When I was in the eighth grade, my dad tried to bribe me to have a friend over. I was in the first few months of a two-year Goth phase, and my dad was concerned that I rarely invited anyone to our house. He was joking, I know, but every joke has at least a tiny bit of truth in it.
In the five years since then, I dyed my hair black and then magenta and then let the artificial color fade out as I moved through the stages of Goth. I learned the truth behind the age old “it’s not a phase” joke, as well as that of my dad’s semi-sarcastic bribe. As much as I sometimes wish I could just retire into the woods with a few good books and a dog named something too-human like Jonathan, my dad is still right when he reminds me that “a social education is important, too, Gemma.”
Until I realized I had some amount of say in who I was or wasn’t friends with, I had a really hard time making any. I thought I was doing something wrong, I was awkward and puberty-stricken and new to a school where everyone had already formed groups. I thought there was some set of social rules I hadn’t yet been cued into and, much like with Game of Thrones, I was too far behind to even dream of catching up.
Eventually I realized why I was so confused: unlike any other relationship, friendships have no framework. There are no rules or templates or treasure map steps to follow. The generally agreed upon end goal is simply the acquisition of a friend, but that can mean almost anything. Including, but not limited to: a person who you can trust and confide in, laugh with, complain to/about, etc; someone who you enjoy spending time with; someone who you are not romantically involved with or related to (and definitely not both).
In eighth grade, I wanted a best friend. The Lane to my Rory, the Ethel to my Lucy. It took me a long time to see behind the movie-magic of the “dynamic duo,” to realize that no two people can survive with only each other to depend on. It took me a long time to understand that I have different friends for different reasons.
I have some friends who can get me to do anything, who give me the confidence and encouragement I need to expand my comfort zone in sometimes ridiculous directions. Once, for example, a friend convinced me to ride the mechanical bull at The Saddle Ranch in West Hollywood (even though I was wearing a slip dress and risked flashing the entire bar). I have friends who I know will tell me the truth, even when it’s hard to hear. I have friends who indulge my most pretentious tendencies and others who value my worst puns and most eye-roll-worthy dad jokes.
There are some people I don’t talk to for months, but the moment we see each other in person it feels as if no time has passed. One of my closest friends sends me a “gif of the day” every single morning. Despite our mismatched and super-saturated schedules, we manage to talk everyday, even if it’s just that one gif in the morning.
Different people are… well, different. Different people connect in different ways over different things. When I was younger, I thought having one best friend would make me feel secure, would give me a clearly marked and easily located position in the world. To some extent, there’s truth in that kind of safety: with only one place to be, there’s never any question of where I am supposed to be.
But there is limitation in singularity. There is limitation in having only one friend, or in defining the people in my life by their respective relationship category (that is, friends, significant others, family members, etc.). With no real framework, friendship is the only category that leaves enough room for interpretation, leading both to confusion and flexibility. Friendship is a catch-all, an umbrella term. Instead of sorting people into a single box, why not nest them like Matryoshka dolls? With friendship as the metaphorical outermost doll, all other categories can fit nicely inside, becoming more specified as they move toward the core.
For example, I didn’t get along with my little sister until we became friends. When I thought of her only as my sister, I got annoyed when she borrowed my clothes, jealous when she got more attention, angry when she did something that really only deserved minor irritation. A year or so ago, we somehow managed to break out of the “sister” box. Now, I see her as my friend, one linked to me through our shared experiences as well as our varying interpretations of those same experiences; being sisters doesn’t eclipse our friendship, it just qualifies it.
In romantic relationships, too, reframing my connection to a person in terms of friendship can change a lot. For some reason, the people we care about in this way are usually excluded from the definition of “friend.” People talk about having been friends first, before they started dating, but this distinction is temporal, and friendship seems to fall away as soon as a relationship becomes “more than friends.” Would it be possible to restructure this idea, to change the qualifier to “and friends?”
To me, friendship is the true measure of a relationship because it’s the only category that can be anything I want it to be. I get to decide who my friends are, I get to choose how I want to connect with these people. I get to define what friendship means for myself, and so do you. The definition is mutual — both people involved have the explicit ability to shape their friendship in whatever way they choose.
That’s the whole point: because no real framework for friendship exists, becoming friends with someone requires us to build our own structure. We design the blueprints. We provide the materials and build from scratch. Why not construct all our relationships like this? Despite the uncertainty and difficulty of paving a new path, it’s worth it, I think, to shape a relationship from whatever we want into whatever we want.
*Gemma Brand-Wolf is a just completing her freshman year at Brown University. Parentology thanks Gemma and The Blognonian for letting us share this article with our readers.