Can your friend be your greatest love?

For as long as Hollywood has been making movies, it’s been selling us the dream of finding the one.

But as relationship dynamics continue to change, more people are abandoning their search for the romantic one and embracing friendship in its place. This idea of friends being among the great loves of a person’s life is central to Stan’s latest series, Everything I Know About Love.

Adapted from the memoir of bestselling British author Dolly Alderton, the series tracks the intricacies, tensions and many joys that exist within long-term friendships. It also embraces the re-evaluation of what love can be and look like, and who it comes from.

A lot of people tend to overvalue romantic relationships, says Dr Michelle Lim, a loneliness researcher from Swinburne University. We tend to see them as a sign that we’ve got it together, that there’s nothing wrong with us. Historically, we haven’t applied that same significance to friendships and we’ve seen them as more of a background thing, but that’s not the case at all: good friendships are critical to our wellbeing.

For housemates Melissa van Dartel and Hanna Vasils, 15 years of friendship has seen them support each other through major changes like breakups, new careers, health issues (both live with ADHD and Vasils with or PMDD) and the loss of a family member, as well as regular daily life, in a way that historically would be reserved for a romantic partner.

With a friendship, a lot of the crisis points that can exist in a romantic relationship (having kids, buying a house, getting married) are removed. Instead, you’re both just supporting each other towards separate goals, Van Dartel says.

I also think knowing someone for a long time and seeing them in different stages of life – positive or negative – and watching how they handle things and grow is really beautiful. There aren’t any other relationships where you can experience that sort of intimacy while also being outside of it.

According to Lim, longevity and adaptability are key to lasting friendships, as are shared world views and an understanding of the give-and-take dynamics of any relationship.

When we’re younger, friendship is often about quantity, not quality. But as we age there’s almost a compression of friendship and the quality becomes much, much higher. And that builds over a long period of time; it’s rarely one big event but rather those minor interactions, the mundane stuff, she says.

For Van Dartel and Vasils, the depth of quality came in 2020 when Van Dartel ended a 10-year-long relationship and Vasils offered unwavering support.

It was really helpful to be able to see and speak to someone I knew and trusted and who also knew and trusted me in return. The familiarity and understanding made it so much easier to cope, Van Dartel says.

Just being able to sit comfortably in each other’s silence or burst into tears and know that I wouldn’t have to explain anything or feel like I was a burden was really healing.

Despite their closeness, they were conscious of the potential pitfalls of becoming housemates. They decided to visit a psychologist together to air their concerns and create a plan before making the jump – something Lim says is essential.

We like to think that people don’t change, but they do. And when that happens your expectations of your friendship might change, so how you both navigate that really does matter.

The plan included a weekly check-in with questions such as any challenges they have coming up in the week, things they’re looking forward to, and anything they appreciate the other having done for them recently. It clearly worked: a year into living together, they are closer than ever.

We both have different skills and we’ve really embraced that, Van Dartel says. I cook, she cleans. Every morning she brings me a coffee in bed and reminds me to take my medication, and I am always onboard to help her with her assignments or to support when she’s struggling with her PMDD.

Vasils agrees. One of the benefits of knowing each other so well is that we’re not trying to impress the other person. It’s just love, support and encouragement without the pressure or insecurities that can come up in a romantic relationship. We go with each other to medical appointments and job interviews, but also watch movies for hours and go op-shopping on our days off.

Lim says she hopes that everyone learns to embrace the model of having emotional needs fulfilled outside of traditional stereotypes.

I always laugh when I see the end of movies where the main character has found ‘the one’, because it’s not a realistic depiction of love, Lim says.

For some people, it is one person or one friend and that’s OK, but for most of us it is a group of different people who are able to collectively meet all of our different needs, and I think that’s really beautiful.

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