When I got married one of the questions that couples and counselors were discussing was: Should husbands and wives be each other’s best friend? The very question itself is probably a dead give-a-way as to how long I have been married. Today however, the consensus is pretty strong and most experts agree; friendship is a vital key to making marriage a success.
We are all familiar with the term. The word “friendship” conjures up thoughts of companionship, shared interest, honesty, vulnerability, mutuality and certainly commitment. C.S. Lewis said of friendship: “It is when we are doing things together that friendship springs up — painting, sailing ships, praying, philosophizing, and fighting shoulder to shoulder. Friends look in the same direction.”
Marriage guru John Gottman, professor at the University of Washington, and author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, says “Happy marriages are based on a deep friendship.” As Gottman explains it this friendship is founded upon “a mutual respect and enjoyment of each other’s company.” These couples tend to know each other intimately and they are very familiar with each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams. They have an abiding regard for each other and express this fondness not just in the big ways but also in small gestures day in and day out. It is this deep friendship that results in a higher percentage overall of marital satisfaction. In fact, the emotional connection that married couples share is said to be five times more important than their physical intimacy.
That doesn’t mean that physical intimacy or romance is lacking in the marriage. Rather, Gottman has found true ‘friendship’ is the foundation for love and fuels deeper passion in a marriage, because it offers the best protection against feeling adversarial toward your spouse.
One interesting study on marriage asked 351 couples, married 15 years or longer to list the “Top reasons for their marital success”. Even though the couples answered independently, the wives and the husbands produced almost identical lists: Not surprisingly, the number one reason given was, their spouse was their best friend. * Lauer, J.C. & Lauer, R.H. (1986). ‘Til Death Do Us Part. New York, NY: Haworth Press.
What are the traits of a strong friendship in marriage?
Building and nurturing friendship in marriage requires practice and hard work. How can couples grow their friendship with each other and what does it look like? The answer to those questions is often in the form of a “to do list” of things like…
- Spend quality time together
- Communicate: Talk and share about everyday life
- Find common interests
- Have fun with one another. Laugh together
- Make lasting memories
- Do and try new things together
To be sure, these are valuable friendship-building skills and techniques that will help maintain and strengthen your marriage. But let me suggest three core traits that are essential to a strong a deep friendship in marriage.
1) The couple shares a high level of emotional intelligence
According to one definition: Emotional intelligence (EI) or emotional quotient (EQ) is the capacity of individuals to recognize their own, and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different feelings and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.
How does that translate into marital friendship? Gottman says, “happily married couples aren’t smarter, richer, or more psychologically astute than others. But in their day-to-day lives, they have hit upon a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones. Rather than creating a climate of disagreement and resistance, they embrace each other’s needs. This positive attitude not only allows them to maintain but also to increase the sense of romance, play, fun, adventure, and learning together that are at the heart of any long-lasting love affair.” Gottman calls this an emotionally intelligent marriage. For example: When addressing a partner’s request, their motto tends to be a helpful “Yes, and …” rather than “Yes, but …”
- They assume the best about each other and their relationship
- They are able to acknowledge each other’s perspective, even when they strongly disagree
- They feel distressed when the other seems unhappy or hurt
- Their happiness is contingent on their partner’s feelings
- They are attuned to each other’s emotions, share an abiding empathy, and have a high degree of trust”
The more emotionally intelligent a couple—the better able they are to understand, honor, and respect each other and their marriage—the more likely that they will indeed live happily ever after. Just as parents can teach their children emotional intelligence, this is also a skill that couples can learn.
2) The couple establishes and maintains a strong foundation of trust
The importance of trust to the success of marriage may seem so obvious it can be overlooked. Someone has said, trust takes years to build, seconds to break and a lifetime to repair. We usually think of betrayal in sexual terms, but an extra marital affair is only one type of disloyalty that can undermine or destroy trust. “Betrayal is, fundamentally any act or life choice that doesn’t prioritize the commitment and put the partner “before all others.” Nonsexual betrayals can devastate a relationship as thoroughly as a sexual affair.” Some common forms of deceit include being emotionally distant, siding with a parent against one’s mate, disrespecting the partner, and breaking a significant promise (John Gottman, SPFMMW). In that broader sense, many of us are guilty of being unfaithful. How do we build and guard the foundation of trust?
Trust has been defined in many different ways. In Safe Haven Marriage, by Dr. Archibald Hart, he describes two important categories of trust. First, there is what he terms as Reliability trust. When you have reliability trust you have the assurance that your spouse will be dependable, on time, honest and truthful. This kind of trust means that you and your partner will keep your word to each other, and you will do what you say, when you say you’ll do it. In marriage you should be able to trust your spouse with your money, body, future, possessions, dreams, goals and secrets. In all that is important to them, spouses ought to be able to know that their partners will be respectful, dependable, responsible and reliable.
But there is also what has been called Heart trust, which is another very important kind of trust in building friendship in marriage. It is called heart trust because you are convinced, despite all the fights and storms you’ve had in your marriage and no matter what may happen between the two of you, that your spouse will always care for and value you. This is the deepest level of trust the human heart can give or receive. This is the ultimate emotional security. You are able to say to your partner, “I trust you with my heart.”
3) The couple creates a common sense of purpose and meaning
In the strongest marriages the husband and wife share a deep sense of meaning and purpose. They don’t just “get along”—they also support each other’s hopes and aspirations and build a sense of purpose into their lives together. This is really what is meant in honoring and respecting each other.
Yet, many couples who find their marriage to be stable and happy, may still be asking, “Is that all there is?” What may be missing is a deeper sense of shared meaning. Marriage isn’t just about raising kids, chasing careers, and making love. Marriage was designed to also have a spiritual dimension; that has to do with creating an inner life together. Couples can build meaning into their marriage and family by creating a culture of ritual and tradition, support for each other’s roles, and shared goals.
Yet it is important to remember that marriage is not a mere human relationship, but established by God Himself (Genesis 2:18-25; Mark 10:7-9; Ephesians 5:21-33). Taking the time to review God’s original design for marriage can put us in touch with purposes that transcend the mundane and temporal and create a vision for eternal joy and glory.