fast forward to the point where my best friend at the time, Macey, learned about my feelings for her. This was usually the beginning of the end in my vicious friend cycle. If the friend found out, she was usually not into girls, or even just not into me in that way. I’d apologize, so would she, and we’d stay friends—but not quite in the same way. Once I’d bared every vulnerable part of myself to someone and then fallen in love, I couldn’t go back from that. The friendship would remain, but we’d never get back those eye-catching moments in a crowd where we knew one another’s thoughts. I was always guarded.
To my surprise, this best friend liked me back. And suddenly everything I knew had changed.
Before, I’d always been a witty cynic, the kind of person who didn’t quite believe in fate, and definitely did not believe in relationships. I grew up with separated parents, who took their turns raising me (my mom, before she died, and my dad, after) and as a result, had internalized that independent, single-forever mindset.
For the next few years, my best friend and I carved out what it meant to be dating from the ashes of our friendship. I was surprised to find that our best friendship didn’t die. Even under the pressures of dating—sex, romance, coming out, transitioning to college, choosing a career path, jealousy, competition—our friendship was what kept us steady. If anything, our friendship was the priority. Sometimes, I’d be in the middle of fighting with her, stubbornly unwilling to give up my perspective, and then I’d step back. Would I fight with my best friend about this? No. And we’d laugh, and turn on American Horror Story with our roommates and laugh some more.
Being best friends first meant some weird things. It meant we talked about hot guys still, especially if they were actors or fictional characters. We claimed ‘boyfriends’ and we had a few that we shared—our ‘polyamorous’ ones, if you will, that we both would not let go of. It took us a little longer to talk about other hot girls, but we got there, too. We had all the strange, in-depth discussions that friends would have, but we altered them. Who would you date out of all our friends, if I weren’t an option and you had to pick? What if it were just sex, who would you pick then? Our answers varied depending on the day, but we always ended up in a heap and a fit of laughter, out-of-breath.
A few years into our relationship, my first new female best friend entered my life. I knew what was happening as soon as it started. She and I took a day trip to visit a nearby college and we talked the entire ride. We couldn’t shut up. I stayed over her house that night, in her old bunk bed from childhood, and we passed stories back and forth, her on the bottom bunk, me on the top. I didn’t doze off until past four in the morning.
The next morning, the fear was prominent: would I fall in love with my new best friend? Was this inevitable? Would I slowly fall out of love with my girlfriend, all the while falling for my very straight, very unavailable new closest friend?
Six months passed, and then a year. My best friend was beautiful: she had thick, blonde hair and big brown eyes. She was stubborn, but knew how to speak her mind. She was a feminist with a stark point of view. She was argumentative and funny, with a silly streak that emerged at the most random of times. One night, we spend hours looking up videos of spiders and purposefully trying to freak ourselves out, and then hiding under the covers. I was so certain it would happen again, just like it always did, as I slowly stripped away the layers of my soul to her.
When it didn’t happen, I was both relieved and confused. This was how it felt, I suddenly knew, to have a best friend without the romantic feelings lingering in the background, calling for the death of my female friendship. I didn’t dig a grave for this one. As time wore on, naturally, my best friend and my girlfriend also became close. Since my girlfriend was also my best friend, we lacked the normal third-wheel awkwardness when we spent time with others. It seemed more like a group of best girl friends than one single woman and a couple.
I still consider myself cursed to fall for my friends, but maybe the falling isn’t always a trap. It isn’t always a death sentence. In fact, it started to happen with a best friend while I was in college. And I was already in love with my girlfriend, so my immediate response was, “Is this emotional cheating? Is our relationship over?”
Friendship and love are complicated. How do we define them? If I love someone and I want to protect them with my whole heart, and I also find them aesthetically pleasing, is that romantic love? Or is it only love if I want to have sex with them? Or if I want to marry them? Is it only love if I would actually break up with my girlfriend—with my best friend, my soul mate—to be with them?
I loved my girlfriend, and I loved my best friend. But how could I know if I was in love with her? In the most basic sense of the word, I was. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. But I didn’t imagine the things you’re supposed to imagine, the signs that tell you, “This is definitely romantic love.” I didn’t imagine owning a house together or having a child. I just knew that I always wanted her to be in my life. She mattered.
Did I have to give up my friendship? Was it wrong to want more than just one person in my life forever? Did this make me a cheater, or polyamorous? We’re not taught, especially as women, that we’re allowed to prioritize more than one person in our lives. For the most part, after we settle into committed relationships and get married, we make decisions with our romantic partners. How to live, where to work, what car to buy, how many cats to have—those are all questions we examine with our spouses. But why do we limit our lives in this way? Why couldn’t I factor my best friend in, or any of my friends in? Why couldn’t I want to spend the rest of my life with someone, but not want to sleep with them or to open a mutual IRA?
According to society’s rules, I was either in love with my best friend or not. I was either in love with my girlfriend or not. But the truth is that it’s more complicated than that. The lines between friendship and romantic love are thinner than I imagined they could be, because so many of my close friends are beautiful. And I love them. And I want to factor them in, and make decisions in consideration of them, even though all the usual rules don’t apply.
Did I end up having to choose between a friend and my girlfriend? No. I chose myself. I chose to live my life in a way that doesn’t have a pre-existing formula. My girlfriend and I make major decisions together, but I factor my friends in, or at least the ones who matter. I factor her family and my family in. And our relationship is never just the two of us. It’s the two of us, plus our two adopted cats, plus our hamster, plus our friends and families, plus our celebrity and fictional crushes. It’s the two of us, plus everyone else who matters.
If I fall in love with my female best friends now—and I do, often, usually in the smallest moments, like when I catch them crying or I see them defending someone else—there is no mourning period. It doesn’t feel like I’m standing on a cliff; it feels like I’m jumping into darkness and then landing, and then jumping again, and the cycle repeats.
My girlfriend and I entered a weird new dimension when we started dating. We broke all the rules. We made up our own rules, about how we love each other, how we love other people, how we love the world. Sometimes, we even laugh at other couples—not because we think they’re doing a single thing wrong, but because we have no idea what we’re doing. There’s no script for how to love someone with your whole soul as a best friend, and then slowly introduce physical romance, sex, long-term commitment, sharing finances, living together, making joint decisions, adopting cats, and eventually, raising kids, into that relationship. We redefined what it means to be in love with each other, and in doing so, I broke the curse.
Alaina Leary is a native Bostonian currently completing her MA in Publishing and Writing at Emerson College. She's also working as an editor and social media designer for several brands and publications. Her work has been published in Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Marie Claire, BUST Magazine, Good Housekeeping, AfterEllen, Her Campus, Ravishly, The Mighty, and others. When she's not busy playing around with words, she spends her time surrounded by her two cats, Blue and Gansey, and at the beach with her girlfriend. She can often be found re-reading her favorite books, watching Gilmore Girls, and covering everything in glitter. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @alainaskeys.