When my partner and I took a break from our relationship early last year for a few rather excruciating weeks, it was hard to figure out where to turn for support. And when we eventually compared notes (and got back together), we discovered that we had felt the same way. "I wanted to talk to my best friend about my ex," he told me, "but my best friend was my ex. You were both." If you’ve opened a magazine, been to a wedding, or ever used the internet, you are familiar with the idea that our partners are or should be our "best friends." "So lucky to be marrying my best friend," the engagement announcements in our timelines blare. "When you’re in love with your best friend, every day is an adventure," captions of couples’ photos proclaim. It’s worth remembering that this relationship model is relatively recent. As Rebecca Traister, New York Magazine writer-at-large and author of the just-released All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times earlier this year: Historically, friendships between women provided them with attention, affection and an outlet for intellectual or political exchange in eras when marriage, still chiefly a fiscal and social necessity, wasn’t an institution from which many could be sure of gleaning sexual or companionate pleasure… In this one small (but not insignificant) way, I think, 19th-century women were lucky, with their largely unsatisfying marriages and segregation into a subjugated and repressed gender caste… They could maintain an allegiance to their female friends, because there was a much smaller chance that their husbands were going to play a competitively absorbing role in their emotional and intellectual lives. There is now a pretty big chance that women’s partners, be they spouses or not, will play a "competitively absorbing" role in our lives, and by and large, that’s a wonderful thing. Women have more ability than ever before to negotiate for both good sex and good companionship as our partners’ equals and to say no to relationships that fall short of our standards. We pair off to pursue happiness, not to afford to survive outside of our parents’ homes and shut up relatives wondering if our twentysomething selves will be single and childless for life (again, this is recent history: When my mother married my father at the age of 25, my father’s aunt sighed that it was a shame that my mother and father would never have kids since my mother was too old).
Thanks to this shift, we're also expecting more from our relationships than ever before. A study published last week in the journal Personality and Social Psychology demonstrated the double-edged sword of the dramatically expanded potential — "potential" is the operative word here — of our relationships to meet not only our economic and reproductive needs, but our emotional, sexual, romantic, psychological, and intellectual ones as well. Researchers traced the relationship satisfaction of 135 couples in Tennessee over the first four years of their marriages to assess how the couples' expectations correlated with their happiness. For couples with direct communication styles, high standards correlated with more satisfying relationships; couples who avoided potentially difficult conversations (or, worse yet, communicated passive-aggressively) and yet maintained high expectations experienced less satisfaction than couples with lower standards but no worse communication. The implication: Those partnerships that meet our wildly high standards, the ones that we would also call "best friendships," usually don't just happen — they take intention and communication. They are possible, and yet, even a partner who is a "best friend" cannot be our only source of satisfaction. Women have always been told that male partners are necessary. For the 19th-century women Traister described, they were all but necessary for survival; now, because relationships have the capacity to meet needs higher in Maslow’s Hierarchy, we expect them to. After all, if they don’t, we have comparative freedom to ditch them in search of relationships that will. What this can mean, though, is that when we do find ourselves in relationships, we forget the vitality of other sources of creativity and confidence and self-esteem and spontaneity, putting more pressure on our partners to provide us with all of these than our grandmothers ever would have. If Carrie Bradshaw were writing this, now is when she’d jump in with an "I couldn’t help but wonder: Are our girlfriends our soul mates and guys just people to have fun with?" I’d never go that far. My partner should provide me with more than a good time — engaging conversation, emotional support, and a shared Netflix password are all required of anyone who expects to regularly see me naked and let them eat the last spicy tuna roll. The third option is that "soul mates" and "people to have fun with" are not mutually exclusive, and that our relationships with our partners, our friends, and ourselves should all play key and interlocking roles in our lives. I know that the breakup I went through last year (and the one I went through before that) would have been more bearable if Being Someone's Girlfriend hadn't been so central to my self-image. I don't blame myself for that entirely. Our culture's message has shifted from "you have to have a partner so you're not alone and childless" to "you have to have one with whom you share all your secrets, are your truest self, and actually want to spend every waking minute — a one-stop shop for wholeness as a human!" But the advice of New York Magazine's "Polly" to a woman who wondered why she's had so much "bad luck" with men is ringing in my ears: Instead of asking why men "don't like you," Polly shot back, why not ask: "Why isn't your work more engrossing? Why aren't your friends giving you their all? Why can't you feel your feelings unless there's a guy in the picture?" All important questions — and only possible to ask when a partner is part of the picture, not the whole tableau.