When Tillotson and West met as 18-year-olds, they didn’t set out to transgress relationship norms. They were on a mission to conform, aye ma’am-ing their way through Marine Corps boot camp in South Carolina, and referring to each other by their last name preceded by the title “Recruit.” Most evenings, Recruit Tillotson and Recruit West spent their hour of free time chatting in front of their shared bunk bed.
During these conversations, they discovered that West’s mom had just moved to a city that was a 20-minute ride away from Tillotson’s hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. West and Tillotson spent boot camp’s month-long break together, winding through the Tulsa suburbs in West’s mother’s black sedan, late-aughts rap pulsing through the rolled-down windows. For most of the next four years, they were stationed thousands of miles apart, including when Tillotson eventually deployed to Iraq. From afar, they coached each other through injuries, work woes, and relationship problems. Their friendship really blossomed once they both ended up in the Tulsa area for college, and they started to spend nearly every together day. By then, Tillotson was waiting for her divorce paperwork to be notarized, and West was a single mother caring for her 3-year-old, Kody.
When West got a job at a bar, Tillotson watched Kody during the so her friend could sleep day. Tillotson frequently joined West at preschool pickup. When the two women would walk down the hallway, past the miniature lockers, West said, “it was like the seas parted.” Tillotson could feel the parents’ eyes on her. Periodically, a teacher would sidle up to the two women, direct her gaze toward Tillotson, and ask, “Who is this?” “People would always ask us how we know each other, or, ‘Are you sisters?’ A lot of times people think we’re dating,” Tillotson, 31, said. It would take too long for West and Tillotson to explain the complexity and depth of their friendship to every questioner that is curious.
Kirn Vintage Stock / Getty / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic
With no lexicon to default to, people with friendships like West and Tillotson’s have assembled a collage of relationship language. They use terms such as soul friend that is best, platonic life partner, my person, ride or die, queerplatonic partner, Big Friendship. For some, these names serve a similar purpose as matching friendship necklaces—they’re tokens mainly meant for the two people within the friendship. Others, such as West and Tillotson, search for language that can make their relationship lucid to outsiders. West and Tillotson realized that people understand boot camp to be an intense setting, the kind of environment that could breed an friendship that is equally intense. When the friends began to refer to each other as “boot-camp besties,” people’s confusion finally faded.
For more than a decade, Nicole Sonderman didn’t mind if the only people who understood Rachel Hebner to her friendship were the two women who were part of it. Sonderman sums up their relationship as “having a life partner, and you just don’t want to kiss them.”
In the years when they both lived in Fairbanks, Alaska, the friends were fluent in the language of each other’s moods and physical changes. Before Hebner suspected that she might be pregnant, Sonderman made her buy a pregnancy test, steered her into the bathroom, and sat in the adjacent stall as Hebner took it. Four years later, the roles reversed: Hebner had the same premonition that is accurate Sonderman. “We paid more attention to each other than we did to ourselves,” Sonderman, 37, told me.
They occasionally navigated around other people’s confusion about or combativeness toward their friendship. Their term that is preferred of for each other, wife, wasn’t a problem for Sonderman’s then-husband. But once Hebner divorced her husband and started dating, her romantic partners got jealous, especially the women she dated. Sonderman grudgingly placated them by calling Hebner “wiffles” instead of wife.
After those years in Alaska, the pair spent a few years several time zones apart, as Sonderman and her then-husband moved around for his work. Eventually Sonderman moved back to Alaska, but Hebner had relocated to Indiana. Phone calls and occasional visits became their friendship’s support beams. Sonderman said that Hebner reached out less and less because she had no one else to take care of her daughter while she worked as she grappled with a cascade of difficulties: She was in an abusive romantic relationship and she lost her job. She was depressed. In October 2021, Hebner died by suicide.