Almost every single woman I know does it — she keeps a running list of bridesmaids in her head, just in case she’s in a position where she has to decide in a split second who will stand up with her at the altar as she pledges undying love and fidelity to another. My list doesn’t really change — it only expands. I seem to collect close, irreplaceable friends with every move I make, and I know I couldn’t have that inevitable panic attack before I walk down the aisle without (all of) them standing there.
In a way I feel like we’ve stood at the end of the altar before (and, in fact, I have in several of their weddings). I feel like we’ve faced the worst and examined our lives, and we’ve come away with a kind of certainty that helps relationships breathe; we’re both still here, we’re not leaving, we’re fighting for each other — not against, and no matter how bad a fight is, the question will never be Will this be the one to end it all? Rather, I only have to answer How long will I be mad, and how will we reconcile?
These girls, all nine of them, have showed me the kind of communication and commitment most people only find in marriage. We have done battle together, through many tears and gallons of coffee and marathons of 90s-feel-good-sports movies.
When I came to college at 18 I didn’t know how to fight fair. Anger (feeling angry or being on the receiving end of another person’s) scared me. And conflict could only yield one result: the end of the relationship (or the inevitable beginning of the end). So my relationships were either explosive or repressive; I either expressed all of my emotions and said a million nasty things and pushed everyone away, or I swallowed it — every disagreement or hurt feeling or insecurity — and I prioritized keeping the relationship over my mental and emotional health. Obviously neither of these is beneficial.
But then I came to college, and things changed. I began to meet women (roommates, teammates and instant best-friends-forever) who wouldn’t let me push them away. We fought (boy did we fight), but they didn’t run. They stayed. By the grace of God, they stayed. They taught me that conflict didn’t equate to concession or conquering, and they gave me hope of a healthier way of living and relating.
Each of these women taught me something different. For one, it was the fierce loyalty that even in my nastiest, most depraved, most emotional state, she was there. For another, it was the relationships that come easiest are often the most valuable — we met in the midst of giggles and rain and haven’t stopped enjoying each other since. And for another, it was the opposite; she taught me relationships that require work — ones that force you to the conversation of “This is hard, really, really hard. But I’m choosing to be in. Are you in?” — have a kind of impenetrable strength that will shore you up on your weakest days.
And then there are women who make me laugh and let me cry. Women who hold all of my secrets with such grace and gentleness that they convince me I’m not as despicable as I often imagine. Women who work through my past trauma with me, with painstaking patience allowing me to be broken and wanting without ever feeling I was crazy in the process.
Mind you, there were those who didn’t respond this way. There were times when I would show a piece of my heart only to have it mocked or thrown back in my face in the middle of an argument. And while circumstances may have demanded I be in their spheres, they were no longer welcome in my inner sanctum. In “The Four Loves” (a must-read if ever there was one), C. S. Lewis describes friendship as “unnecessary, like philosophy, like art … It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.” If I find myself in a close friendship where I’m barely surviving, as opposed to gaining strength and purpose to survive, I have to remove myself. This isn’t selfish — it’s self-care.
My closest relationships have given me priceless gifts — they’ve made me a better communicator, a better friend and a better person — and they’ve also assured me of my worth. These women have seen the deepest and darkest parts of my soul, and they stuck around. They’ve been on the receiving end of my wrath and burnt chicken and thoughtlessness, and they’ve stayed. They affirm that something in me, no matter how much I think that part is overshadowed by the rest, is worth loving and knowing.
But I never could have the assurance I have in our friendships without letting them in to see the nastiest parts. If I would have kept them at arm’s length, their well-meaning acceptance of me would feel like false flattery at best. It’d be hollow. But I took the risk of baring my soul to these women, and they in turn have said exactly what we all long to hear: “I see you. I hear you. And I still love you.”
I know we shy away from these kinds of intimate relationships, but I wouldn’t be the person I am without them. They have molded and shaped me. They have helped me clear out my closets and repair the cracks in my soul. They have taught me selfless love, intentional communication and the blessings (and trials) of knowing and be known. They have reminded me that a marriage covenant is not the only kind of relationship that can model the gospel. While I can’t say I’ve stood at the altar with a man and pledged the rest of my life to him, I do feel confident I’ll live out the rest of my days with these nine women by my side. And I’m really, really excited for my wedding reception, because these ladies know how to throw down.
Copyright 2016 Joy Beth Smith. All rights reserved.