The longest relationships I’ve ever had have all spanned over a decade. They’ve been meaningful, intense at times, and deeply, deeply rewarding.
They’ve also all been with friends.
When I first arrived in New York City, a transplant from Canada without a single NYC number in my phone (actually I didn’t even have a cell phone) I met three women who have had a larger impact on my life than anyone else.
Those friendships shaped the usual roller coaster ride that is your twenties: break-ups, job losses, late rent checks, evictions, diabolically ill-conceived nights out, and countless moves into fifth-floor walkups. In my thirties, we have supported each other through weddings, family crises, marriage, and children.
These relationships are as close to unconditional as I can hope to find, and they will continue throughout my life. It’s not hard for me to imagine meeting these women for happy hour on a beach in Miami before hitting the early-bird special at the retirement home cafeteria.
Sadly the same cannot be said for my romantic relationships.
Or maybe not sadly.
Most of us are still raised to believe the ideal life involves falling in love with one person and staying with them for as long as humanly possible. Needless to say, the reality is far more complicated.
But paradigms are changing. Recent research reveals more and more people are choosing to stay single – permanently. The Daily Beast recently reported that 44% of millennials say that marriage is becoming “obsolete.” In his oft-quoted book Going Solo, Eric Klinenberg notes that remaining single has become “a mark of distinction, not a social failure.”
This new “singling” of America is also a measure of the shifting economics of modern life: “Marriage is for people who have money and want to spend money just on the wedding itself,” Gail Wyatt, the director of the University of California Los Angeles’s sexual health program recently told Bloomberg. Diminished societal pressures, meanwhile, often mean that having babies doesn’t require a husband (or a wife, for that matter).
And when we do get married, we are doing it when we’re older – a data point that’s especially true in New York City (where marriage before thirty sometimes seems as rare as affordable housing). The result? Well, among other things, a whole generation of people is trying to navigate through life outside what has for centuries been the norm for human existence.
Granted, some things will never ever change. We will always need – as in really truly need for survival — companionship and support. So if we’re not looking for it from marriage then we’re clearly getting it somewhere else.
Marie Claire recently speculated that girlfriends are the new husbands, filling a role “somewhere between spouse and therapist.”
In place of marriage, there’s a new, ultramodern partnership that melds the camaraderie and loyalty of a friendship with the intimacy, support, and pragmatism of a husband.
This new way of thinking about friendship – as the primary emotional backbone in life instead of a strong but spidery support system – seems to be picking up steam. In a 2012 interview with Interview magazine “Girls” creator and current arbiter of what the kids are thinking these days Lena Dunham said she considers “my best friendship….as like a great romance of my young life.”
“Romance” is arguably too strong a word. Romance is romance, after all, and as much as I love my friends, they are no substitute for the zing of a great first date, or the electric satisfaction of…well, you know.
Nor do I, like a number of the women quoted in Marie Claire, plan to build a “quasi-union” with any of them. I mean, love in New York may be challenging, but there’s an air of hopelessness to saying “I’m giving up on men/romantic relationships for good.”
That said, my friends are committed, and that’s something I treasure and will never doubt. They are steadfast. They are honest. And they are there through better or worse (and, Lord knows, richer or poorer). In short, they tick off a whole bunch of relationship boxes people profess to look for in marriage. And throughout my adulthood, they not only provided the emotional support I needed but also the intense emotional buffer I required to figure out who I was and where I was going and what I needed (and oftentimes didn’t!) except without many of the complications and high stakes that accompany romantic relationships.
Can they be as satisfying as husbands? I can’t answer that question. At the end of the day, at least this day, thus far, they have played a greater, more satisfying role in making me who I am than many of my romances. Any potential husband would have some big shoes to fill.
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