As a rule, you should never gauge how your life is going based on what you see in commercials. But a few years ago, my wife Susan and I were watching TV, and a dopey Zales ad came on. It started the same way every other jewelry ad does — handsome dude, pretty woman, moony looks of love all around — before the voiceover introduced the Ever Us Two-Stone Diamond Ring by saying it’s the perfect gift “because she’s your best friend … and your true love. … One diamond for your best friend, one diamond for your true love — for the one woman who’s both.”
Normally, I’d roll my eyes at sales pitches like that. But there was something about the idea of pairing your true love with your best friend that made me shudder. Susan was my true love (and wife of 12 years), but did I consider her my best friend, too? For years, my best friend has been my old pal Will, who I’ve known since we were preteens. But even though he and I are still very close, Susan now knows more about me than anyone else — even Will. So, technically, I suppose she is my best friend.
If I lived in a Zales World, this realization would make me happy. So why did I suddenly get nervous?
There are plenty of statistics that show that men have a harder time maintaining friendships as they become adults. A recent British study suggests men hit peak loneliness at age 35, and MEL staff writer John McDermott has written about the factors that keep guys from being as good as women at cultivating emotionally engaged friendships. Marriage, career and children are often cited as reasons for why men start becoming lone wolves, but the understanding that my experience might be fairly common didn’t soothe me. Choosing Susan as my best friend felt absolutely correct, and yet, I sensed I was cutting off a part of myself that I’d always valued.
In my college and immediate post-college years, I was somebody with lots of different social circles that didn’t necessarily intersect and, therefore, gave me opportunities to partake in lots of different worlds.
This behavior didn’t carry over with girlfriends, though. I’ve always been a committed, monogamous kinda guy, logging several years-long relationships in my lifetime. Once I’d get into a steady relationship, however, I could feel a tension between being with my girlfriend and seeing my friends. And without fail, I always chose the girlfriend. Blame it on a happy childhood: I grew up in a family where my dad didn’t go out with the guys after work — he came home and was a devoted father and husband. My dad’s family is everything to him, and along the way, I internalized the idea that the happy ending was settling down and making your house your entire world.
When I started dating Susan in 2003, we’d been friends for four years. When we met, she’d just moved to L.A., and I introduced her to people in my social circle — we got to know each other because we were connected to the same extended friend group. When our feelings changed for one another, friendship turning to attraction, it seemed like the best-case scenario — my social circle and my love life becoming a tightly intersecting Venn diagram.
To this day, Susan and I can’t agree on who said “I love you” first. I’m convinced I waited for her to say it; she’s sure she waited for me. Likewise, I can’t quite remember which of us acknowledged first in our marriage that the other person was our best friend. We can’t even agree what exactly a “best friend” even means. “I feel like you’re my husband best friend,” she tells me. “I have a lot of friendships in my life, and they’re all very important to me. But you’re the person I want to share everything with — you’re the person I want to tell things.”
Our relationship is a lot like my mom and dad’s. Married for 47 years this summer, they have very different friend circles. “She has a lot of friends, and I do not” is how my father put it when I talked to them the other day over the phone. “Essentially, I have her and not really very many other people. For her birthday, she gets a bunch of cards from her friends.” For my dad’s birthday, it’s mostly just cards from family.
My dad was 20 when he got married, and he has no compunction about calling my mom his best friend. “I would think it’s strange if she wasn’t,” he says. “It seems to me that your spouse should always be the person to whom you’re closest — whether you call them your best friend or not, I’m not exactly sure.”
Meanwhile, my mom has friends she goes to lunch or movies with. My dad does just about everything with my mom — if she’s not available, he doesn’t go out. “This may be totally sexist, but I know it’s true with myself and my [female] friends that, a lot of times, women need other women to talk to,” my mom says. “Dad can talk to me about stuff, but sometimes a woman needs a woman to talk to. I’m sure there are things that men feel that they can only talk to with other men about, but your father isn’t that way. He feels that anything that needs to be talked about, he can talk to me about.”
As for me, I still have friends, but that urge to seek them out has waned a little. It makes me feel lazy — and a little guilty. But apparently, not alone. “I’m often reminded of my own parents, who are also each other’s best friends, and I wonder if perhaps that ideal I grew up with was what I waited for,” says my friend Robert, a fellow writer who’s been married to Margy for almost 15 years. Like Susan and me, he and Margy had been friends for a few years before they started dating. “I didn’t date heavily before getting together with Margy,” he tells me, “so I responded strongly to the friendship Margy and I nurtured over those first years getting to know each other. It served as the best foundation for the deep love I feel for her, the beauty I see in her and the companionship she offers that strengthens me.”
Bob, who like Robert has been married for nearly 15 years, is far blunter about why he considers his wife his best friend: “My wife is cool, she’s fun, she always surprises and intrigues me. We don’t get a lot of time to socialize so when we do, I want to do stuff with her.”
“We’re fucking adults,” Bob continues. “That means we’re busy and have responsibilities. I’m 40 years old and have a wife, two kids, a business, employees, a mortgage, a dog and a 17-year-old cat. If I spend my time socializing outside of that circle, to the point where someone could be considered my best friend, then people could literally die. I don’t want that, so it tends to cut down on my social life. It’s these heavy, life-and-death decisions and responsibilities that only my wife and I truly understand. If our business blows up and the bank comes for our house and throws the kids out on the street, then I want my best friend, my wife, figuring shit out in the foxhole with me — not my buddy I grab brews with at the bar.”
That foxhole mentality has helped bond Susan and me, too. But I also worry that proximity has started playing a bigger and bigger role as I get older as well. Namely, she’s right there. That’s an incredibly comforting feeling, but it’s also slightly disconcerting, that sense of grim inertia and routine bearing down on me. Years later, I’m still haunted by the response an older guy once gave me about what it was like to be married: “Eh,” he said with a shrug, “basically it means I now have someone sitting next to me while I watch television.”
The metaphorical mental image of two people grasping onto one another as the ship goes down stuck with me — it sounded terrible, like loneliness for two.
There is, of course, a better way of looking at the best friend/true love dichotomy, though. “The best way to put it is that I think of my wife as my best friend, but I also have a best friend,” my buddy Scott, a lawyer who’s been married to his wife Jane for almost 13 years, writes over email. “Jane is my best friend, but that ‘best friend’ aspect gets wrapped in a larger ‘whole’ of other aspects of our relationship, such as being my one true love and the mother of my children. So I see her as my best friend as being transformed as it gets interwoven with the other defining characteristics of our relationship. Therefore, it feels separate and distinct from a male friend who is my best friend.”
He also argues: “I don’t think a married couple needs a separate best friend, but I think it’s important to have a close friend outside the marriage. There are many great things about having a close friend, but in this context I think the following is a critical one: As close as I am to my wife, we have differences (which is a good thing), and sometimes a close friend can nurture or offer a different perspective of those aspects of myself in a way my wife doesn’t. As I connect in different ways with a close friend other than with my wife, I can bring the insight and joy I get from that connection with my friend back to the marriage, and I think it strengthens the marriage.”
It’s a lesson I could stand to learn. My writer friend Robert does a lot of things with his wife — they’re both writers, so they have similar interests and passions — but he also stresses their differences. “Margy doesn’t play tennis, and I have friends that do,” he tells me. “We each have close friends we’ve known longer than each other, and there will invariably be conversations we each have with those friends that satisfy certain social needs. But in my life, Margy is first, as wife and friend, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
What’s funny is that my wife in no way endorses my lone-wolf behavior. She’s constantly encouraging me to reconnect with friends, which I do, but not as much as I should. In my mind, because I’m so busy, I feel like I ought to spend as much time with Susan as possible — that I should take advantage of the time we have together. It’s my idea of demonstrating how much I love her.
Weirdly, this was a thought that was hammered home after I read The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s memoir about living without her deceased husband John Gregory Dunne. Certain lines from the book have stayed with me, especially when Didion talked about what it was like to lose the man closest to her. “A single person is missing for you,” she wrote, “and the whole world is empty.” And then this bit, about how connected two people get in a marriage, sharing every little anecdote and incident: “I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response.”
I’m terrified of reaching that moment, and so, I cling to my wife.
Such clinginess should bother me less now that I know so many other people in my life view their spouses as their best friend, too. But it doesn’t. The anxiety is still there. Nor can it be reasoned with, only embraced and acknowledged. I’m also positive that it’s not good for her — or me. That doesn’t mean we’re breaking up. (That would obviously be a far worse fate, and absolutely devastate me.) But if she is going to be my best friend, it would probably mean more if she wasn’t the only one.