My husband gently stroked my hair as we cuddled in bed one chilly morning. "It's not blond," he murmured, "and it doesn't spill over the pillow. For so many years I thought that's what I wanted."
I pinched his "love handles" in retaliation! "And you're not the tall, muscular hunk I've always dreamed about."
"Aren't you glad?" he teased.
"Sure am." I reflected for a moment on the state we had been in when we met. We each had an image of what we were looking for in a prospective mate, especially since this was the second time around for both of us. Neither of us fit the other's picture. Yet the attraction was there. From the moment we met at a dinner party in Los Angeles, I knew I wanted to get to know this gentle man with the large blue eyes—a man who listened, talked, and laughed. I felt safe with him. He seemed like a person I could trust—a man who could be a friend. And it was nice to find out he wanted to learn more about me.
We didn't fall in love right away. We were friends first—good companions. We shared music and books, spent time with our children, attended church together on Sundays, and discovered each other's likes and dislikes.
We also disagreed and argued. We still do sometimes. I'm spontaneous. Charles is methodical. I see the glass half full and he sees it half empty. He likes to think things through. I feel my way into a decision. But despite our differences we've remained friends. And today after nearly 30 years of marriage, it's friendship and our shared faith in Christ that hold us together.
Friendship, as I see it, is something to look for at the start of a relationship and to commit to for the long haul. Love is essential, and attraction and passion are important too, but being friends will keep a relationship warm and safe and loving long after physical passion subsides.
"Easy for you to say," my friend Lena once told me with a playful huff. "Dick and I fell in love and we married—just like that. When I hear other women talking about their husbands being their best friends, I'm jealous. I wish I could say that about Dick, but I can't. What can I do now? I doubt I'm alone in this."
Can You Become Friends After You Marry?
According to women I spoke with, yes you can—over time and with persistence. I asked three older friends to share what they discovered about friendship and love during the course of their 50-plus years of marriage. Here are their responses, based on the definition of the word friend that I found in the Free Online Dictionary: "A person whom one knows, likes, and trusts."
Corinne claims her friendship with her husband, Ed, came about as they created a family together, nursed one another through hurts and illness, shared good times while travelling during their retirement years, and made decisions and choices with the other person in mind—and most important, while walking together with Christ.
Joan, who admitted she was a perfectionist at first, learned to adapt and to be open-minded—to laugh at mistakes and smile at misunderstandings, especially when neither she nor her husband Lenard meant to hurt each other. "I was married young, and that actually helped us," she said, "because I was not yet set in my ways. My husband and I could grow in our love and become friends at the same time."
Barbara Jean credited her long marriage and friendship with her husband, Vic, with giving up the right to be right. "I now see that most marital problems have very little to do with one's spouse. We get upset because we think our way of doing things is the right way or the only way. But it's not. The other person has his or her way and it's as valid as ours." Best friends look out for each other. "When I viewed Vic in a new way, I saw what a precious person he is—and a good friend, too."
When I put their experiences together and consider mine of nearly 30 years, I come up with four characteristics that speak of friendship, as well as love, in a marriage.
Sometimes just a touch or a word of encouragement can make a difference. Charles often comforts me with words. "I love our life together." "I'm so grateful for you." "I admire your courage." Comfort can also be expressed without words. Touch is one of the most powerful means of reaching another person. I like words. Charles prefers touch. By learning what each other needs, you can comfort one another in a way that works.
Couples learn compassion the way one learns to play the piano or football—by practicing it. And it takes practice. I don't always feel like hearing my husband's feelings. I'm not often in the mood to listen to his hurts and frustrations. And he must surely tire of my need to process every experience and emotion. But we're in this for the duration. I'm discovering that being more sensitive than assertive, more spiritual than custodial, and more nurturing than managing is the path to a true friendship.
You can make deliberate choices to nurture your connection. Eat together—just the two of you at times, so you can talk and listen and catch up on the day. If you like to work out at the gym, run on the beach, or play a round of golf, plan some of those times together. We enjoy the theater, the symphony, museums, and British mysteries on television.
Praying with one another—for even a few minutes each day—is another hallmark of friendship with the person you love and trust.
We're still working on this. Maybe you are too. To me being consistent means practicing mutual respect even when we have hard things to talk about. We want to live out our spiritual values in daily life, not just talk about them. It means keeping our home in order and ourselves attractive to one another. The challenge is to be consistent without being controlling. Consistency also includes letting yourself be known as someone the other person can turn to with confidence. Even though we make mistakes, we want to be quick to make amends as well.
Friendship is a relationship two individuals enter willingly. I like this question I found in the Bible: "Do two people walk hand in hand if they aren't going to the same place?" (Amos 3:3, MSG). Such a friendship will be only as good or as close as people choose to make it. A friend is someone you can confide in with complete trust, one whom you respect and who respects you, not because you deserve it but because you agreed to be friends—now and over the long haul.
Karen O'Connor is a retreat speaker, award-winning author, and writing mentor from Watsonville, California. Visit Karen's web site:KarenOConnor.com.