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The Constant Battle Over What Makes a Good Relationship

No, you don’t have to marry your ‘best friend’

We know that people who brag the most about their relationships on social media tend to be the most insecure, but no word on the people who claim to have married their best friend. “Today, I married my best friend!” or “Ten lucky years ago, I married my best friend…” begin seemingly infinite humblebrags online announcing the unions and/or anniversaries of a unique breed of couple: two people so fated that they have combined every possible relationship dynamic into one superhuman romantic relationship to form not just a marriage, but the best marriage ever.

The Spousal Best Friend Conglomerate is the newest, highest romantic union in all the land, so it seems: It solves all conflicts, confesses all ills, hides nothing and sees everything, masterfully processing the electric bill, medical scares, boredom, and crazy new fantasies in one relationship with the efficiency of an Amazon Now order. The best part? It lasts forever.

This week, Bruce Feiler at The New York Times ponders whether this rampant trend is actually a good idea. Michelle said it to Barack for their 25th wedding anniversary on Instagram; Justin Timberlake said it about Jessica Biel when accepting an award. But there’s a growing chorus of anti-best-friend marriage rhetoric out there. You can now find a million counterarguments that you shouldn’t marry your best friend; that your spouse should be not your best friend, but rather, your co-founder; that even if you think your spouse is your best friend, they aren’t really.

Feiler asks:

So which is it? Is considering your spouse your closest friend a sign of hard-earned intimacy, attachment and trust, or is it a sign you’ve become so enmeshed in the day-to-day logistics of managing your lives that you’ve given up sexual attraction, passion and erotic play? Has marriage become little more than benefits with friendship?

Yikes. We do know that recently science told us this is the best possible type of marriage to have. A widely reported-on study from 2015 found that people who claim their spouse is their best friend get twice as much life satisfaction from marriage as those who do not.. Men were more likely to consider their spouse their best friend, yet women were more likely to benefit when their husband was their best friend.

But regardless of gender, when we get into relative measures of happiness, we should be very skeptical. For one thing, the people involved in the study didn’t have to actually be married to get this benefit; they just had to be in a stable long-term partnership. Second, the marital friendship benefit here came in most handy in middle age, when everyone freaks out about their mortality and life choices, and when life satisfaction takes a “dip.”

This makes sense: Long-term relationships endure any number of hardships — job losses, medical shit, physical changes, boredom. Being able to recalibrate your relationship as something based on more than being head-over-heels in love, especially to weather difficult times, is a practical move if you want to go the distance. This is especially true once you have kids, and as you get older—when people tend to be most likely to split up.

Basically, for a relationship to last, it has to endure the best and the worst. It has to endure bouts of diarrhea and still foster amazing sex.

That is not a very sexy answer, but neither is marrying your best friend.

We have to remember that another top reason people split up is mismatched libidos. In other words, not fucking is as bad a thing for a relationship as not being cool with diarrhea. Is this solved by the Spousal Best Friend Conglomerate? I’m not so sure. There is such a thing as being “too chummy” with a spouse. It can’t be diarrhea all the time, you know?

“While love longs for closeness, desire thrives on distance,” Maria Popova writes at Brain Pickings on a piece about the work of Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel (whose unscripted audio recordings of her couples’ therapy sessions illuminate the complexities of desire and cohabitation).

In essence, Perel’s work explores the diarrhea vs. sex intersection in relationships — the fantasy we have about someone versus the reality of actual intimacy with them. Basically, we build trust and security with loads of exposure and repetition with someone. Trouble is, wanting to fuck someone has a lot to do with having space from them.

People who make space for themselves within in their togetherness, Popova explains, have the most satisfying relationships. Here is Popova quoting Perel in a paragraph that will blow your mind:

With too much distance, there can be no connection. But too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals. Then there is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side, no other internal world to enter. When people become fused — when two become one — connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with. Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.

Of course, couples who are “best friends” may actually carve this space out masterfully. We don’t really have any way of knowing until there’s a study on how often people who marry their best friends have sex, but also whether they both are happy about said sex.

And to be clear, how much the sex matters is highly individual, and some people just mostly want companionship. As Feiler notes back at the Times, a waning physical connection in a relationship is somewhat necessary — it’s the stable foundation that lets us raise families and focus on careers and “self-actualization,” that modern fairy tale of the perfect relationship.

The problem with this whole debate—should you marry your best friend or not?—is that there’s a whole shade in the middle of friendship and closeness that isn’t best-friend status and is just a workable closeness.

It may be boring, lame, sexless, and even inaccurate to marry a best friend — or not — but if that’s what people want, that’s what the people should do. There is no one-size-fits-all relationship dynamic that guarantees any one person’s happiness. Some people never wanted a passionate relationship in the first place—just a reliable one.

Feiler’s main quibble, and it’s also the quibble of a lot of anti-best-friend rhetoric, is that calling what people describe as being “best friends” in a marriage friendship is grossly misleading.

One big possibility here is that the “rampant” social media declaration of having married one’s best friend is just another form of virtue signaling — how people demonstrate they’ve married their passionate equal, have checked every box, and have, in essence, hit the jackpot of a perfect love.

Psychiatrist and neuroscientist Amir Levine tells Feiler something like “secure spouse” or “secure relationship” is a far more apt term. But remember, this is social media we’re talking about. Saying, “I married my best friend!” sounds good. Who among us is going to post, “Today, I married my secure spouse! #soblessed.”