Several years ago I attended my best friend’s wedding. She and her husband shared their first dance to the tune of “Lucky” by Jason Mraz and Colbie Calliat. You know, the one that goes, “Lucky I’m in love with my best friend . . .” We hear that sentiment all the time—that marrying your best friend is the ultimate goal. But I find the ideal of my husband being my best friend a romantic notion that sells the love between spouses short.
I did not marry my best friend. My best friend is married, has two children, and is currently visiting Poland with her family. My husband, Will, on the other hand, is the best man I know, the love of my life, and the father of our two daughters. We support each other, discuss the mundane and the extraordinary, play games, work out, have fun, enjoy each other’s company, share everything, and respect each other. But at the end of the day, he is still not my best friend; he is much more.
There is an important distinction between the role of best friend and the role of spouse, and I would be minimizing my husband’s role in my life if I called him anything else. I believe that a spouse and a best friend are analogous but not the same. It may sound nitpicky, but “best friend” can never do justice to the far more intimate calling of the marital relationship.
Monica Mendez Leahy, who has more than twenty years of experience counseling couples, believes that the modern terms we associate with our spouse, such as soulmate or BFF, directly result from a lack of married role models. Many couples these days go the route of living together without being married. “Therefore, younger couples aren't seeing as many examples of marriage and are left to speculate on what a marital partnership consists of,” Leahy says. “The closest thing we come up with is best friends with benefits, plus a legal piece of paper?”
I don’t deny that friendship is critical between spouses. In Leahy’s book, she says, “If you analyze long-lasting, happy marriages, you will see a solid friendship at the root of each one.” She calls it the Friendship Factor. “They treat each other as if their partner was their dearest and best friend in the world,” Leahy says. “And in most cases, that’s exactly what they are.”
If friendship is an important foundation for marriage, shouldn’t married couples strive toward best friendship? Leahy’s answer is no. “If a couple strives to be best friends, they’re aiming too low. The relationship between spouses is so special, sacred even, that there are laws to protect and reward individuals who choose this maximum level of togetherness. The bond between spouses is so highly sought after and rewarding when reached, why get married if you’re aiming to shortchange your relationship?”
The truth is, the partnership of marriage is stronger and more intimate than the decades of history you might have with even your closest friend. In Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “To be fully seen by somebody, then, and be loved anyhow—this is a human offering that can border on miraculous.” I agree with Gilbert. A loving marriage produces a bond that I know I’ll never have with just a best friend.
During our marriage prep, when my husband and I were prompted to share one instance where we were proud of the other person, we got a glimpse of this kind of miraculousness that Gilbert describes. Will said he was proud of me when I left my desk job for a very different, active job. He was proud of me for taking the risk and trusting myself. His unrelenting support of me—in whatever I choose to do—is what keeps me in awe of him, and I give him the same support.
When I call my best friend to talk, we are sharing our life, thoughts, and feelings with each other. When Will and I share our days, we are talking about our life—the one we are building together. Our marriage is an exercise in trust, but this is not an esoteric exercise; we share real responsibilities and goals. A year and a half ago, our oldest daughter was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. I told Will I was scared, and he helped me summon my inner strength. His calmness, my optimism, and our love for each other have carried us through all the trials we’ve faced.
In my experience, the marriage vows of “for better or worse” are literal; the commitment that spouses make goes beyond any friendship possible. Marriage is a lifelong commitment. This person shouldn’t just know you, accept you, and laugh at your jokes—they are obligated to you financially, legally, and personally. No matter how loyal I am to my best friends, we still have separate lives—and I like that. My husband and I, however, are committed to the life we are building together—career ambitions, children, each other.
We may have moved away from marriages of prudence in favor of marriages of love, but this has not diminished the expectations and responsibilities that come from two people dedicating their lives to one another. We may relate our romantic relationships to friendship because we understand that kind of bond and therefore elevate it. But in marriage, we shouldn’t want another shade of friendship. There is a magic to marriage. Marriage gives us a noble purpose, a relationship to protect and nurture, and new responsibilities to contend with together. That’s why my spouse isn’t my best friend; he’s my husband, and that’s so much better.