It was destined to be a great weekend. A handful of my college girlfriends, their husbands and children, and I were gathering for a celebration—our ten-year friendship anniversary. Those of us who have moved out of town trekked back to the city our university is in, where many of our friends had settled down with their husbands and families. There was no set agenda, except for good meals, wine, and laughter—lots of laughter.
When I look back at this weekend I remember the hilarious T-shirts decorated with our inside jokes that our talented graphic designer friend surprised us with. I smirk at the fact that the house we rented was decidedly much smaller than the pictures had portrayed—particularly in the common areas where we spent the bulk of our time—which made for a lot of sweaty people, even in the cold of the Minnesota winter. I remember toasting to a friend’s engagement, talking with a friend about her grief following her mother’s recent death, crashing on the couch to watch Frozen with the adorable daughters of my friends, and visiting two different friends’ new homes.
I also remember feeling insecure every time a friend pointed out how crazy it was we had close to a dozen children among the friend group. I felt discouraged I didn’t have any exciting dating news, even though at the time I’d put myself out there on just about every dating site, set up, and social scene I could. I’m ashamed to say that I was feeling behind my friends when it came to building my adult life.
It’s easy to understand how my comparison crept in. Our parents and grandparents married in their twenties with relative ease, since it was a culturally expected step into adulthood then. Today, it’s widely known that marriage is happening less and later than in previous generations. Furthermore, with marriage no longer an economic necessity for women, we’re free to take our time to make sure we’re marrying the right person for us. Yet, these progressions have created a tension: while it’s understood that marriage might happen later for some, the soulmate mentality that now permeates the dating scene creates the expectation that marriage will be the most fulfilling relationship in life.
All of this can lead a woman who desires marriage to the situation I was in—watching my friends happily settle into marriage and motherhood, while wondering what it was about my circumstances that prevented those joys from happening for me.
Good friendships show us what fulfilling relationships look like
Looking back, I see now that my comparison of my life to my friends’ interfered with my ability to see how important these friendships were and still are to helping me find and keep the sort of love necessary to fully embrace marriage and motherhood.
“Women who find affinity with one another are not settling. In fact, they may be doing the opposite, finding something vital that is lacking in their romantic entanglements, and thus setting their standards healthily higher,” writes Rebecca Traister in her New York Times op-ed,“What Women Find in Friends That They May Not Get From Love.”
Dating in your twenties can be confusing. Your good friends do more than fill a void while searching for a partner for marriage: they give us examples of what mutual support looks like. Good friendships invite us to learn more about ourselves and how our personalities are being expressed in adulthood, which can give us a better sense of who we are and what we’re looking for in a life partner.
When you take a look around your friend group, you probably will find a lot of differences between you and your friends—differences in likes and dislikes, personality traits, and more. Despite those differences there is a connection—an often unexplainable general desire to be around each other—which can remind us that while it’s good to have some expectations of what sort of partner will suit you best, you can in fact have a connection with someone who might surprise you.
Additionally, when we have fulfilling relationships outside our love life, we’re more likely to be capable of ending a romantic relationship that’s unhealthy, not headed where we desire to go, or not making us into better people. Because that relationship isn’t our only source of strong personal connection.
Good friendships make life more fulfilling
Of course, fostering good friendships shouldn’t be a means to the end of helping you find a good man to marry. These days, there is an unfair amount of pressure on marriage to provide the emotional and relational needs that entire communities of people used to fulfill.
Speaking on NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast, Eli Finkel, a professor at Northwestern University and author of the book All-Or-Nothing Marriage explains:
We wanted to complement our emphasis on love—achieving love through marriage—with a new emphasis on achieving a sense of personal fulfillment in the way of personal growth. So in the terminology of psychology, we wanted to self-actualize through our marriage. We wanted to grow into a more authentic version of ourselves.
Finkel's proposed solution to this problem is surprising: the idea of open marriages. Not only does this proposal introduce a host of other problems (worthy of its own article), but it's based on the same flawed premise that puts so much pressure on romantic relationships in the first place: the idea that they are the only avenue for attaining personal fulfillment. My own experience in friendship is that good friendships have and continue to help me grow into a more authentic version of myself.
Traister’s experience is similar:
Friendships provided the core of what I wanted from adulthood—connection, shared sensibilities, enjoyment. Unlike my few youthful romances, which had mostly depleted me, my female friendships were replenishing, and their salubrious effect expanded into other layers of my life: They made things I yearned for, like better work, fairer remuneration, increased self-assurance and even just fun, seem more attainable.
Throughout my years of dating and looking to find the right man for me to marry, my personal growth has not been on hold. All this time, my friendships have inspired me, challenged me, and reflected back to me what they see in me and what I have to offer to others.
Some of my closest friends in the city I live in now were formed very shortly after I moved here in a tradition we dubbed “Pizza Fridays,” which included spirited conversations about various articles or blog posts we’d circulated amongst each other. The number of people in that friend group has expanded over the years, and while Pizza Fridays don’t happen nearly as often, our book club is going strong even in a pandemic that forced it to go virtual. Additionally, many of my friends and I have come to understand the difference between typical workplace politics and stress and truly toxic situations by swapping work stories at happy hours around town. And with friends who have settled with their families across the country and the world, I’ve had more than a few opportunities to travel and stay in their family homes. These trips have provided both an opportunity to see and experience their lives more intimately as well as see cities I wouldn’t otherwise (including a rare visit to Scotland after a friend married a Scottish man—a true trip of a lifetime).
Lingering dinners with stimulating conversations, exciting nights out or quiet nights in, and travel and adventure with friends—these aren’t just consolation prizes for the unmarried and childless or “breaks” for the moms among us. They’re elements of a life that is full, rich, and open to learning more about yourself, others, and the world around you.
Good friendships embrace commitment to each other
Sometimes my friends and I will comment that we’re so fortunate to have such great relationships that balance mutual support and acceptance with challenges to each of us to become better versions of ourselves. We’re not wrong when we say that. Yet as I’ve reflected on my friendships, I’ve discovered that we’ve all also worked to create the sort of relationships that we have.
We’ve spent thousands of dollars traveling to each others’ milestone celebrations—weddings, showers, birthdays, and friendship anniversaries. We’ve continued texting back and forth until we find a time to connect and catch up. We’ve held onto the seemingly small details in each others’ lives—like the names of our parents, siblings, and bosses and the due dates of big projects at work.
All these practical displays of friendship reveal a commitment to each other that runs deeper than just personal fulfillment.
Many of my friends—from that group of women from college that gathered for our friend anniversary, to the women and men in the Pizza Fridays/book club crew, and including my very first friend from my freshman year dorm whom I talk to at least twice a week—are what Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman would call “Big Friendships.”
Using their friendship as a model, Sow and Friedman in their book Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close explain a basic premise of “Big Friendship”:
Behind every meet-cute is an emotional origin story, one that answers a deeper question. Not “how did you two meet?” but “Why did you become so deeply embedded in each other’s lives?”
“We met at a friend’s house!” is the superficial narrative we tell to strangers. But our real origin story is that we met at a time in our lives when we were both a little bit lost. We were both figuring out how to set a course for where we were hoping to go. And in each other, we found someone who already understood who we wanted to be.
The comparison to romantic meet-cute might feel unorthodox, as marriage ultimately requires a more solemn vow and responsibility for another than friendship. But chances are when you look at some of your closest friends you’ll see traits in that relationship similar to great romantic relationships you’ve experienced—they bring out a side of your personality that makes you you, they inspire you to be a better person, and they make you feel loved and accepted. Every good romance is sustained by abiding friendship, and friendship, it turns out, can be sustained by a commitment similar to one we typically see in marriage—a commitment to help the person become who they were meant to be.
Those practical ways of staying connected I mentioned previously are actually the thread of the fabric that builds the sort of trust and commitment needed for these sorts of friendships. Beyond knowing the name of my friend’s boss, I understand a bit about their working relationship from the stories she’s told me, so I can ask more pointed questions like, “Did she notice you added that detail she requested last time?” The emotions we show on each other’s behalf when something unjust occurs or when our stress levels are a bit too high has given us confidence to speak what we need in a relationship or work environment.
We keep up on the celebrations and concerns in each other’s families, like weddings of siblings, visits with nieces and nephews, and even more personal details like the health or family concerns of loved ones. Inquiries like, “How is your mom feeling after her surgery?” or, “Has your brother-in-law found a new job?” are expressions of concern not just for our friend’s family members, but acknowledgement that when our family members are struggling we’re struggling too as we carry our worry for them. Good friends show up in those moments and create space for our thoughts and emotions as we navigate the complex realities of adult life.
Our twenties are filled with a lot of major milestones in life. It’s easy to develop a mindset that we’re meant to achieve or check off our various life goals in some sort of rapid succession—first jobs and promotions, first adult homes, first adult loves and sometimes heartbreaks. “Make really good friends” isn’t often included on the checklist of accomplishments expected in our twenties. It should be, though.
We’ve all heard the lyrics, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” It’s been my experience that my friends and I have thrived with more than a little help from each other. We’ve been co-laborers in the vineyards of our dreams for full, rich, and fulfilling lives.
With each other’s support, regardless of what life milestone we haven’t reached yet—like marriage, motherhood, or some professional goal—we’ve learned to walk forward with confidence that we’re loved right where we are.