There’s a sweet song that came out a couple of years ago by Jason Mraz & Colbie Caillat. As they sing together, I imagine a couple walking hand-in-hand at the beach, staring blissfully into each other’s eyes, smiling and laughing as the refrain loops, “Lucky I’m in love with my best friend…”
It’s a common sentiment: if you want a good relationship, your partner should be your best friend. In fact, it’s splattered across social media posts celebrating weddings and anniversaries. You see, hear, and read it in movies, music, and books.
Whenever I hear that song “Lucky” or see friends post something along the lines of, “I married my best friend,” I think about my own relationship. My husband and I are going on 14 years of marriage. While he knows me better than anyone else, I wouldn’t call him my best friend. But should he be?
The answer is complicated.
People didn’t always pair up for love. Historically, people got married for more transactional reasons like a power alliance between families or for financial purposes, says Skye Cleary, philosopher, Columbia University lecturer, and author of “Existentialism and Romantic Love”. This started to change with the rise of capitalism and industrialization. Then, people started to make love matches.
But the truth is, after heady, passionate days of falling head-over-heels for a partner, the magic of romantic love can start to wane. “The problem is that marriage is forever. You fall in love. You get married. Once the passion fades, then you’re stuck,” says Cleary. “For a long-term relationship, friendship is a key ingredient,” says Cleary. After all, if you’re stuck with someone for many years, you might as well enjoy them as a friend too. [Editor’s Note: if you’re having trouble with this “enjoying” part, try the Relationships pack.]
Cleary says that in contrast to romantic love, which even philosophers characterized as a desire to possess the other person, a friendship-based relationship can have many advantages, namely respecting the other person’s freedom and interest in activities outside of the relationship. “If we can bring those aspects of friendship into romantic relationships, it could provide a stronger foundation for the relationship,” says Cleary. Researchers have also found that those who say they’ve married their best friend are more likely to be happier and more satisfied with their life.
Plus, being in a relationship with someone who knows the true you can be good for your health. According to Amanda Gesselman, Ph.D., Assistant Research Scientist at the Kinsey Institute, research on couples shows that one main contributor to a person’s mental and physical health is how supported one feels in the relationship.
“For a happier relationship, you want both people in the relationship to feel like the other person knows the real them, how to support them in a way they prefer, and the situations where they would need support without being asked,” she says. “That’s what we might consider a best friend, someone who can figure out those things without being asked, who can know what we need in any situation, and who has our backs.”
And the benefits are dramatic—Gesselman reports that people who feel really supported and loved by a partner can heal from surgery six weeks faster.
Still, there can be downsides to being in a relationship with a best friend. “There is a lot of research shows that when people get into relationships, they tend to withdraw from their social networks,” says Gesselman. And there may be situations when you need someone to lean on, and your partner isn’t right for the job.
For example, Gesselman has found this in her work with couples where one person has a medical condition like cancer. “It’s important for the person who’s becoming a caretaker to have someone else to rely on to talk about the changing dynamics and get support,” she says. “It’s important for their own mental health and for getting through the situation.”
Plus, friendship is just one aspect of a long-term relationship. For example, sexual intimacy is important, but so is physical touch like hand-holding or an affectionate caress. “It’s important to show your affection and love for them physically,” says Gesselman. “It’s related to happiness in relationships across demographics and relationship lengths.”
Best friend or not, experts agree that relationships can play an important role in our lives. “It’s how we learn about ourselves and grow. We can’t really know ourselves fully. We need other people to challenge us, to help us see ourselves, and to become aware of possibilities that we haven’t even thought of on our own,” says Cleary.
“While it’s important to have someone be close and feel like your best friend, that’s not to say they should be your only best friend or only person,” says Gesselman.
Artwork by CHRIS MARTZ