“I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to be marrying my best friend,” is a refrain you hear a lot during weddings. And it sounds lovely—a partner, a best friend, your other half. But is that really what people mean (and really what people want) when they talk about their spouse? At first glance, it seems harmless. We already overuse heightened language like ‘soulmate’ and ‘the one’, so next to that, calling your partner your ‘best friend’ can seem downright tame. But having your partner for a best friend can also smack of codependence—of a lack of a fulfilling life outside of your relationship. I can’t think of anyone I’m closer to than my partner in one sense, but I still have a few people I would call my ‘best’ friends. So is it important that your partner takes the top spot?
There Are Some Benefits
There is some evidence married people just don’t need other friends in the same way single people do. I know it sounds weird—and I find that hard to believe—but the research doesn’t lie. John Helliwell, a professor at the Vancouver School of Economics and the editor of the World Happiness Report, has found in his research that friendship is really important—but actually it just doesn’t make quite the same difference to married people. “While the effects of real friends on your well-being are important for everybody, they are less so for married couples than singles,” he explained to the New York Times. ”That’s how we got to the idea that marriage is a kind of ‘super-friendship.’” Interestingly, in his research, those who listed their spouse as a ‘best friend’ were twice as likely to have higher life satisfaction than those who don’t. Men were slightly more likely than women to say their partner was their best friend—which is perhaps a consequence of men having fewer friends generally.
But you shouldn’t think that your marriage is failing you just because you don’t look at your partner as your number-one-top-of-the-list-BFF. “The benefits of marriage are strong even for those who are littered with outside friends,” Dr. Helliwell said. “It’s just bigger for those who consider their spouse their closest friend. It’s a bonus.”
Don’t Let It Make You Lazy
Not all experts agree, however. Some worry that the language of friendship is either just a shorthand for security and trust when applied to your spouse—or that it could even be a sign of complacency in a marriage. Friendship may be normal language to use at the very beginning of your relationship or when you’re decades and decades in, but it doesn’t always fit. “It’s the in-between ones, when they use the language of friendship, my stomach turns,” Dr. Ellyn Bader, co-founder of the Couples Institute in Menlo Park, CA and co-author of Tell Me No Lies told the New York Times. “It’s a red flag for a lot of conflict avoidance and intensity avoidance. It often means they’ve given up on the complexity of being with somebody. Instead of saying, ‘Oh, well, that’s who they are,’ it’s better if they try to work things out.” And that makes sense—we accept a lot more from our friends than we do from our partners. We need to be more lined up with a partner in our values than we do with our friends.
All of Your Eggs in One Basket
The other problem, of course, with calling your spouse your ‘best friend’ is that there’s a danger of putting too much on one person. Just like how talking about soulmates and waiting for one person to ‘complete you’ can set up expectations that are nearly impossible to reach, having a partner, best friend, and everything else wrapped into one person is a lot of pressure. And sure, some relationships can handle it. But not all of them can. I know my partner gets things from her friends that she doesn’t get from me and the same is true of me with my friends. The most important thing: we don’t resent each other for it.
Instead, maybe start to think of your partner as one of your best friends. “I think that your spouse should be ‘one of your best friends’! relationship therapist Aimee Hartstein, LCSW tells Brides. “It’s certainly important to feel like you and your partner are very close, that you are on the same team, and that they’d have your back in life. However, one wants to be careful of having your spouse be your ‘one and only best friend’ for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s a version of putting all your eggs in one basket. We need a strong support system in life. One person can’t be everything. Secondly, if you and your spouse become too claustrophobic with each other, it’s not good for either one of you. All relationships, including marriage, need a breath of fresh air!” Anyone in a relationship knows, no matter how much you love each other, no matter how compatible you are, sometimes, you just need a break.
The truth is, the language just isn’t quite right. Romantic partnerships and friendships are different, so something’s bound to be lost when using the label from one to describe the other. And even though your partner may be the closest person to you, try not to set unrealistic expectations. Having a best friend outside of your relationship doesn’t make your relationship any less amazing—it just shows that you have a life outside of it, too.