Best mates are good for lots of things. They’re the ones who will show up at your house with a Real L Word box set and some canned cocktails immediately after you get dumped. They’ll send you seven consecutive Jo O’Meara memes with no explanation just to make you laugh. They’ll spend two hours workshopping a risky WhatsApp with you before you smash send. And they’re also good for your health: one study published in 2017 found that those between the ages of 16 and 25 with a best mate appear to have better psychological health and a more adaptive stress response.
But it’s not as simple as that, is it, because best mates aren’t rationed out to everyone, or delivered by default at birth. You have to foster those friendships yourself, and they have to be built on mutual chemistry. Not only that, but you have to then sustain the friendship for long enough that you become each other’s most valued platonic connection. Which is fine if you relate to people in that way. But what if you find it difficult to make friends? What if you have a lot of mates, but none that are close enough that you’d let them see you piss in a club toilet, for example? Or what if you are so self sufficient and/or untethered that a best mate simply doesn’t factor into your life?
Jasmine, who’s 21, says she’s a social person, but considers herself “platonically polyamorous” when it comes to friendships. The last time she had a best mate was at school, but more because they lived so close to each other. “That’s the only best friend I’ve really had…” she says, mulling it over on the phone. “I’m crap at texting people and keeping up, so maybe it’s just me being non-committal? But I really enjoy getting to know everyone, rather than confining myself to one friendship. I don’t like the idea of having one person that you have to reply to more often, or that has to come with you to everything.”
It's not like Jasmine doesn’t have a support network. She finds it easy to meet new people, has a sister she’s close to and is currently in a relationship. It’s more that she doesn’t have one very close person – it feels confining to her. “It’s just about me wanting to get to know people without boundaries,” she says. “I’m a fan of supporting myself, basically. It’s important for me to feel things on my own and not have someone I might immediately text. I struggle to identify with labels in general – like ‘introvert’ or ‘extrovert’, and star signs fuck me up. I’d rather just always go with the flow.”
While Jasmine’s lack of one specific ride-or-die is down to her desire for independence and a vague commitment-phobia, for others it’s not so straightforward. Reece, 17, tells me he’s yet to find a best mate because he’s quite guarded and sometimes shy. “I have a group of friends, but I’ve never really felt close to them. I’ve always sort of felt like an outsider. I hang out with people, but rarely on a one-to-one basis.” I ask him why he thinks that might be. “I’m quite closed off to my parents," he says. "I didn’t share much with them, and even to this day I don’t tell them anything. They don’t know much about my life. So maybe that’s had an effect on my ability to form a tight-knit connection.”
Jasmine seems quite happy without a BFF, while Reece says he feels like he's been missing out on certain benefits. Like, smoking with a group of people in the park is different to, say, being able to ring someone up if you feel like shit. “I've struggled with low self-esteem. Maybe it would have been easier if I’d had just one person I could really pour my heart out to,” he considers. “But you can’t force these things. These connections form naturally and I wouldn’t want to annoy someone by pestering them.” Does he wish he had a best mate? “I would like to try it. Maintaining that sort of contact might be quite difficult, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.”
Best pals are positive forces for most people obviously. But a lot of us have had at least one frenemy; the kind of person you might share everything with, but who might also stab you in the back. For some, this kind of friendship can have a knock-on affect. Lily's 26 and says the one “best mate type person" from her early twenties was “the most toxic relationship” she's ever had. “She spent years stifling me, making me feel worthless, as though I should feel privileged to be her best friend. She took over my life, made me exist in her shadow and hurt me in so many ways. I cut her out of my life years ago, but I've never managed to form close bonds with people since; I've been scared of getting hurt." Now, she'd go so far as to say she has some close friends, "but I don't have a real ride-or-die, forever, call-you-every-day, go-on-holidays, sisterly kind of friend”.
Lily says that despite not having one "mega mega bestie”, she finds support through other friends, her mum and her girlfriend. “Plus, I tell myself I need to make an effort,” she adds. “I'm pretty bad at communicating. I'm actually very introverted – despite how I might come across – so during peak friendship-building times like uni, for example, people sometimes got the impression I was a bit aloof rather than painfully shy and extremely awkward.”
Best friends are a complex business. Their intensity can sometimes make them feel like a kind of platonic love affair – but they can just as easily turn sour, or fail to come into fruition at all. Either way, whether you have one intensely close mate who you've agreed to adopt a child with if you're both single at 40, or actually don't like hanging out with anybody except your mum, that doesn't reflect on who you are as a person. We all have different relationship styles. Those relationship styles might change over time, or they might stay exactly the same – how a person navigates that is down to them.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.