Should You Really Marry Your Best Friend?

In Depth
Should You Really Marry Your Best Friend?

It’s an oft-given piece of marital advice that you should marry your bestie, and new research claims doing so doubles the union’s benefits. Still, many people think best friends and marriage go together like two people who aren’t going to do it that much.

A paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, and analyzed by Claire Cain Miller at the New York Times, answers at least one big question in the longstanding, higher correlation between marriage and greater happiness: Are these people already happy to begin with, or did getting married actually increase their happiness? After looking at data about wellbeing from UK and Gallup World Poll surveys, researchers John Helliwell (Vancouver School of Economics) and Shawn Grover (Canadian Dept. of Finance) discovered that it’s the marriage that’s creating the bliss, stupid.

Miller writes:

In all but a few parts of the world, even when controlling for people’s life satisfaction before marriage, being married made them happier. This conclusion, however, did not hold true in Latin America, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Intriguingly, marital happiness long outlasted the honeymoon period. Though some social scientists have argued that happiness levels are innate, so people return to their natural level of well-being after joyful or upsetting events, the researchers found that the benefits of marriage persist.
One reason for that might be the role of friendship within marriage. Those who consider their spouse or partner to be their best friend get about twice as much life satisfaction from marriage as others, the study found.

Some caveats: It wasn’t legal marriage per se that mattered so much as a stable romantic partnership. So don’t feel any rush to hit up the altar if your sitch is working for you.

This is interesting, though:

Women benefit more from being married to their best friend than men do, though women are less likely to regard their spouse as their best friend.

“Maybe what is really important is friendship, and to never forget that in the push and pull of daily life,” Helliwell told the Times.

I think this all makes sense, even the part about men being more likely to think of wives as best friends than the other way around. Speaking in the broadest, most generic cultural strokes, men are not encouraged to foster deep, intimate platonic relationships with other men. It’s not hard to believe some men would think of their wife as their best friend, the person with whom they are most consistently allowed to be “emotional.” Women, on the other hand, are generally much freer to have these types of relationships with lots of other people. But finding a partner who offers the same depth of intimacy as her girlfriends? Sure, that would be great. That would be magic.

It’s also no duh: Friendship is a component in any good marriage. How could it not be? Your spouse is someone you’ll likely see every day, in good times and bad, and who will know you in a way no one else ever could. Of course you would (hopefully) be able to confide in them, enjoy their company, share in your triumphs and support each other through setbacks. But you’re also going to fuck, right?

The only issue I have with this study is that it’s the victim of finance and economics types who desperately needed someone to introduce some semantics. Here’s what I mean:

  • If your spouse or stable partner is someone you are wildly attracted to and also truly feel is your actual best friend, you’re solid as a rock.
  • If your spouse or stable partner is someone you are wildly attracted to and also truly feel you have a good friendship with, but you also have one or more other people in your life you consider your actual best friend(s), you’re solid as a rock, and also incredibly lucky—maybe even better off because, you know, eggs, baskets.
  • If you’re married to someone you’re wildly attracted to but would never even consider a basic friend, you might be OK, but you could be in trouble.

Much like a best friend, your future spouse is someone you ought to be able to share deep, dark secrets with. Noble goals, worst feelings, best feelings, hideous shortcomings: this should be someone that, overall, you can be real and vulnerable around. But unlike a best friend, passion matters, and long-term relationships should probably retain some degree of mystery so that you’ll keep having sex and continue to promote a physically driven intimacy.

This is where best friends and lovers often diverge. You literally never care how your best friends see you, but if you never cared how your spouse saw you, it might be difficult to keep the fires alive. Best friends require work, but not keep-the-spark alive work.

Chris Rock famously joked in his comedy special Never Scared that, unfortunately nowadays, everyone is looking for a soul mate. That bit goes like this:

Nobody gets a soul mate. It don’t happen. 
All you gonna get in life if you lucky is a mate.
 Just a mate.
 Somebody you fuck, go to movies with.
 You fuck, go to another movie.
 You fuck, go to a comedy show.
 You fuck, go to your grandmomma’s house.
You fuck, go to your momma’s house. You fuck, go see another movie.
 Somewhere in between fucking and movies, he goes, “Wanna get something to eat?”
 That’s all relationships are, they ain’t that complicated. It’s just fucking and eating.
 If you don’t like fucking somebody and you don’t like eating with them, y’all don’t need to be together.

(P.S.: He’s getting divorced.)

But I still think he was mostly right, barring a few critical details. One note, though: He’s middle-aged, and, as Miller points out:

The benefits of marital friendship are most vivid during middle age, when people tend to experience a dip in life satisfaction, largely because career and family demands apply the most stress then. Those who are married, the new paper found, have much shallower dips – even in regions where marriage does not have an overall positive effect.
“The biggest benefits come in high-stress environments, and people who are married can handle midlife stress better than those who aren’t because they have a shared load and shared friendship,” Mr. Helliwell said.

This is why I think Rock could’ve added one simple addendum to the mix: talking. The correct, amended version then, is that eating, fucking and talking is all a relationship really is. Definitely get all three if you can. The talking comes best with someone you’d also consider a good friend.

There are, of course, pro-marry your best friend camps and pro-don’t marry your best friend camps. Both make compelling points, which typically reduce to talking-versus-fucking. Again: GET BOTH. But I have to wonder: If you’re best friends with someone, and you’re also attracted to them, and you get together, are you really still best friends anyway? Or aren’t you also lovers now? And isn’t that different?

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.

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