“My goal is to marry my best friend,” explained the young woman in my office. I have heard a version of this many times. There is tremendous pressure today to find a partner who is your “one and only.“ Indeed, it’s practically impossible to scroll through Instagram without seeing someone refer to their significant other as their #bestie.
Relationship expert Esther Perel addresses this contemporary cliche and cautions against searching for a romantic partner who checks every box in a 2018 SXSW talk:
We still want all the same things that traditional marriage was about—[family life, companionship, economic support, and social status]—but now [we] also want [our partners] to be a best friend, a trusted confidant, and a passionate lover to boot… What we have created in a romantic ambition is one person to give us what once an entire village used to provide.
While it’s cozy to think of your romantic partner as your best friend (who doesn’t like a package deal?), here are 3 reasons it’s important to nourish your platonic relationships too.
1. Friends Help Us Weather The Storm
An argument with your significant other is one of the most upsetting of daily stressors. As one patient told me, fighting with his partner in the morning sets a negative tone for the rest of the day. He described it as a dark cloud that hangs over him and follows him around until the issue is resolved.
In addition to taking an emotional toll, there is a physical cost to relationship disharmony. Negative interactions can impact the immune system and cardiovascular function.
A couple’s therapist might encourage a bickering couple to work on conflict resolution and to spend more quality time together. A study offers another important way to protect oneself from the harmful effects of conflict: having good friends.
Researchers at the University of Texas, Austin, asked 105 newlywed couples to keep a daily diary of marital conflict and to complete questionnaires about their social interactions outside of the marriage. The couples provided morning and evening saliva samples so the researchers could measure levels of cortisol, a hormone the body produces in direct association with physiological stress.
The findings indicate that having a few good friends to lean on can buffer against the stress of everyday conflict with one’s partner. Participants with high quality social support experienced lower levels of stress when marital conflicts arose. It is worth nothing that the number of friends didn’t impact the couple’s ability to handle conflict—it was the quality of the social interactions that counted. Knowing that someone has your back makes every challenge a little bit easier.
There is a lesson here. If you are in a relationship, don’t forget to make an effort with your friends. Having a shoulder to lean on that is outside of your relationship will enhance your connection with your one and only. When there is trouble in paradise, you can turn to your friends to help you weather the storm.
Friends don’t just make life better, they make romantic relationships better too.
2. Boundaries Strengthen Bonds
Contrary to how romantic relationships are depicted on Instagram, spending all of your time together does not deepen the connection. Poet Ranier Maria Rilke understood the tension between the longing for togetherness and the fundamental need for autonomy in ‘Letters to a Young Poet.’
A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.
While it is important to share the same values—having different interests, hobbies, and friends allows for the “possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”
Supporting your partner’s interests and encouraging their pursuit is known as “autonomy support.” In other words, if your significant other loves to go camping but it’s not for you, suggest they go on a camping trip. If your partner is passionate about Broadway but you cannot stand it, buy tickets for them and their best friend. People are happiest when they do things that matter to them and become frustrated when they cannot. Encouraging the one you love to pursue their interests is relationship-enhancing. I am not suggesting that you and your partner need to be totally independent. On the contrary, when you support another’s autonomy, it will bring you closer together. As Rilke observed:
A good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude.
3. Greater Health, Happiness, and Wellbeing
Friendships often take a backseat to other demands but the more we prioritize friendships, the happier and healthier we are and the better our romantic relationships will be. A study from Michigan State University found that close friendships predict day-to-day happiness, how long we’ll live, and even more so than spousal and family relationships. On days when individuals interact with friends, they report greater happiness and are in a better mood. In fact, people generally report more positive experiences with their friends than they do with their families, particularly in later life.
Bottom line: Invest in friendship.
I wish you all the best,
Dr. Samantha Boardman