What women find in friends that they may not get from love

Among the largely unacknowledged truths of contemporary female life is that women’s foundational relationships are as likely to be with one another as they are with the romantic partners who, we’re told, are supposed to complete us. For many wome
Among the largely unacknowledged truths of contemporary female life is that women’s foundational relationships are as likely to be with one another as they are with the romantic partners who, we’re told, are supposed to complete us. For many women, friends are our primary partners through life; they are the ones who move us into new homes, out of bad relationships, through births and illnesses. ST FILE PHOTO

Such friendships provide affection and emotional or intellectual succour

Sara and I met as office drones in 1999. We became friends in a period of our lives when the demands of our jobs were just heating up, when the roots we were putting down in the city were just getting deep. In each other, we found respite, recognition, a shared eagerness to relax, take stock and talk about it all.

Many other women were doing the same things. Female friendship has been the bedrock of women's lives for as long as there have been women. In earlier eras, when there was less chance that a marriage, entered often for economic reasons, would provide emotional or intellectual succour, female friends offered intimate ballast.

These days, marriages ideally offer far more in the way of soulful satisfaction. But they tend to begin later in life - today 20 per cent of Americans aged 18 to 29 are married, compared with nearly 60 per cent in 1960; the median age of first marriage for women has risen to 27 - if they marry at all. The marriage rate hit a record low last year, and a 2014 Pew Research Centre study showed a significant number of adults had never been married and predicted that a quarter of millennials might never marry.

As women live more of our adult lives unmarried, we become ourselves not necessarily in tandem with a man or within a traditional family structure, but instead alongside other women: our friends.

Among the largely unacknowledged truths of contemporary female life is that women's foundational relationships are as likely to be with one another as they are with the romantic partners who, we're told, are supposed to complete us.

Friendships provided the core of what I wanted from adulthood - connection, shared sensibilities, enjoyment. Unlike my few youthful romances, which had mostly depleted me, my female friendships were replenishing, and their salubrious effect expanded into other layers of my life: They made things I yearned for, like better work, fairer remuneration, increased self-assurance and even just fun, seem more attainable.

My relationship with Sara had a low-slung thrum of beer, cigarettes and the kind of quotidian familiarity we think of as exclusive to long- term mates, or possibly siblings. We played cards and watched award shows and baseball and presidential debates together; we shared doctors and advised each other on office politics; we gossiped and kept each other company when the exterminator came to behead the mice. (Seriously: This was the exterminator we both used, and he beheaded mice.)

Together, Sara and I had a close network of four other friends with whom we vacationed, but also maintained separate relationships with our own circles. Without realising it, we were recreating contemporary versions of very old webs of support. The historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has written about women's relationships in the 19th century that "friends did not form isolated dyads but were normally part of highly integrated networks". Friendships provided the core of what I wanted from adulthood - connection, shared sensibilities, enjoyment. Unlike my few youthful romances, which had mostly depleted me, my female friendships were replenishing, and their salubrious effect expanded into other layers of my life: They made things I yearned for, like better work, fairer remuneration, increased self-assurance and even just fun, seem more attainable.

Female friendship was not a consolation prize, some romance also-ran. Women who find affinity with one another are not settling. In fact, they may be doing the opposite, finding something vital that is lacking in their romantic entanglements, and thus setting their standards healthily higher.

Four years after Sara and I first met, the man she had been seeing was offered a job in Boston. They dated long distance for a year, then had to decide; he was intent on staying in Boston, even though it was not a city that offered her much professional opportunity.

Watching Sara wrestle with her choices was painful. It was the kind of upheaval, in our late 20s, that was messy enough to make me consider whether early marriage might have been wise after all. When we're young, our lives are so much more pliant, can be joined without too much fuss. When we get older, the infrastructure of our adulthood takes shape, connects to other lives. The prospect of breaking it all apart and rebuilding it elsewhere becomes a far more daunting project than it might have been had we just married someone at 22 and done all that construction together.

The day Sara moved to Boston, after weeks of packing and giving away her stuff, a bunch of friends closed up the U-Haul and gave long hugs and shouted our goodbyes as she drove off. When she was gone and I was alone, I cried.

Make no mistake: I believed that Sara should go. I wanted her to be happy and I understood that what we wanted for ourselves and for each other was not only strong friendships and rewarding work, but also warm and functional relationships with romantic and sexual partners; both of us were clear on our desires for love, commitment, family. Yet, at the time, I was so gutted that I wrote an article about her departure - Girlfriends Are The New Husbands - in which I contemplated the possibility that it's our female friends who now play the role that spouses once did, perhaps better than the spouses did.

Historically, friendships between women provided them with attention, affection and an outlet for intellectual or political exchange in eras when marriage, still chiefly a fiscal and social necessity, wasn't an institution from which many could be sure of gleaning sexual or companionate pleasure.

Because these relationships played such a different role from marriage in a woman's life, it was quite realistic for commitments between women to persist as emotionally central after the marriages of one or both of them. Even the happiest of married women found something in their associations with other women that they did not have with their husbands. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton, devotedly wed and mother of seven, once said of her activist partner, Susan B. Anthony: "So closely interwoven have been our lives, our purposes, and experiences" that when separated, "we have a feeling of incompleteness". Six months after she moved to Boston, Sara came back.

She came back because the relationship she'd travelled to Boston for wasn't fulfilling. More important, she came back because the life she'd left in New York - her work, her city, her friends - was fulfilling. She came back for herself. She says now it was a New York job listing that was the beacon: "It was telling me to return to the life that fed me, my circle of friends, to return to myself." I was sad her relationship hadn't worked out, but happy that she had built a life on her own that was satisfying and welcoming enough to provide her with an appealing alternative. And I was thrilled to have her back.

But divides can creep in between friends just as easily as they do in marriages. Maybe because she was nursing painful wounds as she rebuilt her New York life, and was resistant to simply falling back into her old patterns; maybe because, after the pain of having to say goodbye, I was gun-shy about giving myself over so completely, our friendship was never again quite as effortless as it had once been.

"It was a rough re-entry," she said recently of that time. "I knew of course that your life had continued while I was gone and that your circles of friends had expanded, but I was sad we couldn't slip right back into the space where we had left off." Then, a few years after her return, it was I who fell in love, I who suddenly couldn't go out multiple nights a week with my girlfriends, because I had met a man with whom - for the first time in my life - I wanted to spend those nights.

When I met Darius, I was stunned by how much time I wanted with him, and also by the impossibility of living my social life as I had before. And once I took out the constancy of communication with my female friends, the dailiness and all-knowingness, the same-boatness, the primacy of our bonds began to dissipate.

We have no good blueprint for how to integrate the contemporary intimacies of female friendship and of marriage into one life. In this one small (but not insignificant) way, I think, 19th-century women were lucky, with their largely unsatisfying marriages and segregation into a subjugated and repressed gender caste. They had it easier on this one front: They could maintain an allegiance to their female friends, because there was a much smaller chance that their husbands were going to play a competitively absorbing role in their emotional and intellectual lives.

Sara says now that she was surprised to see me disappear so completely into a relationship, after having known me for years as the one who didn't have (or need) a stable romantic partnership. I was the one who was far more into my work and my friends, the one who was so rarely in a relationship that I'd already begun planning to have a child on my own, the one who was familiar with the turning away of friends towards traditional relationships. Now here I was, making that turn myself.

"I was happy for you," Sara told me. "But it felt like we'd switched roles; I woke up one morning as the independent feminist and you were the girl who was so into her boyfriend." The worrywarts of the early 20th century may have been right about the competitive draw of female friendship, about the possibility that it might inhibit or restrain a desire for marriage, especially bad marriages. But the real consequence of having friendships that are so fulfilling is that when you actually meet someone you like enough to clear the high bar your friendships have set, the chances are good that you're going to really like him or her. That's what happened to me.

For many women, friends are our primary partners through life; they are the ones who move us into new homes, out of bad relationships, through births and illnesses. Even for women who do marry, this is true at the beginning of our adult lives, and at the end - after divorce or the death of a spouse.

There aren't any ceremonies to make this official. There aren't weddings; there aren't health benefits or domestic partnerships or familial recognition. There has not yet been any satisfying way to recognise the role we play for one another. But, as so many millions of us stay unmarried for more years, maybe there should be.

NEW YORK TIMES

  • Rebecca Traister is writer at large for New York Magazine and the author, most recently, of All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women And The Rise Of An Independent Nation, from which this essay is adapted.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 06, 2016, with the headline 'What women find in friends that they may not get from love'. Print Edition | Subscribe