In America, we have no real sense of what the word “friend” means in our everyday vernacular. I noticed that we have this interesting cultural piece where “friend” represents everyone from the person who has seen and supported me when I was in shambles to my partner’s co-worker’s friend with whom I share no commonality or connection.

I’m an over-analyzer with a particular interest in human behavior and a sprinkle of social anxiety (fitting traits for a therapist), so indulge me for a moment. 

What is it that makes someone a friend? 

Is proximity enough to create a friend? Am I friends with the person I see and chat with when I go to my regular coffee shop? The kind of relationship that will never break the surface of idle chit chat about the cold weather and planned tasks as I unzip my laptop case? 

Do we define friendship based on our levels of the vulnerable sharing of our deep, dark secrets? Am I friends with the person I shared a car with, the one who mourned their best-friendship with their dying mother?

What if our spiritual or religious faiths say that everyone is a friend? How do they – if they – define the friends that are the ones who sit next to them when they’ve fallen and hold their hand while they get up? 

My existential rambling brings me back to the middle school playground when classmates would get into arguments about how “X was Y’s best friend.” Or how it was impossible to have more than one best friend because best meant best

There are also circumstances that shatter our definition of what family is. What becomes of the line between friends and family? 

In the LGBTQIA+ community, we often talk about chosen family. Chosen family are the people we choose to have in our lives, the ones who fulfill the most important roles in our lives – roles often abandoned by the biological family members who were supposed to fulfill them. This is a family that is not biologically or legally determined. It transcends these boundaries. 

In Latinx families who have a Catholic ceremony, we have padrinos and madrinas, or godfathers and godmothers. They are often people who are so special to our parents or to us, that we entrust our lives or the lives of our children into their care. I’ve had friends note similar religious observations of family in Black communities and in Korean immigrant communities. 

I’ve seen the impact that systemic fractures and trauma have on and within a biological family. What of the person whose family has injured, traumatized, or invalidated them? When the relational bond is devoid of love or care, when it saps more from the person than revitalizes them? Do we still call them family?

The messy, emotional, and experiential nature of human interaction makes it just so, so hard to label them neatly. Labeling them is my initial desire because then I can give my brain a shortcut by automating my reactions. Like an efficient Excel document with fancy formulas. It’s what most brains would like to do.

Some of my relationships – friendships and family and anything perpendicular – feel this easy and predictable. That’s okay. Some definitely do not, and that’s okay if I’m okay with it (usually I am not and that’s okay, too). I’ve had to practice very intentionally that these are all relationships to me and I can label them however I want. 

What matters more, however, is how these relationships interact with me.

My internal questioning changes with this sentiment of curiosity. How does this relationship bring me joy? What values do I bring into this dynamic? Are these the parts of myself I want to flourish? What can I do either externally or internally to help these relationships feel satisfying for me? The tension of labeling softens for me as I make space for the ambiguity that comes with complexity.