What If Friendship, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life?
October 22, 2020 10:37 AM   Subscribe

Rhaina Cohen writes about the people who prioritize friendship over romance for The Atlantic Many of those who place a friendship at the center of their life find that their most significant relationship is incomprehensible to others. But these friendships can be models for how we as a society might expand our conceptions of intimacy and care.

The Northwestern University psychologist Eli Finkel identifies three distinct eras in American marriages. The first, running from the colonial period until about 1850, had a pragmatic focus on fulfilling spouses’ economic and survival needs; the second, lasting until about 1965, emphasized love. Finkel makes the case that starting around 1965, the “self-expressive marriage” became the ideal; spouses expected their partnership to be the site of self-discovery and personal growth. (Excluded from these structures for most of the nation’s existence were the tremendous number of Americans who were denied access to legal marriage, namely enslaved Black Americans, interracial couples, and same-sex couples.) Throughout this evolution, Americans started relying more and more on their spouses for social and emotional support, with friendships consigned to a secondary role.

In many ways, Americans are already redefining what loving and living can look like. Just in the past several months, experts and public intellectuals from disparate ideological persuasions have encouraged heterosexual couples to look to the queer and immigrant communities for healthy models of marriage and family. The coronavirus pandemic, by underscoring human vulnerability and interdependence, has inspired people to imagine networks of care beyond the nuclear family. Polyamory and asexuality, both of which push back against the notion that a monogamous sexual relationship is the key to a fulfilling adult life, are rapidly gaining visibility. Expanding the possible roles that friends can play in one another’s lives could be the next frontier.
posted by pjsky (31 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
One could argue that prior to the Protestant Reformation and the rise of the notion of companionate marriage, friendship (among property owning free men) was the primary social/political virtue, at least since the Romans.

Then male friendship, like so many other things, was warped first by the emergence of "the homosexual" as an identifiable social "type" and the homophobia that accompanied it, and then by toxic masculinity -- turning intimacy between men into something suspect rather something to be cherished.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:59 AM on October 22, 2020 [21 favorites]

Oddly, I came away from that article thinking, "why didn't those two best friends marry one another?"

If your best friend truly is the person you put before anyone else, the person you're buying a house with and sharing a life with, why are you marrying the guy who you like to date sometimes and maybe have sex with, instead of your life partner?
posted by explosion at 11:21 AM on October 22, 2020 [13 favorites]

Yeah this just sounds like privatizing* communities. Non capitalist societies were already doing this. And while I think it's great people want to bring them back, I don't like the idea of it being "friend" oriented. There are swathes of people that I can respect, value, and would want as a member of my community that I don't want to be friends with. Americans aren't redefining anything, we're trying to fit the things we've lost back into the status quo without breaking it. I'd rather break the status quo. And this is coming from someone who currently has a relationship like the first described - a non-romantic friend who I share my life and finances and dog with, etc.

*this is a pun, like "this is my own private community".
posted by FirstMateKate at 11:23 AM on October 22, 2020 [8 favorites]

There appears to be a lot of good thinking behind the make-friends leaning:

* For a better Marriage, act like a single person.

* School of Life's summary of Epicurus recognizes friendships as where we tend to be our most generous and key to happy living.

* Kurt Vonnegut is famous for his You are not enough people reading of the modern struggles in marriage.

If only good friends were easier to find/make. As the article says, there's less of a clear map here, and that includes founding: people know what dating for romance/mating is supposed to look like, but friendship is less clear.
posted by wildblueyonder at 11:30 AM on October 22, 2020 [11 favorites]

> why are you marrying the guy who you like to date sometimes and maybe have sex with, instead of your life partner

So you're suggesting a marriage that does not involve sex? I am legitimately asking, I don't see this suggested very often, and I'm interested in how that arrangement might work...
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 11:44 AM on October 22, 2020

I mean, there's no reason a marriage has to include sex. Please don't participate in the erasure of asexual people.
posted by rikschell at 11:47 AM on October 22, 2020 [32 favorites]

So you're suggesting a marriage that does not involve sex? I am legitimately asking, I don't see this suggested very often, and I'm interested in how that arrangement might work...

And a legitimate answer is "you would be married but not have sex with your spouse." That's how that arrangement might work. This isn't rocket science.
posted by tzikeh at 12:04 PM on October 22, 2020 [16 favorites]

Why does marriage have to be the default choice for 'legitimizing' a relationship?

In the parts of Canada that don't have Quebec's legal protections for common-law couples: financial, social, health and legal protections. Being able to claim a body after a fatal accident and be in charge of the funeral. Being able to protect visitation rights in case of separation. Being able to access dental benefits on a health plan. The usual things.

Those things could all change, and are changing with time, but change isn't instant. That's why allowing non-cis couples to marry was so freaking important. Being permitted to visit the one you love in hospital is a pretty big deal. And so on and so forth.
posted by bonehead at 12:13 PM on October 22, 2020 [19 favorites]

Why does marriage have to be the default choice for 'legitimizing' a relationship? Almost no one gets married where I live (Quebec, where the marriage rate hovers at around 26 percent for men, 30 percent for women), and it wasn't until I lived outside the province as a young person that I realized it was the norm elsewhere.

Social mores are entirely malleable, and the world is larger than our own social programming.

It's almost like you didn't RTFA.
posted by jordantwodelta at 2:43 PM on October 22 [2 favorites +] [!]

I think this is an extremely uncharitable reading of explosion's comment. No where does it suggest that marriage is a legitimizing factor - in fact, it's the opposite. If that relationship is so legitimate, why not get married it a platonic, non-sexual partner? After all, marriage is just a legal contract. If you already own property together, and share finances, why not have legal protections? You're projecting. Explosion isn't making the point "marriage is the only legit relationship", they're instead proposing "why can't literally any relationship be a marriage?"
posted by FirstMateKate at 12:26 PM on October 22, 2020 [18 favorites]

I feel like this is the inverse of
'Are you sure it's a boyfriend/girlfriend you want? Or just a talk therapist that you can have sex with?"
Something like 'do you want a wife/husband? Or a roommate who's splitting the mortgage and in your will?'
posted by bartleby at 1:00 PM on October 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

Whenever I think of this now, I can only think of this incredible Modern Love column by Jared Misner:

My best friend is gone, and nothing feels right anymore.
Before the doctors unplugged Alison in late April — one more body claimed by the coronavirus, lost amid the zeros and statistics to become a footnote in our sordid history — that’s who she was at her core: dedicated to perfection and superior gift-giving.

More than that, she was my best friend for 12 years, and even though I’m now married to a wonderful man, I’m not sure I’ll ever love someone like I loved Alison.
posted by mykescipark at 1:02 PM on October 22, 2020 [18 favorites]

Thanks all for building on and clarifying what I meant.

For whatever it's worth, society and government allows us to select one "favorite" person to form a contract with and share our lives with, and it's called "marriage."

There is no limit to the number of people we can share with, and it's a very valid debate if we should be allowed to have only one "favorite," but that's the tool that we have right now.

So my question was just, why reserve that "favorite" status for your monogamous sexual partner when it's clear in your heart that your favorite person is a close friend with whom you've built a life together?
posted by explosion at 1:15 PM on October 22, 2020 [3 favorites]

related askME from a while back:

Can we marry, even though we're both straight and male?

Ends up being more about how complicated "marriage and the law" can be.
posted by philip-random at 1:41 PM on October 22, 2020

You don't have to choose "get married and shut up" or "rail against inequality and never get married." It's a fallacy of an excluded middle.

I am married. We had no compelling reason to do it with regard to children or religion. We did it because it was practical due to the laws and tax codes.

The better the social safety nets a society has, the more it protects its people in general, the less necessary marriage might be. Unfortunately, I'm an American, so marriage confers great benefit, and choosing to not marry comes sometimes at a substantial cost.

So yeah, I can say both that marriage is largely bullshit, but also choosing not to get married on principle was too high a cost, in literal dollars.

Even if we had universal healthcare, no tax benefits, and good social programs, marriage confers a lot of practical benefits, like survivor benefits, inheritance, power of attorney, et cetera. If marriage were abolished, the very next day, a savvy attorney would come up with a standard contract that looked a hell of a lot like marriage, and a lot of folks would immediately be filing that, instead. It's just easier to nominate a single person than go through a list of the hundreds or small perks/responsibilities that come with marriage.

You say "there are jurisdictions and societies that create legal and social protections for relationships that are not marriage." Can you elaborate on that? Because mostly I'm just familiar with "civil unions," which are literally just marriage with a different name.
posted by explosion at 2:07 PM on October 22, 2020 [6 favorites]

jordantwodelta, are there a lot of platonic friends who are common law couples or in civil unions in Quebec? Because the article in the OP and (I believe) explosion/others on this thread are trying to talk about ways to make platonic friendship as legally privileged as romantic relationships. "Why not marry your best friend?" is just another way of saying "Why are legal and financial privileges reserved for romantic relationships only?" That question is not answered by talking about common law couples or civil unions because afaik, common law partnerships and civil unions are also for people who are romantically involved i.e. no different from marriage vis-a-vis this discussion.

And, heck, even if there are large numbers of platonic friends who are in common law partnerships or civil unions, that still isn't a good reason to object to the proposal that platonic friends should just get married if they desire the specific legal & financial implications of marriage.
posted by MiraK at 3:01 PM on October 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Deleted a derail about Quebec civil unions and common law unions, which was explaining things that were not-marriage for romantic partners, which is not what this article is about. It's about friendships between people who may or may not have external romantic partners, and how those should be handled in the law, *other than* "people have always been able to marry opposite-sex friends (and since the last two decades-ish in many countries, same-sex friends."
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 3:40 PM on October 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

why can't literally any relationship be a marriage?

This is effectively the legal situation here in DC, which is another way we're actually weirdly more progressive than most of the US despite having no functional representation in Congress.

In honor of national caps lock day: MAKE DC A STATE. AND TAKE NOTES.
posted by aspersioncast at 4:52 PM on October 22, 2020 [8 favorites]

This was a great read, and resonates with me on a lot of levels. I spent my 20's and early 30's trying to build romantic/sexual relationships even though they made me feel either intensely self-conscious/insecure or skin-crawlingly smothered. Now I'm older and wiser and living with two platonic life partners who make me feel happier and more secure than any romantic partner ever did or could. Every time I read another ask-me about is-he/she-not-that-into-me I feel insufferably smug about my entire existence.
posted by invincible summer at 5:01 PM on October 22, 2020 [5 favorites]

Related (and a follow-up to my earlier comment): Men Have No Friends and Women Bear the Burden (this may have been posted on MeFi)

Pull quote:
American men ... grow up believing that they should not only behave like stoic robots in front of other men, but that women are the only people they are allowed to turn to for emotional support—if anyone at all.
I look at my parents and see how 45 years of my dad's bullshit has turned my mom into a shell of a person, then I remember my own past relationships and understand why I'm twice divorced: I made my wives (consecutive, not simultaneous) bear the burden of my emotional needs. As someone said in another thread, I've been spending the last 20 years unlearning what I learned in the first 20.
posted by Saxon Kane at 5:32 PM on October 22, 2020 [11 favorites]

I appreciated the Quebec comments because they were specific about legal and social statuses that could be unbundled. I thought the article was a little loose on whether it was advocating for something. Almost certainly some social support, or it wouldn’t require advocacy. So - what support? With what commitment of the part of the serious-friends? Can I have a socially supported friend relationship and also a marriage? Are we going to require contributions from employers? How?

I liked the paragraph that said society had an interest in supporting relationships that supported caretaking, and then at the end of the same paragraph commitment came up, but it wasn’t very precise about how those are related. And I think that’s the really important part, whether within or without social support.
posted by clew at 6:30 PM on October 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

There's reasons for soulmate-ish best friends not getting married. There are 18 states in which adultery is a crime, and 9 in which it it has a strong impact on divorce. It's very very rare for anyone other than the married couple to press charges for adultery, but if one member of the couple wants out of the marriage, "the other person slept with someone else [first]" can drastically change how the divorce works.

And that's aside from the issues of explaining to dates that you're not cheating: you're not romantically involved with your spouse; no really; yes, they know and they do this too; no, this isn't polyamory exactly...

That said, I'm hoping for more best-friend marriages as people realize the legal benefits. There's no other way to force society to take a long hard look at how "marriage" functions in the law vs how it's assumed to function in communities. There are absolutely no contracts people can draw up between themselves that give them the benefits of marriage - no way to get the tax arrangements, the same medical proxy rights, the right (requirement) not to testify against each other, the same inheritance rights, and many other details. There are contracts that cover for some of that, but they're all erratically allowed depending on location.

Who can turn in an absentee ballot? In some states, only a family member.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 8:41 AM on October 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

I tried having a romantic relationship with my best friend in my early twenties - it was fine while it lasted, and we're still fast friends, but it was definitely not the best relationship for either of us.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:52 AM on October 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

There's no other way to force society to take a long hard look at how "marriage" functions in the law vs how it's assumed to function in communities.

How are you hoping society will respond? Could go several ways.
posted by clew at 10:00 AM on October 23, 2020

I'm reminded of Donna Haraway's call for us to make kin instead of making children: an interview. One fascinating book.

For example,
Making kin seems to me the thing that we most need to be doing in a world that rips us apart from each other, in a world that has already more than seven and a half billion human beings with very unequal and unjust patterns of suffering and well-being. By kin I mean those who have an enduring mutual, obligatory, non-optional, you-can’t-just-cast-that-away-when-it-gets-inconvenient, enduring relatedness that carries consequences...

I’m talking about redefining family and I feel like my own family has been a tiny little piece of living that, including my biogenetically related kin.

She's also talking about relationships between humans and other species, which goes beyond TFA, but her notion of creatively building new inter-human relationship structures seems allied to TFA.
posted by doctornemo at 10:11 AM on October 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

More than that, she was my best friend for 12 years, and even though I’m now married to a wonderful man, I’m not sure I’ll ever love someone like I loved Alison.

I'm also fortunate to have a best friend like Alison, for 14 years and counting. We met in university, locked eyes from across the room during an orientation session where we both felt nervous and out of place, and instantly understood each other, we just knew. When I moved back to my home city after graduation, we lasted about a year apart before she convinced her new fiance to pick up and move here too. Best friend can hardly describe our bond. We have our ups and downs of course, but both of us know that we are permanent fixtures in each other's lives. No one will ever replace her.

We both married male partners. Her now-husband once remarked on his place in the pecking order. If her husband and I were both falling off a cliff, and my best friend only had time to save one of us, he said he was certain that she would save me instead of him him. My best friend and I just looked at each other and laughed our asses off, because it was true.

When I divorced my first husband and my life ran completely off the rails, all my dreams unraveling before my eyes, my best friend was there to pick up the shreds of me that were left. She was my constant reminder of who I really was, the true self that I seemed to have lost. Without her, I honestly don't know what would've become of me. I'm engaged to my partner of 4 years now, but against 14 years of best friendship, 4 years seems so brief.

I had often felt a pang of insecurity? inadequacy? when seeing others write long, gushy captions under birthday and anniversary social media posts for their partners, describing ad nauseum all the ways in which their partner is their best friend. I can't relate to that, at all, and being the neurotic overthinker that I am, for a long time I've wondered if it was a red flag that I couldn't conceive of my fiance as my best friend. It seemed like my relationship must be somehow "lesser" in significance if he was not also my best friend.

The odd thing is, I have far more in common with my partner in terms of hobbies and interests. We spend much more time together in all the ways partners do, chores and errands, trips and outings, curled up under a blanket on the couch watching Netflix, pondering plans and futures, dinners with family and friends. But I could never see him as my best friend, I realized, because my best friend had already so long preceded him, and my best friendship is so singular, so exceptional, that it just would not be possible. I really liked this read and the ensuing discussion. I feel more empowered to simply enjoy my friendship and relationship for what they are, how they came into my life, and the respective roles they play.
posted by keep it under cover at 12:33 PM on October 23, 2020 [7 favorites]

My best friend has been my best friend for almost 2/3 of my life now, more than two decades at this point. We are both operating under the assumption that when we’re old and our husbands die, we will move in together. Maybe we’ll get married just to ensure that everyone takes our bond seriously.

(I am reminded of the South Park episode where Kenny is on life support and Cartman uses his “BFF” relationship (evidence: necklace with half a BFF heart) to keep him alive or (maybe dead I can’t remember) and the courts take it seriously over the wishes of Kenny’s parents)
posted by LizBoBiz at 12:53 PM on October 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

"seeing others write long, gushy captions under birthday and anniversary social media posts for their partners, describing ad nauseum all the ways in which their partner is their best friend. I can't relate to that, at all,"

Saaaaaaaaaaaame. My BFF and I have been BFFs for ... God, 28 years now, beginning in high school. We had a little party when our friendship turned 21 and was old enough to drink. :) We stood up in each others' weddings; she's Jewish, but she's my oldest son's (Catholic) godmother, because -- as I told the priest -- there is no one I would trust more to carry out my wishes about his faith education if I died. We have pictures of each others' families on our walls! When people were like, "Your spouse should be your best friend!" I was like, I already HAVE a best friend, I wasn't introducing a spouse to displace that! I wouldn't have gotten married to someone who would displace that! I was absolutely clear to my husband when we were dating that if she didn't approve, he was out.

To me, best friendship feels less complicated than marriage. Marriage is (usually conceived of in the US as) a romantic, sexual, financial, emotional, and (sometimes) parenting partnership. That is a lot of things to argue about. My BFF is just (just!) my BFF. I am ride-or-die for her, and by extension her entire family, but if she's raising her kids in a way I find weird (but not harmful), I can just shrug. If my husband is doing that, we're gonna fight about it. If I had to characterize it as "like" another relationship, I'd say it's like having another sister (as someone who is very close with my actual sister).

I'm not sure what legal recognition I'd want for our relationship, since we're in each others' families lives (my parents invite her to our family holidays, and vice versa), our separate faith communities have been very welcoming of us participating in each others' religious milestones/events, we're both married with our own children so housing and inheritance is more focused on that, we're each others' kids' emergency contact for school etc., and Illinois is an easy state to create health care powers of attorney (for free, by yourself) if we for some reason wanted to do that. But I just feel like our friendship is very socially sanctioned by our communities, and when I say "We've been best friends since high school," everyone's like, "Oh, I get it." (And people who knew us in high school are ZERO PERCENT SURPRISED that we remain a package deal.)

I do understand why people would want that, though. I know a woman (Betty) who, when she was first married and lived in a little apartment, she met her neighbor (Jane) across the hall, and they were just SOUL MATES. And Betty's husband Bob was kind-of a taciturn guy, but he and Jane got along like gangbusters, and then Betty and Jane could talk for hours on end and Bob could chill and paint wooden ducks. When Bob and Betty had to move, because they were going to have kids, Betty and Jane just cried and cried and cried because they couldn't stand the idea of living apart. Anyway, Bob found a house with a carriage house in back with an apartment, Jane moved into the carriage house, and they all lived happily like that for FORTY YEARS, Jane as the beloved maiden aunt to the kids and eventual grandkids. (I think today Jane would probably identify as asexual.) Bob once told me he wouldn't still be married if not for Jane, because Betty needed a lot more social interaction at home than he could really provide. They're all in each others' wills and have medical decision-maker authority. But it would be nice if they could formalize those arrangements without hiring a lawyer, and if society had words for that relationship and were more broadly accepting of it. (Looooooooot of people over the years just assumed Betty was a lesbian and social rules of the time prevented her from being with a woman, but Betty was quite upfront in talking about it.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:00 PM on October 23, 2020 [10 favorites]

Somehow the relationships described here kind of remind me of my reaction to the relationship between Bill S. Preston and Theodore "Ted" Logan, as depicted in the third Bill And Ted movie. The adult Bill & Ted were bound at the hip to an extent that "lifelong best bros" only begins to approach. Nothing sexual, but they'd always been there for each other, and always would be. It got exaggerated for comic effect, but it definitely felt like a caricature of a real thing that we kind of just don't have words, or social space for, and now here's this article.
posted by egypturnash at 4:11 PM on October 23, 2020 [3 favorites]

This article and the comments (particularly Eyebrows') are refreshing to read. In my circles I get the message that my spouse is like a friend, but MORE, and it doesn't ring especially true - friendships, romance, and life partnerships have overlaps but aren't the same. And that our marriage is somehow a failure if we aren't each others' best friends. So it's nice to know that there are others who recognize that while whole romance and deep friendship are both interpersonal relationships and therefore can have a lot of overlap, they aren't necessarily the same thing. Especially Eyebrows' comment about differences that you can ignore with a friend but absolutely must be discussed with a spouse. For me, there's also things that I can say to a friend that might be gentle take-it-or-leave-it feedback, but with my spouse might be deeply cutting and a source of anxiety for years.

I think the article was by necessity a little all over the place, as the author seems to be dipping her toes in a very wide range of related topics: Friendships deeper than marriages; legal recognition of relationships that are significant but not romantic (in the popular conception of the word); historical changes to what is "acceptable" in relationships that are not primarily romantic. I hope we hear more because I think it's an area that could stand some examination.
posted by Tehhund at 1:30 PM on October 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

I was struck by how the friendships in the article were so different from one another yet obviously all so meaningful for their participants. I enjoyed learning what made each of the relationships special. The article also made me think of Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman's Big Friendship, a book-length attempt to think through how to commit to friendship, which is worth a read.
posted by ferret branca at 8:00 PM on October 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

Eyebrows and Tehhund, your thoughts on friendship and marriage articulated something that I’ve been trying to get my head around for ages. It’s completely true. I can be much more free with my best friend in what I share with her. In most cases, my decisions and whims may impact my life direction, but won’t much affect our friendship. So there is more room for the kind of radical honesty that could be held as setting off a bomb in a romantic relationship - or at the very least, being insensitive and hurtful. It’s not that I can’t be honest with my partner, but the stakes of sharing certain things are so much higher. Thoughts that my best friend wouldn’t judge me on, wouldn’t even bat an eye at, could be very hard to hear for my partner.

And my best friend and I already know that even if we were wired that way, there would be no chance of us being successful romantic partners. We are much too different. Aspects of her personality and mine that have no bearing on a friendship, even one as close as ours, would be fatal for a relationship. For one, she hates cuddling and tolerates it from her husband only as much as she needs to prevent hurting his feelings. They found their mutually tolerable balance through much trial, it’s just not her love language at all. She and I laugh about how cold that is, it’s funny to chat about it between us women, but if I was her husband in the situation I would be gutted. Meanwhile she only has to deal with my mood swings when I call her crying about whatever issue currently has me freaking out, but my partner has to deal in person, in real time.

It’s just an impossible comparison, imo. My best friend is not my partner and couldn’t be, and vice versa.
posted by keep it under cover at 10:26 AM on October 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

« Older Majoring in sports   |   How to online conference in 2020? Make a MUD! Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments