In his “First Spouse” speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Bill Clinton referred to Hillary Clinton as “my best friend.” In his calculated and comforting accent, he drew out the words, giving them a holy weight, something repeated out of a religious text, to drive home the mythological idea of a long marriage. The speech was a concentrated effort to make a case for a relationship that most Americans have long ago stopped believing was ever a romance. This speech sought to convince the listeners that this story was a grand romance, and called on every treasured cliché to do so. My best friend—the rhetorical punch meant to hit the listener in their soft emotional belly. The whole idea of marriage, of long love that earned all the hard bargains it drove with the world, all the consequences in its wake worth it: I got to spend my life with my best friend.
The morning after our first date, in a sweet and tentative Gchat conversation about the date the night before, the man who’s now my partner of three and a half years referred to our new friendship.
“You’re not my friend,” I told him. It was a weird and strange and uncomfortable thing to say, an ugly playground taunt to throw at a person for whom I felt only soft things.
“No,” he said, “You’re right. I’m not.” It felt combative and awkward, and it is probably part of the reason that we now live in an apartment together with a cat and cooking utensils and furniture and documents pertaining to our legal relationship in a desk drawer.
There’s an idea that love starts with and ends with friendship, the seed from which the rest of the relationship blooms. This idea presents friendship as some greater and more assured truth, a solid ground-floor below all the showiness of sex and romance. Calling one’s romantic partner a “best friend” also highlights the childlike quality of romantic love. Our depictions and enactments of romance often focus on the way in which the person we love allows us to retreat into the consequence-free and un-nuanced comforts of childhood, of a time before sex and betrayal were considerations, when the person you loved most, in an unconsidered and full-throated playground fierceness, was your best friend.
Marriage is haunted by all kinds of assumptions, by cultural portrayals that go back almost as far as culture itself does. Scratch any surface and you find jokes about nagging wives and cheating husbands. Even the biggest and the oldest stories have warnings about the stagnations of love raised to the power of continuing time. Marriage as an institution has been artificially imbued with so much significance that it is like a rapidly collapsing Christmas tree unable to bear the weight of all the ornamentation and bright signal lights heaped on it. The hyperbolic romance ascribed to marriage comes with equally hyperbolic complaints, and each one places it again and again at the center of every emotional narrative we learn.
As a kid, my parents read me Jane Austen and Shakespeare’s comedies as bedtime stories before I could read on my own. We learn the world from our earliest impressions of it, and from these stories I memorized the way I thought all stories worked, carrying that narrative like muscle memory into my adult readings of more sophisticated and various texts. Even now, my natural instinct while reading or watching any fictional narrative is to pick out the couples, to try to find who pairs off with whom and how the pairings render the story into the final narrative coherence of marriage. The marriage plot is a contraption for ordering the world, taking its chaotic inhabitants and their unspectacular choices and sorting them into neat rows, a benevolent god bending a grand equation toward a single output.
If the marriage plot, the thing that comes before actual marriage, is romance, then perhaps the thing that follows is friendship, or at least that’s how the story that posits marriage as friendship goes. Friendships are understood to be less volatile than romances, less sexy but more reliable, a thing concerned not with spectacle but with continuance. A friend is the last person left after everyone else at the party has gone home, the person sitting on the couch with their shoes off among half-finished glasses of wine, sleepy at the end of the night. Love is the last two people in a restaurant when they turn the lights on and stack the chairs on the table.
I told my partner we weren’t friends at the beginning of our relationship because almost immediately I sensed that this was something different from anything that had come before, that this was not something with which to be careless. The weight of this relationship taught me to put boundaries on all my relationships, to draw thick and heavy lines around the things that mattered. I began to realize that my idea of love as something that slid between one definition and another without ever arriving at either was a selfishly romantic idea. It allowed me to refuse categories that would force me to be loyal to people. I began letting go of strange friendships, letting go of things that bled outside of the lines. I began to insist on calling things what they were.
It is attractive to equate romance and friendship, claiming that both exist at once, and that no relationships are entirely one thing or another. But romance isn’t friendship, and friendship isn’t romance. “Love” is a gigantic coverall word, like a gesture you make with your hands when you don’t know what to do with them. It is true that there are not enough words for the way we love people; each individual relationship would, in an ideal world, have its own category and language, redefining words by the small and sharply significant experience between two people. But calling marriage “friendship” is an elision that does a disservice to both relationships. For a long time, imagining romance as the highest form of friendship, my idea of friendship therefore necessarily aspired to a sexual and romantic ideal—the closest and best friendship must be one in which the two friends were in love with each other, or at least one in which the two friends wanted to sleep together, even if they never acted on that desire.
But the triumph of friendship, the really great thing about it, is that it offers the mercy of a relationship in which two people do not have to find each other physically attractive in order to love each other. In a culture in which physical attractiveness is constantly emphasized, in which the judgments as to whether we are attractive enough are inescapable, a relationship that does not function along those lines is a grand relief, an escape from the pressures and judgments of the rest of the world around it, a safe place. Other types of love—partnership, romance, marriage—still dwell inescapably in the languages of physical attraction, and therefore still remind us of the overpowering importance of our physical appearance in the public world. Friendship offers a place beyond that exterior, a temporary silencing of that noise. Friendship is not less than romance; in some ways it is far more. But the two are not the same thing.
I’ve started to consider these distinctions as my own relationship continues on long enough to make me consider what the accumulation of time does to love. I have begun to think about marriage, its significances and assumptions, as it looms up possible on the horizon. I wonder about the reasons for drawing a strong and arbitrary line under something, giving a name to something that has already proved its existence by the fact that it continues each day. My relationship has gone on long enough that I bristle and twitch at the word “settled,” defensive at the all too well-known image of two people having made each other boring by loving one another. This far into a partnership is supposed to be the point at which one starts to understand the idea of love as friendship. But rather, the longer my relationship with my partner continues, the more important it feels to insist on the distinction: This isn’t a friendship. Marriage as friendship denies the physicality of romantic love, a puritan rewriting of partnership that claims sex as unimportant. This is still more dangerous and less comforting than that.
Lately, I catch myself stopping and looking too long at old couples I see on the street; it hurts my heart but I can’t look away when I notice two people in their eighties helping each other board the bus or carry groceries home. Sometimes these couples seem hardly to be in the world outside their unit of two. Their love has gone on long enough to create a sufficiency entirely on its own. I can understand wanting to refer to this kind of love as friendship—these are people whose love has survived past their bodies’ ability to act on desire. But whatever illuminates these fierce, shut-down universes of two is decidedly not friendship; that living memory, that present, hungry thing that survives into any old age is what I imagine when I imagine my own relationship forward.
My parents are deeply, fiercely in love with each other. They will have been married for thirty-five years this November. They have never been “best friends.” I don’t think I have ever heard either of them describe the other one as a friend. They fight all the time, and I am pretty sure they still have sex, however much I don’t want to think about that. They have never seemed like friends to me. What they have is what I want with my partner, a lifelong declaration that we aren’t friends.
We have the idea that, as our bodies decay, our love decays, too, out of the body and into repeated words, that what is at the bottom of love, when you remove all the decorations, the paint on the walls and the furniture in the room, is something soft and asexual, something sleepy and unconcerned with the body. But the text of romance, the material out of which the experience is built, is the body, its shape and movement, its resignations and betrayals. Friendship comforts us that we can love people without our bodies being at the center of that experience; romance allows us to resolve the way in which our bodies define our experience of the world.
The way my parents are still in love makes me uncomfortable, and it should. I want to grow up to make the young people I know uncomfortable, to defy ideas of the soft relatable sweetness of old age. A long partnership accumulates a private world in which one gets to be less presentable, less recognizably human, two people who have witnessed the grotesque expressions of one another’s bodies. One function of calling a marriage a friendship is to make it translatable to an outside observer, to reassure that this is something familiar. But when I imagine spending my life with my partner, the joy is of imagining years of accumulating a secret language, carrying around an experience built between us and offered to no one else. We say “you’re not my friend” to each other all the time now, a callback all the way to how it began, recording and living within a long history of something stranger than friendship.