MWF seeking BFF
When I moved from New York City to Chicago to live with my boyfriend, now husband, I knew I was making sacrifices. I was leaving a great job at a glossy magazine, my immediate family and 24-hour delis on every corner. I was also, I knew, leaving most of my friends. But I wasn't moving to Podunk. The third-largest city in the United States would certainly be teeming with down-to-earth, closet Us Weekly–reading, McDreamy-loving, book club–obsessed women like me. I could find my new best friends at yoga class, in the aisles of Barnes & Noble, maybe even at the grocery store—how hard could it be?

Very, apparently. What I learned, too quickly, is that friend-making is not the natural process it was back when we made friends in the sandbox, or even the dorm room. As it turns out, I've completely forgotten how to do it. I'm too shy to approach a potential BFF at Barnes & Noble just because she too is caressing The Things They Carried. The ladies at yoga class already know each other and, for a discipline all about nonjudgment, seem oddly unapproachable. I'm not a mommy, and won't be for years, so I can count out the Mommy & Me classes that are so obviously more for the "mommy" than the "me."

It's not for lack of trying. Take yoga. One day, after a grueling session of chaturangas, the girl on the mat next to me introduced herself. "I'm Zoe. What's your name again?" (The teacher had inexplicably called me Carrie). Someone was trying to pick me up! I got ready to woo her in return.


"Are you Jewish?" My name and my curls usually give this away.

"Um, yeah."

"Cool. Me too. Shalom!"

Did she really delve into religion before we'd even exchanged last names? If that was her pickup line, Zoe's even worse at this than I am. I crossed her off the mental list of potential BFFs. I haven't created an inventory of things my best friend forever would never do, but if I did, I'm pretty sure delivering religious greetings upon first meeting would be up there.

What is a best friend?

So what would my BFF do? If I take the Bartlett's Quotations route, she would be both someone "before whom I may think aloud" (Ralph Waldo Emerson) and who lets me have the "total freedom to be myself" (Jim Morrison). She "leaves footprints on my heart" (Eleanor Roosevelt) and "gets me a book I ain't read" (Abraham Lincoln). Which is why I'm not a fan of quote books. These definitions all sound lovely, but they don't provide me with any actual help. If Abe had his way, librarians would be the most popular people in the world.

I'd say a best friend is your weekend goes-without-saying lunch date, someone with whom it is implied you will spend the day or at least an hour. And while, sure, that's implied with my husband, men don't need to gab over drinks, analyzing every conversation, potential purchase and awkward run-in they had that week. They're happy to silently watch sports over a beer. Psychologists call these side-to-side relationships, versus female's face-to-face ones. Women like to engage in conversation; men like to bond over an activity. It's not that novel a discovery. Anyone who's seen men sit and watch the game while the women gab in the kitchen knows it to be true.

But getting to that place where I feel comfortable enough to call a potential friend and say, "What are you up to?" is tricky. It's essentially dating. At what point after meeting someone new is it acceptable to call "just to say hi"? When is it not overly aggressive to text, "Pedicure in a half hour?"

Most of us lump best-friendship in with love, one of those you-know-it-when-you-feel-it intangibles. It turns out that while we may think best friends are people with that ineffable something we can't put our finger on, researchers have pretty accurately defined the traits that propel someone from acquaintance to friend to BFF. In order for her to move from girl-date to friend, we need intimacy. Not intimacy in the turn-the-lights-down-low sense. Friendship intimacy starts with self-disclosure—sharing personal information you wouldn't tell just anyone—and reciprocity, meaning if I tell her my secret, she better tell me hers. But it's not just about disclosure. The rules of intimacy call for whoever is on the receiving end to be supportive and expressive, yet not too opinionated. So if I'm enraged that my husband canceled our Friday night plans...again...she better huff and puff and agree it was obnoxious, but she would never say: "He's such a jerk. I've never liked him." Such are the unwritten laws of friendship.

In order to move from regular friend to a best one, I will need über-intimacy but also what researchers call social identity support. That is to say, my BFF is someone who will reaffirm my social role in society—as a wife, a writer, a pop-culturist—and thereby boost my self-esteem. Sounds a bit self-indulgent, sure, but it's scientifically proven.

Can your husband be your best friend?

Here's what's also proven, though this time by my own unscientific observations. Most women my age, the single ones at least, are more interested in meeting potential boyfriends than best friends, though I would argue the latter's a lot harder to come by and plenty more emotionally nourishing. A husband is wonderful, and Matt makes me laugh. He makes me feel beautiful, loved, protected, cared for. But the idea that our spouses should be our best friends is one of those romantic notions that has been perpetuated by our mothers and grandmothers and every movie in the Meg Ryan canon. It's a myth, and one that has probably been solely responsible for thousands of unhappy marriages. Imagine the sense of failure a woman feels when she enters into this covenant, expecting to be rewarded with a whole new level of best-friendship, only to realize that her husband will never be her Samantha, Miranda or Charlotte. It's enough to make her feel far lonelier than when she was alone.

So why don't our mothers and grandmothers and Meg Ryan warn us? Why don't they just say, "A husband is a life partner and an intellectual equal and co-parent and the man you will grow old with, but he is not—nor is he supposed to be—your best friend"? I would have appreciated the caveat. 

Maybe they're trying to idealize their own marriages. Or maybe it's like childbirth. I once grilled my mom about giving birth—Do you actually have to get stitches afterward? Down there?—and she didn't want to give me straight answers. "If I tell you," she said, "you'll never want to do it."

Why women need friends

When I first moved to Chicago, I took a job that turned out to be a disaster. I was to be the senior editor at a new luxury magazine. The job, and the magazine launch, kept getting pushed back, until the company decided to have me "train" in their Florida office so I wouldn't up and quit. For six weeks, I spent Monday through Friday in Miami, utterly miserable. I had just moved to Chicago to end a long-distance relationship, and here I was, in a city I hadn't signed up for and further away from Matt than ever. When I finally decided to quit, I needed to first run the idea by anyone and everyone whose opinion I valued. Matt's response was, "I can't tell you what to do, but I'll stand by your decision regardless." A textbook supportive answer. But what I wanted was someone to talk it out with me for hours. To say, "You should quit" or, even, "You shouldn't." Naomi, who herself had quit a job recently, stayed on the phone and walked me through the different scenarios, letting me talk out how I would make a living if I put this Miami disaster behind me. My oldest friend, Sara, said: "Of course you should quit. You're miserable! You're young! Work at a bakery." I needed someone who would listen as I repeated myself in case a new thought came up. Someone who would tell me what they already knew I wanted to hear. Though Matt said everything right, I got the emotional support I needed from my friends.

I've been in Chicago for two and a half years. Obviously, sitting around waiting for friends to emerge naturally isn't working. It's time to turn this mission up a notch. I'm looking for a Kate to my Allie. Thelma to my Louise. Oprah to my Gayle. No one's knocking down my door. If I want a new best friend, I'm going to have to go get one. 

I could take out a want ad. Craigslist perhaps. "MWF Seeking BFF: Must live in Chicago. Must not bring her dog to lunch dates. Fluency in Entertainment Weekly preferred but not required." I know all about that Craigslist killer, so maybe I'll start smaller scale. I'll actually call or email the women I've met with whom I've exchanged the requisite "We should get together!" I'll approach the girl at Barnes & Noble or yoga. Who cares if she thinks I'm hitting on her? I'll wear my wedding ring—that'll clear up any confusion.

It's time to get out there. Play the field. Dive into the world of serial friend-dating. Let's just hope I emerge in one piece.

Rachel Bertsche is the author of MWF Seeking BFF. Follow along on her search at


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