I’ve spent six years of my life as “the friend with the boyfriend,” and exactly that same amount of time pretending not to be. I have always hated the word boyfriend. There’s something cloying about it, like cheap perfume. It doesn’t have the sweet sturdiness of “friend” or the impressive resonance of “husband.” Instead, it sounds childish. Unintellectual. Trifling.
I realize I’m projecting a lot of my own baggage onto nine measly letters. From the moment I agreed to my best male friend’s proposal that we take our relationship from platonic to not in the fall semester of ninth grade, I’ve felt the (admittedly heteronormative) weight of the double-edged sword of a double standard — that women are both defined by their ability to lock down a guy and judged for obsessing over this very objective.
Since I willingly sliced my heart on the first edge of the aforementioned blade when I accrued a boyfriend at the age of 14, I fought as hard as I could against the typical trappings of boyfriend-having lest I cut myself on the second — the PDA, the couple photos, the Facebook status (RIP), the word itself — all the things I fretted might convict me of complicity in googly-eyed, boyfriend-obsessed stereotypes.
I fought to retain the aspects of my identity I deemed worthy of value: my bookishness, my sense of humor, my female friendships. The first two were relatively easy — the latter, a bit trickier. I was the only one of my close friends with a relationship that lasted almost all four years of high school (at a wonderfully microcosmic petri dish of a boarding school, no less), so I truly was The Friend With The Boyfriend, a status rendered even more isolating by virtue of the fact that what I had was supposedly something everyone wanted.
In my head, any time spent with my boyfriend equaled time away from my female friends. I worried that, as their essentialness to each other became more solidified without me, my role in the friend group would be eclipsed, edged out by the expansion of an intimacy too big to accommodate a less-devoted member. I subconsciously blamed my boyfriend for taking me away from them, and I was unfair to him sometimes as a result. I was too inexperienced to know how to handle the bigness of my feelings for both him and my friends. Instead of coexisting, they competed.
I remember going to a hilariously hyped-up dance called the Gold & Silver Ball junior year and dancing with my boyfriend on one side of the room while I watched my friends dance in a circle on the other side. It gave me so much anxiety I pretended to be sick and left early.
To complicate things further, I was very much in love, with a boy, for the first time in my life. I think that’s why whenever I said the words “my boyfriend,” it felt like I was cutting open my chest and showing people my guts. In my teenage awkwardness, I lacked the confidence to navigate that amount of vulnerability with grace, so I squashed it into something small and mockable instead.
I was also very much in love with my female friends — a feeling that pre-dated my boyfriend-having status by a long shot. Female friendship is magnificently intense, especially in high school, which is part of what makes it difficult at times. The unearthing of our identities to each other, the collective responsibility of witnessing our simultaneous growing up, the gossip, the crushes, the breaking of curfew, the acne cream, the uncertainty…at its best, it amounted to an unparalleled closeness, at its worst, a covert possessiveness. I think that’s why my absences felt so significant to me — and maybe to my friends, too.
As I write this now, I’m still navigating the role of “the friend with the boyfriend.” It’s a lot easier than it used to be for a whole bunch of reasons: being out of high school (which incidentally makes almost everything in life easier), getting better at integrating my boyfriend into my friend group and vice versa, having an independent life and a job I love that takes up a large chunk of my time and energy, being older and more cognizant of the reality that not every little thing matters so much and everyone is usually just thinking about themselves and not paying attention to what I’m doing (in other words: I’m not that important! And that’s a good thing!), being more secure about what I want and what makes me happy, developing an understanding with my boyfriend in which we actually encourage each other to spend time with our friends separately and — most crucially — just generally caring less about what other people think.
I’m a people-pleaser to the core, so I still get anxious if I feel like I’m letting a friend down for choosing to spend time with my boyfriend, or the other way around. But I’ve figured out that I don’t have to be a bad friend to be a good girlfriend, or a bad girlfriend to be a good friend. Knowing that feels like kicking off my shoes after a long trip.