Book Review -- MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend by Rachel Bertsche
Bertsche's friendship journey appealed to me for a couple of key reasons. It's set in Chicago. Bertsche is near my age, with a similar background and attitude. Most importantly, I wanted to know her process for making friends and see if we shared any experiences. After I relocated to a new city, making new friends and acquaintances felt very difficult for several months, and I was hoping this book would give me a little guidance.
Her writing tone is light-hearted and serious, with a style that focuses on personal anecdotes (from the successful to the embarrassing) and substantial relationship-based research. I think that combination makes the novel particularly appealing to anyone who has been in her shoes. Her story remains relatable: she moved to Chicago with her husband and wants to make the kinds of friends she left behind in New York, but isn't sure where to start. The research provides weight and depth to her efforts; without it, one might wonder who really cares if she does or doesn't make any friends. (Readers still may wonder that, especially if they've never encountered this type of hurdle).
The most helpful research, for me, involved the argument that "women should have 3-5 lifers, 5-12 close friends, 10-50 casuals and 10-100 acquaintances" (based on a Self article by Valerie Frankel). This analytic look at friendship surprised me, but it makes sense. My mother told me in high school that if I could count my closest friends on one hand later in life, I should consider myself lucky. At the time, I remember thinking five friends? For life? But I think it's probably correct.
Lifers are the people with whom you share a friendship spark; you may not talk every day or often, but they know your core, support your choices and value your input--for life. It would be challenging to maintain more than 5 "lifer" friendships, because it requires so much (valuable) work from both sides. These are your "home team" folks, as Shauna Niequist puts it in Bittersweet. These are the people you can call at 3 a.m. because you are "feeling upset." You can show up at their house and go directly to their refrigerator. You can have a fight or argument and then let it go the next day. You would do anything for these people, despite the inconvenience. And interestingly enough, you collect lifer friends throughout your life--so if you're reading this thinking, geez, I really only have one best friend, that's okay. You need lifers from different stages of life, because they offer you different gifts, and vice versa.
Close friends are the people you can count on, but may only be close to for a specific period of time. They are the ones that you might not call, but when you see them, it's like you didn't miss a beat. You don't worry about knowing every little detail of their lives, mostly because that's impossible, but also because the relationship doesn't require that level of intimacy. I don't think you really fight with close friends, because your time together is infrequent and consequently you just want to enjoy it.
Casuals are the people you do things with for a specific reason. Your book club, softball team, wine-tasting friend, running buddy, and so on. These are the people whose company you enjoy, and whom you can talk to about deeper subjects than the weather, but they're not in your speed dial.
Acquaintances are the people with whom you can small talk at the grocery store or on the sidewalk. I used to think that this type of friend didn't matter. I was wrong. When you're in a new place, the ability to see a familiar face and simply say hello, how are you is amazing. And often, acquaintances can move up the hierarchy of friendship to become casual or close friends.
As Bertsche repeatedly points on, making friends as a child, teenager and college-age student can be quite easy due to the structural systems already in place: elementary school, team sports, clubs, high school and college classes, parties, study abroad trips, etc. Post-high school or college, people begin to shift based on their lifestyle choices. In today's world, it isn't uncommon for an individual to move 3-5 times post-college graduation, or perhaps he or she gets married and has children. Those three factors are a massive differentiating factor in terms of making friends, because they push against the previous model of friendship: spending lots of time with someone repeatedly to develop connections.
Bertsche offers plenty of food for thought, but here are some of the most interesting excerpts:
“A large network of friends, it turns out, is a powerful deterrent against an early demise—even more so than close family ties. The evidence is overwhelming. Most notable is a 2010 study that found that social integration improves a person’s odds of survival by 50 percent.” (18)
Makes sense. Like the old saying goes, friends are the family you choose. Relationships are at the root of our happiness, so of course feeling socially connected and supported reinforces one's desire to live.
“There are four necessary behaviors to make a friendship stick. Self-disclosure, supportiveness, interaction and positivity.” (24)
Yes, yes, yes and yes. When I meet someone new, what do I look for? Someone who wants to get to know me or spend time with me (interact), who aims for peace and joy in their life (positivity), who offers a helpful hand or is a good listener (supportiveness) and who shares something personal (self-disclosure). All of those things strengthen connections.
“Research has found that both men and women get more emotional satisfaction from their relationships with women. Studies show that men think their wives are their best friends, and women think their best friends are their best friends. When marriages break up, social scientists say it’s the men who have the harder time. They’re suddenly left with no one. Women, usually, have friendships to fall back on that are nearly as intimate as the romantic relationships that failed them.” (41)
Literally ALL of my girlfriends have expressed this sort of sentiment, and I agree completely.
“There’s a theory in social psychology called the familiarity principle. The more you see someone, the more you’ll like her.” (61)
Yup, true despite gender. Unless you just don't like that person. But chances are, the more you see or get to know someone, the more affinity you will feel toward him or her.
“[According to Ann Patchett] Here’s my idea of real intimacy . . . It’s not the person who calls to say, ‘I’m having an affair’; it’s the friend who calls to say, ‘Why do I have four jars of pickles in my refrigerator?’” I want someone with whom I can talk about the deep stuff—hopes and dreams and expectations and disappointments—and also the minutiae. Sometimes it takes talking about everything to get to the place where we can talk about nothing.” (258)
I think this type of intimacy exists in both the best friendships and relationships. These are the people with whom you can switch from the serious to the silly in a second flat.
As I said, MWF Seeking BFF is a worthwhile read if you've ever wondered how to make friends. I grimaced, laughed and nodded my head throughout the book. Bertsche doesn't come to a radical conclusion, but her storytelling points out the reality of friendship nowadays. It's hard. It takes time. But it's worth it. Keep trying.