“Being in love is an amazing thing. Being in love with your best friend is everything.” So claims jewelry retailer Zales in a TV spot for one of their newest products, the “Ever Us” ring. Its design features two prominent diamonds, one for your best friend and one for your true love, and – as Zales puts it – “for the one woman in your life who’s both”.
Upon seeing the infuriatingly cheesy ad, I was surprised that the wedding industrial complex hadn’t latched its perfectly manicured claws on the concept and monetized it sooner. Nearly every time I come across news of an engagement on my social media feeds, it’s accompanied by some hashtag variation of the phrase “I’m so excited to marry my best friend.”
Likewise, one particular Nietzsche (yes, that Nietzsche) quote about marriage and friendship gets recycled over and over on Pinterest. Before America’s royal couple – Kim Kardashian and Kanye West – wed, even Kardashian gushed to the press, “I get to marry my best friend.” Forget searching for your soul mate: marrying your best friend is the new marital ideal.
The pervasiveness of that sentiment drives me absolutely crazy. “Impossible! You can’t all be marrying your best friends!” I scream internally before silently “liking” someone’s engagement announcement on Facebook. “And Kelsey,” I wonder, “is your fiance, a finance bro named Chad who’s wearing flip-flops and doing the ‘shocker’ in your engagement photo, really even your best friend? What do you even talk about, hmmmm?” I love my partner (we’re not married) deeply: we share many of the same interests, he encourages my creative and professional pursuits more than anyone else, he’s the person who I want to and do spend the most free time with, the person I share both good news and bad news with first, and the person I can tell everything to without fear of judgement.
All of those qualities traditionally constitute friendship – and I get to have sex with him. Regardless, I cannot bring myself to call him my best friend; it feels terribly cliched and I haven’t used the term “best friend” to describe anyone in my life, even my closest friends, for years. (Plus I’m pretty sure his best friend is our dog.) So why is everyone obsessed with marrying their best friend? Partly it’s because the way we think about heterosexual marriage in America has evolved – for the better.
Stephanie Coontz, a historian specializing in marriage and family studies and the author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, says that – cliche or not – the trope of marrying one’s best friend is ultimately beneficial, especially for women, who had the most to comparatively gain from the shifting marital ideal. In the 1950s, people may have thought they were marrying for love, but the gender divide was more of a chasm.
“My wife, I can’t talk to her, she can’t understand my work, but she’s just such a good mom and she’s such a wonderful cook and a good listener … My husband, he doesn’t get my moods and he really doesn’t understand what the kids need, but he’s such a good provider and he never hits me,” Coontz used as examples of how the typical thinking might have gone back in the day.
Those strict roles not only had social disadvantages, but were also enforced legally; take the Head and Master laws, which gave husbands all the rights to property within a marriage and persisted until the early 1970s.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as more women entered the workforce, an equitable partnership became more desirable. By the 1990s, true friendship had become a goal of marriage, and along with that, Coontz said, “our expectations include much more mutual respect and understanding each other as individuals”. She admitted that while people may be adopting a conventional trope as a descriptor, it’s a good sign overall: “They’ve begun to realize that’s what’s essential to a good marriage in a world where men and women come to marriage with much more experience outside marriage.”
Part of this can be chalked up to Americans getting married at a later average age. When a couple chooses to pair off in their late 20s or into their 30s, Coontz said, “they’ve got the maturity to learn the difference between the infatuation stage of a relationship and the companionate stage, and to welcome the companionate stage.” And it’s realistic too. “People aren’t just seeking someone that they lust after and love – because you can love somebody that you don’t really have all that much in common with,” she added. And the terminology isn’t all just lip service – it has actual benefits.
A study published by the National Bureau of Research in December 2014 explored the correlations between marriage and happiness using data from the British Household Panel Survey. The authors discovered that life satisfaction gained from marriage was about double when a person considered their partner to be their best friend.
Even among those who resist calling their spouse their best friend, it can come down to semantics rather than feelings. For instance, Jason, 35, doesn’t consider his wife of four years his best friend because “when I say my wife is ‘my wife,’ I’m saying so many things – that I love her, that she is the person I spend more time with than anyone else, that we share a life together. Why is the word ‘wife’ not enough for those things? Why does she also have to be ‘best friend’? Wife is a very good word! You know what I never had until I married her? A wife! But ‘best friend’ – boy, I had tons of those.” Sarah, 27, doesn’t call her fiance of four years her best friend for practical reasons. “I think it’s important to not let one person be your everything,” she told me. “While I consider him to have all the traits of a best friend, I don’t consider him that because I want to have a husband and a best friend — that way I have someone to rely on when the other is being a pain.” And there are many who do wholeheartedly adopt the term but don’t feel like expressing as much on social media.
Take Marie, 31, who said that her husband of seven years is her best friend but doesn’t necessarily want to broadcast it online. “I think using that phrase is incredibly cliche, and I am anti-cliche in general.
I think it dilutes true sentiment and reduces powerful, sacred things in life to dumb generalities,” she explained. “I am very specific in how I feel about John, and I wouldn’t want to describe that in cliches.” Regardless of what you want to call your spouse, the marital ideal is collectively shifting to incorporate all the values and ideals we’ve previously ascribed to best friendship.
And in terms of cutesy monikers, marrying one’s best friend is definitely easier to stomach, and way more practical, than holding out for one’s soul mate. All in all, I’m willing to admit that my annoyance at the term has been misguided. But, for my sake, no matter what you call your partner – maybe skip the hashtags. – The Guardian