I often hear from single moms who say they have more friends now than when they were married. That is a) great for us, and b) a sorry commentary on the current state of marriage.
Study after study find that friendships are key to happiness. Unfortunately, the current marriage model can discourage these critical relationships. Today’s love-based marriage model is built on the notion of committing to one’s soulmate — a relationship expected to be so complete and all-fulfilling that it ignores the very real limitations of any adult relationship. These expectations thrust the burden of emotional support and companionship onto one’s husband or wife — to the detriment of connections with friends, relatives and community. This can be toxic to a marriage, and emotionally crippling to the individuals — especially in the event that relationship ends.
Writes Stephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage” in The New York Times:
It has only been in the last century that Americans have put all their emotional eggs in the basket of coupled love. Because of this change, many of us have found joys in marriage our great-great-grandparents never did. But we have also neglected our other relationships, placing too many burdens on a fragile institution and making social life poorer in the process … Until 100 years ago, most societies agreed that it was dangerously antisocial, even pathologically self-absorbed, to elevate marital affection and nuclear-family ties above commitments to neighbors, extended kin, civic duty and religion.
Sociologists at the University of Arizona and Duke University found that from 1985 to 2004 Americans reported a marked decline in the number of close relationships with co-workers, extended family members, neighbors and friends, and the number of people who depended solely on a spouse for important conversations nearly doubled to 9.4 percent and the number of people who reported they didn’t have anyone in whom they confided nearly tripled during that period.
I rely heavily on my friends. I write often here about my BFF SMILF Morghan, who lives in my neighborhood and whose divorce trajectory matches mine. Together we vacation and celebrate holidays, cry on the other’s shoulders in the face of heartbreak, and critique one another’s professional efforts. Our kids are the same ages and attend the same daycare. Observe the four of them squabbling to tears over turns on the tire swing, or spontaneously hugging one another, you’d agree they are more like siblings than pals.
I appreciate the recent bitch-slap Cynthia gifted me when — out for one our regular wine-y dinners out — my fellow writer and mom listened to me carry on about my lack of career direction. “What do you mean, ‘I don’t know what I want,'” she admonished. “You want to make a shitload of money so you can take care of your kids.” That clarity is just what friends are for.
Over our weekly Sunday morning diner breakfasts, my old friend Betsy listens to my stories about kids and tales of dating, while her tech geek husband Kris is quick to help with blogging pickles. These friends are an extended family — loved ones who create the emotional and social web that every person needs.
Sometimes the benefits of these relationships are less obvious. Last weekend when friends Anjali and Mike came for dinner, I had to unexpectedly bolt before my kids’ bedtime to fetch my car from the garage. The hour spent bathing and putting down the kids meant a one-on-one bonding experience Helena and Lucas would not have enjoyed had their dad been in residence.
My lack of fulltime companionship helps my business, too. Working from home can be isolating — much more so without the promise of a spouse to break up the loneliness at the end of a workday. So I prioritize coffee, lunch and Skype meetings with colleagues and clients. This is something that I encourage everyone to do, because it is good for your career, as well as your mental health — even if you have a happy marriage.
But many of the benefits of deep relationships outside of marriage that people have enjoyed since the dawn of time are increasingly lost. Culprits include careers that demand far more time than in the past, but more critically, expectations of marriage that are unrealistic and damaging. What is the answer? How do we ensure that these extended relationship thrive when we do marry? And how can we view marriage in ways that strengthen the union, as well as individuals involved? Writes Coontz:
We can strengthen our marriages the most by not expecting them to be our sole refuge from the pressures of the modern work force. Instead we need to restructure both work and social life so we can reach out and build ties with others, including people who are single or divorced. That indeed would be a return to marital tradition — not the 1950s model, but the pre-20th-century model that has a much more enduring pedigree.This fits perfectly with my idea of a 10-year marriage contract. By creating a nuptial model that forces the parties to accept the very real possibilities of divorce, we will be more inclined to maintain and nurture other important relationship in our lives. These friendships will bolster each spouse — not to mention their children — and take the pressure off the marriage to be “their everything.”