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January 16, 2013

Are Girlfriends the New Husbands?

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That's how it was for Manhattan speech pathologist Robyn Kitto, 30, and her best friend, 29-year-old Alison Pepper, a social worker. "We started referring to each other as 'wife' when we lived together" five years ago, says Kitto. "We realized how well we worked as a cohabitation unit: She hates cleaning the bathroom, which I'm fine with, and I hate doing the dishes. We'd leave flowers and cards for each other. There's no question that she's going to show up for every important event in my life, like a spouse would."

The women grew so close, in fact, that before Kitto met her current boyfriend, her open-minded mother pulled her aside and — considering how happy her daughter seemed to be around Pepper — asked if perhaps she ought to consider taking their relationship to the next level. (Kitto insisted she was straight, and they shared a good laugh over it.) Kitto has since moved out; she recently bought an apartment with her boyfriend. Marriage isn't out of the realm of possibility. Still, she and Pepper text multiple times a day and see each other often, and Kitto readily admits that, in many areas, her friendship with Pepper is on equal footing as her relationship with her guy. "I rely on Alison for things I can’t rely on my partner for; she's more empathetic than he is," says Kitto.

The problem, of course, is that because there's no duty in a friendship to hang in and ride out rough patches, as there is (at least in theory) in a marriage, it's way easier to call it quits with a pal than with a husband. Relying on a friend the way you might a spouse can be fraught with peril. "Responsibilities are clearer in a marriage or family," says psychologist Irene Levine, Ph.D., author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend. "In a friendship, what's too much to ask? When are you too demanding? Boundaries are more amorphous and harder to define. You might be more free to tell your husband that he's acting too needy, but that same criticism could threaten the very foundation of a friendship."

Case in point: Alida Almonte, a 30-year-old software marketing manager in Islip, New York, and her best friend of eight years, Brittany Bessemer, 28, stopped speaking for three months after Almonte took issue with Bessemer's boyfriend. "I didn't think he treated her with respect, and Brittany wanted me to mind my own business," says Almonte. Prior to their standoff, they were so close that Almonte had taken Bessemer to visit her family in the Dominican Republic, and she'd once lived in the basement apartment in Bessemer's home. She recalls many nights walking in from work during those two years to find that Bessemer, a single mother of a young boy, had cooked dinner for all three of them. They'd begun to behave like a traditional family. "I'd eat breakfast with them in the mornings before going to work," Almonte adds. They repaired their relationship only after Bessemer broke up with her boyfriend.

Another downside: This type of companionship may, ever so slightly, make women less willing to take on the risks inherent in dating, to plow through the occasionally exasperating pitfalls of romance. "We always joke that we're still single because we'd rather spend time with each other than go on an awkward date," admits Almonte.

For many tight-knit friends, the lure of romance just isn’t as compelling as it used to be. If you've already got a better half, why bother searching for a male one — is the sex that important anyway? "The amount of time we've invested in each other certainly could've been spent pursuing relationships with men," says Lisa Osborne, a Los Angeles–based entrepreneur, about her best friend of 22 years, editor Melissa Carey. After they graduated from Northwestern University, Osborne left to work at a newspaper in Florida while Carey headed to New York. The duo caught up every night over marathon phone sessions, continuing even after Osborne moved to Germany and then the Netherlands for a new job. "My home-phone bill was $300 a month, and at the office, we were talking to each other while the cleaning crews worked around us," recalls Osborne.

Both women are now 42 and single. And though they'd love to be paired up, neither is really looking for a boyfriend. "Sure, we could’ve spent time dating or going out to clubs, but we were invested in each other, and I'd never say, 'I want my 20 years back,'" says Osborne. "We've reaped as much as we've invested. Your best friend has all of your history, and there's shorthand between you. A guy can't mimic that."

Cynthia Hill used to fantasize about being in a long-term relationship: the Caribbean vacations spent lolling in the sun, trimming the tree come Christmas, having a family together. And, of course, slipping into bed at the end of the day with someone special. And that could still happen. But for now, much of her wish list is checked off by her best friend. "Sure, Cathy isn't a total husband replacement," Hill says. "But my married friends don't seem to be getting the support I get from her." In the meantime, she says, she's fine with the way things are. Better than fine — thrilled, satisfied, blessed even. She isn't sure she'll ever be married at this point, but between her demanding job, caring for her son, and a social life full of close friends, she doesn't give it much thought. After all, she found someone incredible to grow old with. "Did I ever think I'd be putting my best friend's name down on my living will as the one to 'pull the plug' if need be? No," Hill says, laughing. "But now that I'm here, it's a pretty perfect life."


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