My husband and I will celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary in June. We’re both in our mid-twenties. Before we got married, we talked about everything you’d expect a couple who is about to get married to talk about: what we want in a career, where we want to live, do we want kids, what sort of life do we want for ourselves in one year, five years, thirty years. But maybe the most important thing we decided as a couple before we married was that no matter what, we would not become one another’s only friends. It was crucial we’d maintain our own private friendships separate and different from our relationship.
And despite the fact the things we talked about before — the plans we envisioned — have gone completely astray on nearly every level, the last part about maintaining separate and meaningful friendships outside ourselves is something we have done. To varying levels. I like to think that decision has made weathering the things that weren’t in the plan a lot easier to grapple with.
Because of the bumps in the road, because of the changes in place and space, I think he’s had a much easier time of this than I have. My friends? I made them in college (in Iowa) and I made them in graduate school (in Texas). I live near neither. My best friend lives half a country away, and we haven’t seen each other in years. Sure I’ve got friends near me — one who lives literally a hop down the road (um, or will until Friday when she moves a car ride away) — but getting together requires planning and work. Our lives our busy and getting together requires an hour or more in the car. It’s hard to call them up and say you’ve had a day and need them there to finish up a bottle of wine right now to make it better. My husband, on the other hand, went to school here, and he has a wealth of friends who live close. It’s easy for him to drop by their place after work, for him to go out with them after work. He’s met his tribe here, so to speak, while I haven’t.
Rachel Bertsche’s memoir, MWF Seeking BFF, caught my eye when I read about it last year because I felt like I would be able to relate to Bertsche. She’s in her late-20s, newly married, and she left everything she had behind her in New York City when she moved with her husband to Chicago. She lost her support system in the move, and now she was on her own to make a new BFF in her new city so she’d have someone to turn to when she needed it. Bertsche chose to do this through serial “girl dating” — meeting up with people she’d been connected with through people she knew or through various friend-dating services or through putting herself into activities she liked and chumming up someone she felt could be a good match for her. The book is a chronicle of her dates, as well as a musing upon the ideas of friendship and how friendship changes as you get older. It’s not like you can knock on your neighbor’s door and ask them to come out to play anymore when you’ve got a career and a family.
I brought my preconceived notions to the book: Bertsche starts by telling readers what her idea of a BFF is. It’s someone you can go to at any time and it’s someone you can call up at a moment’s notice to grab dinner with. It’s someone who sees you through the good and the bad. Someone who (her words) she can grab a mani/pedi with at the last second to gossip. She talks about her two best friends in New York City and how she’s looking for that sort of companionship in her new city. This is what she wants out of her serial girl dating. Immediately, I just … didn’t connect with Bertsche the way I hoped I would. Her ideas of friendship were so wildly different than mine. It was so singular, so narrow. I knew from the start she’d never be the kind of person I’d get along with and couldn’t see myself befriending.
As she goes on her dates, though, she offers up some interesting research and insight into friendship and what it really is. Bertsche meets a wide variety of women, ranging from her own age to much older and even much younger, and she gets to know women who are in various stages of life (some who are single and still looking for romance, some who are happily married with children, some who will never quite grow up, etc). After each interaction, Bertsche talks about what did and didn’t work and why she did or didn’t see the girl as someone who had that BFF potential. At the beginning of the book, it’s almost a check list to her. Would x-named girl be the kind of girl she could call up on Sunday morning and have brunch with in an hour? No? Well, time to drop her. Would this girl be the kind of girl she could spend an afternoon discussing Harry Potter with on end and then spend the evening devouring the latest television drama? No? Well, she won’t work either.
I found myself so irritated with her definitions and her boxes and I kept wondering how I’d make it through the book. It’s a longer read, since Bertsche does chronicle (to some level) all 52 of her dates. See, I’m a big believe in the fact friends all serve different purposes. At least, that’s how I view friendship. I have friends I turn to for different things and friends who offer me differing levels of support on different things, and I like to think I offer that back. I’d be hard-pressed to believe any of my friends has a whole picture of me or knows everything about me, and it’s a fact I’m okay with. Maybe one I’m comfortable with. And that’s not to say I don’t value friendship because I certainly do, but I prefer a wide network of friends who are one-or-a-few things to me and a much tighter network of intimate friends who know a lot more and will always know a lot more. I keep it this way because it helps me evaluate what I can offer them in return. I can’t be a good friend to everyone, and I never can pretend to be. But I can be a good friend to a few people, and I can be friendly and thoughtful and kind to many, many more. If I evaluated everyone in terms of their BFF potential, I’d never actually get to offer or experience friendship. Maybe it makes me sort of a hippie in thinking there is a bit of the organic in how it happens and how it develops and how those circles I maintain can always shift. I believe give and take happens when and where it should and when you’re in sync with someone else, you just know.
About half way through MWF Seeking BFF, Bertsche has a total light bulb moment. She, too, realizes that trying out everyone as a potential BFF — her idea of what a BFF is anyway — wasn’t going to help her really make friends. In fact, she says that her idea of a BFF was in and of itself out of sync with her life now. Nothing could ever be what it was like when she was younger and unmarried and in New York City. That realization was a huge one for her, and it shaped how she approached the remaining friend dates she made. It also made me step back and think about my own preconceived notions of Bertsche, too: I’d judged her immediately, hadn’t I? I considered my friendship compatibility with her, too. Who she offered herself at the beginning of the book rubbed me wrong but who she offered herself at the end of the book was someone I admired a bit.
Her biggest realization in the entire experiment? Friendship comes about when you learn to be independent. That’s really what her book is about — independence and figuring out how to be.
What stood out to me most in the book and what made it a worthwhile read, especially in the beginning where I did a lot more sighing than engaging, were the lengthy musings on what friendship is and what it really means. Bertsche made me do a lot of thinking about what friendship is and not just what it is to have a friend, but what it means to be a friend. The truth of it, and I think what makes it a hard topic to think about or talk about, is that sometimes you can never know what makes you a friend to someone else. What you believe you offer isn’t always what the other person is receiving. They may be getting something entirely different. Bertsche also broaches the idea of need fulfillment and about social networks and how or why some friendships endure while others never quite hit it off. She backs it with research and her own experiences, and because I’d been along with her on her dates, I felt like I got a good understanding of the hows and whys of her assertions. She mentioned more than once feeling a bit weird when she’d find common ground with someone over a sick or dead dad (hers had died when she was in her early 20s). But she offered it, and her returns either came back ten fold or never came back at all. As much as it was awkward to put herself out there like that, her reflections upon it were great, and I quite admired her at all for putting herself out there like that. Personally, the tough topics don’t make it out of my mouth until I truly know and trust someone wholly. Risk and reward are tricky.
More than once, I put the book aside and thought through my own feelings about friendship and what matters to me, and my husband and I even had a lengthy chat about what we believe our closest and most meaningful friendships are now and why they are that way. We talked about what we feel holds us back and what we do and don’t have in friendships and why we do or don’t care to have that. I couldn’t help think this would make an interesting book club title because the topics worth discussing here are many. Even if the chronicling of every friendship gets tiring — and it does — the moments of reflection at the end are worth it.
One of the points I disagreed with, though, had to do with maintenance of friendship. Bertsche (and many of those she pulls from) is a big believer in the value of the in-person interaction; she’s regularly discussing the phone call over the text message, over the email, over the Facebook or Twitter interaction. This sort of showed her privilege a bit in being an upper-middle class urbanite — something that also grated at me a bit as a reader. She had the opportunities to get out and do things, had the money and resources to go on all of these dates (she does admit to the cost of the endeavor). The truth is, sometimes our good friends, those we want to give and share with, are never going to be there in the flesh with us when we need it. And while it’s certainly one thing to have that person next door, in today’s modern world, I think it’s becoming a lot more of a luxury than a regular experience. I don’t think maintaining a good friendship means you have to be there in person. It just means you have to be there, period.
My other big criticism of MWF Seeking BFF is that Bertsche periodically dives into female stereotyping. She becomes one and she pushes it in her own observations. There are moments where she discusses food and weight and bodies in a way that made me wonder why it was there in the first place. Then it hit me: target demographic. These bits weren’t authentic to the story nor did I think they were even authentic to Bertsche nor the experience she was trying to share. It felt simply like a way to make her story relatable to a certain 20-something female audience. Take a second to think about all of the magazines aimed at the demographic. It’s not entirely shocking, but I found it incredibly frustrating and simply noise to the greater stuff in this book. Is it possible for a memoir by a woman to not go down this road? Not everyone worries about whether they ate too much sushi, whether or not they’ve gained the average 2 pounds a year, whether they look like crap when they go to the grocery store when they’re feeling less than amazing. I can overlook it, but it doesn’t make it less irritating as a reader.
The book reads like a Malcolm Gladwell title in how it approaches weaving research and anecdote and in some ways, it reminded me a bit of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project (which I loved). I think the audience on this one is adult women, but because Bertsche’s relationship only plays into the story so long, it’ll easily appeal to those who are married or single. The premise is friendship, and she doesn’t stray too much from that. While walking away from the book didn’t necessarily change my ideas about friendship nor relationships, it did further cement them a bit. I noted a few pages with passages and ideas I believed, including this one: “It can be freeing to have relationships built on exactly who you are at the moment […] If it’s a good match, you’ll find that it wasn’t actually necessary for you to have all those shared experiences.” This is spot on.
Back to my original story: am I bummed to not have friends right here at my call in my new world outside college and grad school? Sure. But the truth is, what I get out of my friendships is worth more than the simple act of being able to walk to their house and share a drink. The real value is in something much deeper and something that transcends space and place, but you can never, ever go wrong simply being kind and thoughtful toward everyone, regardless of whether or not you are seeking a friend. You always get it back some how. I like to think every day I’m lucky for what I have when it comes to friends because they are worth more than their weight in gold. No matter what anyone says or tells you, they will always be as (and sometimes more) important than other relationships in your life.
I purchased a copy of this book.