I came of age during the time when people started saying husbands and wives should be best friends. If they could be best friends, they could have a satisfying and lasting marriage.
It took me years to discover that—at least for me—this didn't actually work.
I started out trying to be the best friend—which meant, among other things, I should be empathetic, caring, attentive, and nurturing. Since I was determined not just to be a "good husband" but the "best friend" my wife, Barbara, ever had, I entered marriage with my usual type A, get-it-done efficiency.
If she asked to chat about whatever over a cup of coffee—I was there. If she wanted to explain the intricacies of her relationships at work—I listened empathetically. If she was obviously in pain or hurt and said she didn't want to talk—I'd draw her out. I was good.
It went well for a few years. But as time passed, talking about whatever over coffee didn't hold my interest. Her intricate explanations of relational complexities at work confused me. I just didn't seem to care as deeply as I should have about the things she cared about—her garden, her shopping trips, her women's Bible study.
I started to worry that our marriage was on the rocks, that I'd lost interest in the love of my life. But that wasn't it. I just wasn't a good best friend.
I just don't get it.
It took me a long time to recognize and admit that, yes, there were some things my wife talked about that I'd never care much about, and other things, I'd just never understand. It took me even longer to admit that was okay.
One night she was telling me about some of the women at work—who said what to whom, what they really meant, how so-and-so responded, and what that really meant, and what was Barb to do now, especially since her boss was like this and said that. I listened carefully, and then it occurred to me: I had no idea what she was talking about. I'd lost the train of thought early on, and I couldn't tell who said what to whom, who was upset at whom, and what Barb was actually confused about.
And then it occurred to me: I wasn't ever going to understand. I'm not remotely as relational as my wife; I simply couldn't keep it all straight.
So when there was an appropriate pause, I said, "Honey, this is a mess. I can see that much. I feel badly for you. But I have no idea what you're talking about. You're asking my advice, I think, and I have no idea what you should do. Maybe you need to find another woman to talk to about this. I'm guessing she can understand this whole thing. 'Cause I sure can't."
I realized that in trying to be my wife's best friend, I'd been trying to become her girlfriend. And I didn't see that happening without a sex change operation.
As I became honest with myself, I also realized I'd been frustrated in reverse. I'd share something with Barb that was of deep interest to me—my latest fly fishing trip, how I was enjoying the novel The Godfather, or the details of a carpentry problem I solved. Although she dutifully asked questions about such matters, I could tell she didn't really get it. The "Yes, dear" type responses left me flat. I slowly figured out she was never going to be my best buddy. She's just not designed that way.
Beneath the surface
As Christians we're sometimes confused when we read the verse in Genesis about the two becoming one. We recognize it points not just to physical but psychological intimacy of the most profound sort. But we jump from that insight into one less warranted: A great marriage is about revealing not only the depths of our souls but all the details of our lives. And the more we tell each other about all these details, the stronger our marriage will be.
There's a measure of truth in that. We'll indeed have a more intimate relationship with our spouse than anyone else on the planet, and that intimacy comes from talking with each other about all manner of things. But I'm not convinced this makes marriage into a best friendship.
Friendship is a different order of relationship. It does include a sharing of interests and a degree of intimacy. But friendship also has the freedom to skim the surface and only dig deeper now and then. That's why friendships—especially a lot of men's friendships—traffic in conversation about fly fishing or other matters that, in the cosmic sweep of things, aren't that important. Even a deep friendship—from this guy's perspective—may only occasionally dip into intimacy, while staying on this wonderful surface for long periods of time.
But a marriage—that's something altogether different. When you live with someone day in and day out, unite physically on a regular basis, share in establishing a household, rearing children, and creating a presence in the community—well, the relationship is not a friendship. Not even best-friendship. It's so much more complex and profound than that.
Many days, you simply don't have time to dabble in the wonderful surface, and when you do, you're not necessarily in the mood to do it with the person with whom you've been negotiating car pools, dish duty, and family devotions. Sometimes you need to talk to someone who isn't your spouse, about things that really don't matter all that much.
When God established marriage, he didn't abolish relationships with parents, whom we're called to honor. He didn't abolish relationships with our children, siblings, or friends, which the writer of Proverbs says can be a closer relationship than with family. "A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother" (Proverbs 18:24).
Hollywood and romance writers may woo us with the ideals of a "soul mate"—and some marriages (albeit I'd argue those are more the exception) do just click that way. But many marriages aren't like that. Our gender differences are pronounced, something that's never going to change. And that's okay. Our marriages aren't on the rocks; we haven't lost interest in the love of our lives.
My best wife forever
Fortunately for those couples such as my wife and me, who neatly fit outside the best friend category, there's hope. Marriage is but one relationship among many we're called to have. It isn't designed to satisfy all our relational needs. I don't have to be interested in everything my wife does or says. She doesn't have to act like I'm the center of her universe ("I just love to hear about your golf game, honey").
To be sure, I want my wife to tell me when she's concerned about work or some relational debacle. I still want to understand and appreciate her interests. But now I don't expect to fully get it sometimes, and we both have other people in our lives who, in some areas, will get it.
This means we also have the freedom not to know every single detail that's going on in each other's lives. There are some things I share with other guys that I won't share with Barb. There are some things she shares with other women that I don't need to know about.
This will seem like a "duh" to many couples, who have understood all this from the get go. But I've noticed lots of couples enter marriage with relational expectations that are off the charts—somehow the spouse is going to do it all.
There's a measure of truth in saying that, in some ways, my wife and I are "best friends" (I mean, she agreed recently to start playing golf with me!), but that description distorts and confuses as much as clarifies what our relationship is. I've found it more helpful to remember that first and foremost I am my wife's "best husband," and she is my "best wife."
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today and is author of Beyond Bells & Smells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy (Paraclete). He and Barb have been married 34 years.
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