Together Forever

What If Friends Are The Life Partners That Matter Most?

Recent books have made the case that marriage is the key to American prosperity — and divorce the key to happiness. But what if we made our friendships the center of our lives?

by Anna Louie Sussman
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Americans are lonely, alarmingly so. Last year, the nation’s leading public health authority, the US Surgeon General, released a report documenting an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation.” In recent years, about half of Americans reported experiencing loneliness, which has effects on mortality akin to smoking three-fourths of a pack of cigarettes a day. Time was, people solved the loneliness problem by getting, and staying, married. Today, the share of 25- to 54-year-olds who are married is down to just over one in two, a sharp drop from three decades ago, when two out of three prime-working age people came home to a spouse. Friendship has taken a hit as well. The share of Americans who report having three or fewer close friends has nearly doubled to 49% in 2021, up from 27% in 1990.

Amidst a clear vacuum in human connection and flourishing comes a spate of books about what kinds of bonds make for a well-lived life and, by extension, a well-adjusted society. To hear marriage advocates tell it, matrimony comes with a whole host of financial and psychological benefits for its participants. Just as, or perhaps even more, important are the benefits marriage confers on any children that issue from such a union. By contrast, if you take divorce advocates at their word, breaking free of marriage and its inherent patriarchy brings its own suite of perks, not least of which is happiness. Then there are the friendship advocates, who argue that the relationships many people consider peripheral should occupy a more central role in our lives. (There are also the polyamory advocates, but that’s probably another essay).

Marriage’s most prominent recent defenders are a pair of social scientists who have mined their disciplines for supporting data. Melissa S. Kearney, an economist, focuses on children’s outcomes in The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind, in which she marshalls numerous studies showing that the children of married two-parent families are more likely to avoid incarceration, graduate high school, and find employment. In Get Married: Why Americans Should Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization, the sociologist Brad Wilcox musters surveys and data that show people who marry are wealthier, happier, and live more meaningful lives.

Wilcox suggests viewing marriage almost like a business whose product is successful children.

Kearney posits herself as a bold iconoclast, speaking truth to her economist colleagues who would rather focus on charts and graphs than address the messy business of marriage. This is a strange assertion, because economists have studied these matters for decades, and Kearney draws heavily on their findings, as well as on her own work linking family structure to children’s well-being. While these studies do point to better outcomes for kids who grow up in married households, many of them are not designed to untangle correlation and causation. In fact, some studies that do control for income and parental structure point to resources, rather than family structure, as the salient variable: Harvard sociologist Christina Cross, for example, has found that Black students from low-income single-parent households had similar educational outcomes as those from low-income two-parent households; it was Black youth from well-off two-parent households who did better.

Wilcox’s approach is even more confusing. A sociologist with a PhD. from Princeton, he styles himself as a man of the people and calls out “elite hypocrisy” on marriage, a strawman represented by couple of Huffington Post and Bloomberg columns and a few quasi-highbrow cultural artifacts (the Noah Baumbach film Marriage Story comes in for a beating). Wilcox presents solutions by zeroing in on four demographic groups — Asian-Americans, “Strivers” (who are proxied by college degrees), the faithful, and conservatives — who he calls the “Masters of Marriage” for their higher-than-average marriage rates. By replicating their behaviors or values, his theory goes, one can become an ace at marriage.

Marriage isn’t always the key to happiness. Just ask the main characters of Noah Baumbach’s film Marriage Story.Netflix

For example, he suggests viewing marriage almost like a business whose product is successful children, citing a Korean-American woman named Lisa Lee. Lee tells Wilcox that “Romance is not her first priority in her marriage: ‘It may sound really cold to say that it’s an economic partnership, but in some ways it is. And the project of raising our children is, at the moment, the overwhelming priority for [me and my husband] until they are out of the house and financially independent.’” Lee’s mindset, he continues, “is consistent with my research showing that Asian Americans are more likely than Whites, Hispanics, and Blacks to believe that couples with children should make every effort to stay married, even if they are not happy.”

Stick with it, even if it makes you miserable, is a tough pill to swallow, whatever your ethnic background. And is this really best for the kids? Kids aren’t dumb. In my observation, children sense when their parents are unhappily married. Not only will they grow up without a model of a healthy and loving relationship, but they often don’t feel good at home when they see that one or both of their parents is unhappy, or isn’t respected or valued by the other parent.

Which leads us to divorce, the star of Lyz Lenz’s new memoir This American Ex-Wife: How I Ended My Marriage and Started My Life. The book opens with a detailed description of the contents of a bag of trash her husband has let fall off a bench and cover the floor, where she happens upon it at 1 a.m., returning home from a work trip. “Go-­GURT wrappers, tissues, plastic plates, Goldfish crackers, damp napkins, orange peels, dried chunks of cheese, and a broken toy from a fast food chain.” Her husband has left the trash on the bench with the intention of taking it out the next day, but if past behavior predicts future outcomes, it will eventually fall to her. Once, she recounts, he left the bag on the bench for a full week before the rotting smell pushed her to blink first and take it outside, then clean up the wet mess. A couple of pages later, she recounts how she realized, several months earlier, that he had been hiding her belongings — shirts, mugs — simply because he dislikes them. After months of weekly couples therapy, during which he promises to stop, another item disappears. “I knew he’d taken it. And he’d taken it because he didn’t like it. He didn’t like me,” she concludes.

One obvious takeaway: Don’t marry someone who doesn’t like you or sounds like a real schmuck. Spend time instead with people who love you, value you, and support you.

Lenz proceeds to extrapolate a lesson that would set Wilcox’s hair on fire: the path to happiness and fulfillment, especially for straight women, winds through divorce, rather than in the fundamentally broken institution of marriage. She recounts the myriad ways that marriage reinforces patriarchy, both in the past and in the present: the laws and practice of coverture, for example, in which a woman’s legal identity is subsumed by her husband upon marrying, or research showing that single mothers today actually do less housework and have more free time and more sleep than their married counterparts. (Women, she notes, initiate nearly 70% of divorces.) Men are the villains of Lenz’s book; the heroes are the friends and family who support her. With their help, and with the delightful company of her two children, she rebuilds a life around her own freedom and fulfillment, both professional and, at times, sexual.

One obvious takeaway from Lenz’s story is: don’t marry someone who doesn’t like you or sounds like a real schmuck. Spend time instead with people who love you, value you, and support you. If this all seems fairly intuitive, the message appears to have been lost on the marriage advocates, whose laser focus on marriage per se obscures any curiosity about what it actually is about marriage that can — but doesn’t always — make people’s lives better.

It is precisely this quality of connection, and its role in a good life, that is the subject of The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life with Friendship at the Center, journalist Rhaina Cohen’s case that deep friendships deserve a more prominent place in our lives, our vocabulary, and our legal system. Cohen, a podcast producer and print reporter, presents a series of case studies, interwoven with social science, that deftly illustrate why relationships are so essential to our well-being. These friendships are characterized by exceptional compatibility and a commitment to the other person and to the relationship that is rarely seen outside of romantic partnership. Yet, Cohen writes, “Society neglects the possibilities for profound platonic connection,” with few legal or social avenues that accord them the recognition they deserve.

Marriage is so privileged in the United States that the meaningful non-marital relationships are incomprehensible — socially, legally, and even linguistically — in that few people can identify the appropriate label for their connection.

Many of the friends Cohen profiles live together. Nick and Art are two youth pastors in their late twenties who met as undergraduates at a small Christian college. After Art came out as gay, and decided he had to become celibate in order to retain his faith, he didn’t think he could face the lifetime of loneliness ahead. Nick suggested he move in, despite his own discomfort with homosexuality, which he actively worked to overcome. By the end of the chapter, Nick has a girlfriend, Morgan; she texts Art a photo of a couch she likes, to ask him if they can buy it for their shared home when she and Nick get married. “Absolutely,” he tells her.

Another pair of friends, Stacey and Grace, are planning along with their other best friend Caroline to all make their lives in Chicago, where they met as undergraduates. After they graduate, the pair find themselves traveling for holidays to see one another, and making major life plans together, such as where to live and settle down. They debrief after they’ve read something meaningful and ask each other for work advice. They describe themselves as “same soul.” Grace tells Cohen, “It’s hard to mark where one person begins and the other ends.”

Barb and Inez, two women who met in the 1960s and have been friends ever since Barb, who couldn’t have biological children for medical reasons, invited herself on a two-week road trip Inez was taking with her two sons. More than 50 years later, they share a ranch house they call “the Hermitage.” They alternate taking out the trash, and remind each other to turn off the hose or take their medications. This serene set-up won’t fend off death or keep down the extortionate costs of long-term care in America, but Barb and Inez know they have each other for as long as they are sound of body. In sickness and in health, you might say.

What struck me about these friendships was not simply the depth of care and tenderness that made each portrait more moving than the last, but the remarkable nature of each individual person in the relationship. To a one, the friends in the book come across as thoughtful, open, service-oriented, humble, self-aware, and communicative, people for whom connection and caring for others are guiding principles in their lives. Art and Nick are youth pastors, called to serve their faith communities. Barb and Inez cared for their friend Ann during years of cancer treatment, spending her last day with her in hospice. Andrew and Toly, another pair of “platonic life partners,” volunteered together as software developers in Tanzania and cofounded a nonprofit.

They also embrace the hard work of being in a deeply committed relationship with another person. Nick faces his own “homohysteria” with a framework he and Art came up with (“What is moral? What is cultural? What is personal?”) to help him overcome his discomfort with things such as Art’s expressions of physical affection. Lenz’s husband, by contrast, comes across as unkind, obstinate, and selfish — not great marriage material, but not very promising friend material either. After her divorce, many of the men she goes on to date also don’t treat her especially well. One friend she goes on a romantic road trip with announces, upon its conclusion, that he’s reuniting with an ex; another boyfriend, a “midlist writer” who “donated to liberal causes, posted on social media about how Black lives matter, fundraised for reproductive rights, and supported mutual aid” refuses to wear a condom with her and gets mad at her for asking. These examples (and her own acknowledgement that marriage “doesn’t have to be this way”) chip away at the idea that it’s marriage that’s the problem, and divorce that’s the solution, and suggest instead that a lack of basic decency, empathy, and communications skills makes these liaisons such letdowns.

That not-too-groundbreaking insight —that it is the qualities of the people in a relationship that make the relationship succeed or founder — does not lend itself to neat policy prescriptions. Government-funded marriage promotion programs with the express aim of teaching relationship and communication skills have an almost embarrassingly poor track record, which even Kearney admits. Changes to the tax code, such as eliminating the “benefits cliff” that strips low-income people of welfare benefits if they marry and increase their household income, makes clear ethical, moral, and economic sense, but it is not going to save a relationship in which one or both parties is selfish or oblivious. Both Wilcox and Kearney call for a cultural shift to reprioritize marriage, but as Cohen’s book shows, marriage is already so privileged in the US that the meaningful non-marital relationships she profiles are incomprehensible — socially, legally, and even linguistically — in that few people can identify the appropriate label for their connection.

Cohen asks us to imagine more for our friendships, to think about what they could be if we weren’t so laser-focused on romance.

Cohen argues for legal reforms that would unbundle the privileges of marriage, such a simple two-page form offered by the state of Colorado known as a “designated beneficiary agreement.” It allows people to grant rights to another person (a friend, child, or parent, for example) in 16 categories, most of which touch on health and finances, such as being a health care proxy or the beneficiary of a life insurance policy, without paying for the costly services of an estate or family attorney. Such an option wouldn’t remove the many privileges of marriage, but redistribute them to a wider range of people.

Finally, Cohen asks us to imagine more for our friendships, to think about what they could be if we weren’t so preoccupied with romance. She ends the book with the story of how she and her husband moved in with two friends, Naomi and Daniel, and their children. The entire process was characterized by warmth, communication, and vulnerability. An early lunch conversation centers around what was most likely to go wrong in their living situation. “Hearing all of us utter our concerns and acknowledge that our living arrangement was potentially fragile, instead of making it feel doomed, brought me closer to Naomi and Daniel,” Cohen writes.

The lesson I took from Cohen’s book was that these qualities and values — self-awareness, empathy, openness, and intentional communication — are what made those relationships so beautiful to behold. Perhaps because we live in a time when the opposite qualities are too often lionized and rewarded, to say nothing of algorithmically incentivized, I relished reading about such kind people, their loveliness vivid on the page. I came away thinking that if we could only fortify these qualities in people, then relationships, marital or not, and the human and societal flourishing that comes with deep connection, might just take care of themselves.

Anna Louie Sussman is a New York-based journalist and 2024 Alicia Patterson fellow who reports on gender, economics, health, and reproduction. She is currently at work on the book Inconceivable: Reproduction in an Age of Uncertainty, which looks at the challenges people face in starting and growing their families. She has previously written for Romper about how the new class of weight loss drugs might impact fertility.