Marriage is all about romantic love – or that’s what the Hollywood movies would like us to believe.
Of course, love is at the core of marriage, including intimacy and romantic attraction, and love is what makes marriage different from all our other relationships.
But the marriages that overcome the many stress tests and the many conflicts, big and small, that inevitably crop up over a lifetime, the marriages that last, also have something else at their core: a strong friendship.
Seeing your partner as a friend and not as the fulfillment of a personal or cultural fantasy (in which case he or she can never be enough) is the most realistic foundation of a long-term relationship.
Characteristics of friendship
Friendships, it has been said, are the freest of all relationships. Friends are freely chosen, without pressure or obligation, and friendships express who we are. Friendship is also the most equal of all relationships. Friends have mutual respect, mutual curiosity about each other’s lives, and support each other unconditionally because they have each other’s best interests at heart – more so than their own selfish agenda.
A strong friendship is the best foundation for being a lifelong team.
How to maintain a strong friendship
The big stuff
Support your spouse in living a full life. If your partner wants to branch out professionally, travel more (or less), if he or she is faced with a major life decision, or wants something that you don’t want, stay curious, ask questions, and try to support your spouse in making the best choices for his or her own life. Not yours. A strong friendship rests on the fact that each of you is an individual. Undue pressure, coercion, emotional blackmail, and a sense of entitlement have no place in a strong friendship.
Of course, marriage is also a partnership in practical matters. But friends who respect and trust each other will also treat that partnership with trust and respect.
The small stuff
Life, however, consists largely of the small stuff. Most days don’t bring the big decisions, but every day is an opportunity to rediscover and reinforce your strong friendship with each other.
Show your spouse that you are paying attention – through small gifts, thoughtful remarks, and encouraging questions.
Suggest little things that lighten up your partner’s life – a short trip, a favorite food, participation in a favorite activity.
Be reliable when you execute the little tasks and helpful acts that your partner asks for, be honest when you make promises, and keep those that you make.
Stay engaged in conversation.
Create projects together and follow up regularly. Building things as a team strengthens the dynamics of your friendship by using them.
How to stay friends in tough times
Best friends can disagree without losing each other’s positive regard and support. Friends can even dare to be more honest with each other than everyone else, and during tough times in your marriage that might be necessary.
If you can trust and respect each other, even the biggest conflicts and challenges benefit from that honesty. If you are best friends, you can also approach your mutual mistakes more openly and with compassion.
The “friendship” frame of mind can help you to try to see the other person’s point of view. It can also help you stay realistic and remind you that your partner is an individual, a person who has chosen to be with you, and not the fairy tale prince or princess created in your own psyche. (That fairy tale prince or princess is actually a part of you that you project into someone else, expecting that someone else to rescue you and solve all your unresolved internal issues.)
The most important aspect of a strong friendship is, after all, mutuality – respect, trust, and freedom work both ways.
No matter how your relationship started out, it is never too late to focus on and expand a strong friendship in your marriage. A friendship that will last a lifetime, whatever happens.