Asking for a Friend//

My Partner Isn’t My Best Friend. Is That OK?

A therapist weighs in on whether your significant other needs to be your closest confidante.

Klublu/ Shutterstock
Klublu/ Shutterstock

Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationship — with romantic partners, family members, co-workers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!

Q. People say your partner should be your best friend, but is it bad if mine’s really not? My partner and I have a healthy relationship and we love each other very much, but when it comes to casual advice, I tend to go to my girlfriends most of the time. I trust my partner, but I would just rather ask a friend. There’s nothing seemingly missing when it comes to our romance, but I don’t feel that friendship is the main part of our bond.

A: In the media, public figures like Michelle Obama, Justin Timberlake, Ashton Kutcher, and many, many others refer to their spouse as their “best friend,” particularly on Twitter or during award acceptance speeches.

This trend reflects the popular societal notion that spouses should be one another’s “best friends.” In response to this expectation, couples may feel pressured to project an image of being BFFs. However, like you, other couples feel strongly that their partner is not their best friend. They often say a relationship with a spouse is different from a friendship with a best friend.

Here’s what the research tells us about friendship and marriage.

  1. Do partners need to be friends to make a marriage work? Yes.
  2. Do partners need to be best friends to be happily married? No.
  3. Are marriages where both partners identify the other as one of their best friends happier than those who do not? Yes.

The Marital Friendship

Decades of research by Dr. John Gottman supports the idea that romantic partners need to be good friends. He found that couples who know each other very well regularly express fondness and admiration, and consistently connect in meaningful, satisfying ways remain happily married over time. He calls this a “marital friendship.”

A strong marital friendship is the basis for romance and intimacy between partners. It helps them to persevere in their efforts to work with one another around those inevitable, ongoing conflicts inherent in even the best of marriages. While Gottman found that the “marital friendship” between partners is an essential ingredient to making marriage work, being best friends is not required. However, he did find stronger marital friendships result in happier marriages.

Partners Who Are BFs

Recent research tells us marriages where both partners identify their spouses as one of their BFs are among the happiest marriages. 2014 and 2017 studies published by Dr. John Helliwell and Dr. Shawn Grover of Canada’s National Bureau of Economic Research found married partners who considered their spouse “a best friend” were the happiest couples in their study. The researchers refer to these couples as “super friends.” They also found that well-being benefits were twice as high for these married partners. Spouses who consider one another to be one of their best friends are happier and better off.

A Matter of Terms

In a 2017 interview, Dr. Peter Pearson of the Couples Institute of Menlo Park asserted a key difference between a spouse and a best friend is spouses live closely together and are unable to avoid their differences on key issues between them. This makes a marriage much more dynamic than a relationship with a best friend. People who are best friends do not share a life together. Best friendships are not necessarily romantic in nature.

His spouse and partner, Dr. Ellyn Bader, notes couples in her practice who tend to use the language of friendship to describe their relationship are more conflict avoidant and intensity avoidant. She feels they have given up on the complexity of being with someone in a long-term loving relationship. According to professionals in this camp, the terms researchers use to describe intimacy and closeness in marriage (friendship, best friendship, super friendship) would be better described by alternative terms. However, no one appears to have proposed better terminology that resonates with the general public.

The Main Point

Whatever one considers or calls a spouse, Gottman’s research reminds us that the ongoing process of cultivating a positive, friendly relationship with one’s partner is essential to making marriage work. This occurs when spouses know each other well, regularly share fondness and admiration, and consistently connect with one another in meaningful and satisfying ways. A relationship along these lines helps partners work more patiently with challenging differences in their personalities and needs, which surface over time. It also results in a deeper sense of intimacy and romance.

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