The Role of Friendship in Marriage
Meghan and Pete fell madly in love at their small Midwestern college. When they weren’t in class, or working their respective jobs, they spent every waking moment together. After just a few months, the couple began to dance around the subject of marriage. A year later they made a commitment to one another before God and their friends and families. The married couple moved to Washington, D.C., where Meghan started a prestigious internship on Capital Hill, and Pete waited tables while saving for medical school. In spite of the busyness of life, the two loved the newness of marriage and their friendship with one another.
Flash forward fifteen years: Meghan and Pete have four young children. Meghan left her job as a Senator’s aid eight years ago to raise their newborn son. Pete, now a doctor, works long hours at a large teaching hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.
While the two are active together in ministry at their church, they have lost the fire of friendship that once defined their relationship. They work hard to keep up with schedules, work, finances, church activities and taking care of the home – it is not uncommon for them to go a week or more without having a mere ten minute conversation about anything other than a recollection of events. At the suggestion of another Christian couple they’ve instituted a “date night” once a week. More often than not, however, this practice has fallen victim to the tyranny of the urgent.
The word “friendship” conjures up thoughts of honesty, vulnerability, companionship, and mutual respect. It also implies a certain outlaying of time and energy. C.S. Lewis said of friendship: “It is when we are doing things together that friendship springs up – painting, sailing ships, praying, philosophizing, and fighting shoulder to shoulder. Friends look in the same direction.”
Meghan and Pete’s close friendship in college was very real, but after fifteen years they are no longer looking in the same direction. Indeed, in many ways, they have grown to be very different people.
“Marriage without friendship cannot work in our culture,” says Bill Hanawalt, who has conducted pre-marital and marital counseling for 30 years as the executive pastor of the Vineyard Christian Church of Evanston, Il. “Friendship has to be nourished and nurtured regularly or it faces the danger of becoming a business relationship. I have seen many distant and business-like marriages where careers have developed and children have come into the picture, and the priority of emotional connection has been left to die on the vine. Couples that don’t give attention to developing their friendship often come apart. It also creates an opening for marital infidelity.”
Glenn Stanton, an expert on marriage at Focus on the Family and a husband and father of five children, echoes this sentiment. He says that a weakened friendship can lead a spouse to seek intimacy in other places. “When the luxury of being friends with one another takes a back seat, friendships that are deep and intimate can develop in other places resulting in emotional, and even physical, adultery,” says Stanton.
“These kinds of friendships are obviously easier. Unlike your spouse, the other party has the luxury of being transparent and real without all of the other encumbrances and responsibilities of your family’s life. We have no problem calling deep emotional intimacy between a spouse and another of the opposite sex wrong, however, if we’re investing emotional capital in a same-sex relationship at the peril of the marriage, then that this also dangerous.
“In marriage the final answer is am I investing more emotional energy into husband than I am in a friend or child? Or, where is it that I’m investing most of my emotional energy?”
A lapsed friendship can be restored with intentionality, sacrifice, perseverance, and especially prayer. A good first step is to find activities that you like to do together – and then make the time do it. “And simply be together,” says Stanton. “Jesus went off by Himself to be quiet with his Father. Make this a time when you’re not doing and running around, but that you’re just being together.”
Pete and Meghan have taken small steps toward this end. Though Pete works long hours, he takes time during the day to call home and see how Meghan is faring with the children. If he’s working late, she’ll bring dinner to the hospital because she knows he hates hospital food. Their date nights no longer fall prey to the tyranny of the urgent. They take the time to get together weekly, not only to catch up with each others activities, but to check in on their friendship.
Creating Intimacy and Friendship in Marriage
If you and your spouse are growing apart, you may have overlooked an important piece of the intimacy puzzle: friendship.
When you hear the word companion, what does the term signify to you? Given the dictionary’s definition of a companion as “somebody who accompanies you, spends time with you, or is a friend,” do you currently see you and your husband companionably drawing together or separately drifting apart? Author Sheldon Vanauken warns:
In Genesis 2:18, we hear these words echo across the centuries, still vitally relevant to our relationships today: “The LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’” Consider that the Hebrew word for helper is ezer — remarkably, the same word used in Psalm 118:7: “The LORD is with me; he is my helper (ezer).” Keeping this idea in mind reinforces the essential role we play within our sacred partnership. The blessing of friendship and tenderness in marriage honors this unchanging truth: A wife’s loving companionship was designed by God to meet her husband’s number one relationship need.
Evaluate your level of intimacy with your husband, then consider whether you might have been neglecting your husband’s needs for affection, comfort, and camaraderie. Ask your husband what he would like to experience with you in this area. Talk about your observations with each other. Reflect on times you have felt closest to your husband — what made the difference? What are your expectations concerning your husband’s friendship today? Is spending time with him fulfilling or disappointing? Why?
Have you had a night or weekend away alone together in the past year? What about the possibility of setting up regularly scheduled dates so you can spend time giving one another your undivided attention? If your husband seems less energized about this idea than you are, go back to the drawing board: Keep praying, asking for God’s guidance and wisdom about how your marriage friendship can best be strengthened and renewed right now.
Whether you prefer a special night out that involves dressing up and making reservations at an exclusive restaurant, or an evening of fishing in a canoe, spending time together is what counts. Getting out alone, away from the dishes, the laundry, the bills, and the kids — even for a brief time — can do your relationship a world of good. It may seem like a big effort at first, especially if you’re not used to spending a few hours a week away from work and family responsibilities. But I encourage you to make this effort. As your bond is renewed by your commitment to regularly schedule time alone together, your entire relationship will likely be refreshed.
Don’t be discouraged if you meet with some resistance from your husband at first. Plenty of couples struggle with their “what I want to do tonight” differences. Outside the bedroom, it isn’t always easy to find common ground in which to plant the seeds of marital intimacy and friendship. Even so, be patient; please don’t give up. In time, you likely will reap a colorful harvest.
Discovery in Our Differences
At this point you may be wondering whether the effort will be worth it. While I can’t make any absolute promises, I can speak from my own three-decades-plus experience. Here’s why: My husband and I began our married life together without any shared hobbies and with many divergent interests. He wanted to go to baseball games; I preferred going to the ballet. I was an avid reader; he spent most of his free time playing basketball or the guitar. He rarely stepped foot inside the house if the sun was shining; I thrived indoors, regardless of the weather. And so on and so forth.
After we celebrated our first anniversary, I wondered if we had enough in common to make our marriage work. Initially, our mutual attraction to one another had been enough. Clearly, we needed something more to strengthen and deepen our bond.
Even though I was uncertain about the outcome, I began praying. I asked God to strengthen our marriage and opened my heart to His leading in the daily details of our married life together. Though I am still learning (and praying), I can now look back over the years and see a beautiful theme emerging: In learning to respect and even appreciate one another’s differences, my husband and I no longer feel threatened by those parts of ourselves that are “apart,” or different, from each other. Because both of us have repeatedly been willing to go outside our dissimilar comfort zones — he occasionally attending the ballet or “chick flick” with me; I going to see baseball/football/basketball/hockey games with him, for example — our well-weathered companionship has become more interesting and richly textured, allowing us both to grow together as a couple and as individuals. The blessing of friendship — the willingness to prefer my husband’s companionship above all others — has helped me be more tender toward the man I now know better and appreciate more than anyone else in the world.
Ten Steps to a Deeper Friendship With Your Spouse
Friendship is one of the most important components to marriage.
Marriage, like any friendship, begins with areas of commonality, but the stresses of normal everyday life – children, work, finances, illness, caring for elderly parents – can tax the union and cause it to grow apart. Traditional marriage counseling is one way to deepen your friendship, but you can also engage in some simple practices.
Here are ten suggestions to cultivate a stronger relationship with your spouse. I’ve also included quotes from average folks that have successfully built this kind of friendship:
- Recognize that friendship building takes a lot of work – and time. Cut the fat out of your day.
- Establish a time each week to spend quality time together – then guard that time with your lives!
- Choose to spend time together rather than apart. This may mean sacrificing good things for a season such as small groups, ministry, or bonding time with guys or gals.
“We’ve made some significant concessions for the sake of our friendship. Phil lives close to his work so that can come home for lunch as often as possible. The short commute has improved his mood and energy.” —Amy
- Explore the interests of your spouse be it baseball, art, musical theater, gardening or hunting. Find out what their passionate about and then join them. Often this takes a bit of sacrifice.“I intentionally study the things that are having an influence on my wife. If she takes up a new area of interest, or is reading a new book, than I need to do that as well.” —Bill
- Take time to find common interests and then engage in them.
“We’ve tried many things together over the past 35 years. We enjoy cooking and gardening, and for as long as I can remember we take time away from the kids to backpack during summer. Part of the fun is doing research on hiking trails, camp sites, packs, tents, and cooking stoves … it’s the planning together that has grown our friendship.” —John
- Use conflict to sharpen and purify friendship.“I thought I was particularly fortunate because my husband and I rarely argued – we agreed on almost everything. The process of recovering from adultery revealed unhealthy communication on both our parts. Now we have more disagreements, but they come about because we’re being honest with one another, which is helping us get to know each other more all the time.” —Andi
- Nourish and care for one another. Be gentle with one another.“We lost our first child. We more than comforted one another. We held each other … lifted one another up … and we knew at a deep level that our best friend in the world was going through the same thing.” —Glenn
- Accountability and mutual respect, including in the areas of sexuality, finances, and relationships, should be a priorities.“My wife knows everything about my brokenness. I have gone to her first in difficult situations. There’s a small circle of people who know me and know my depravity. My wife is in that circle. Having that transparency has given me strength, clarity, and tremendous freedom.” —George
- Establish daily habits especially praying together.“Praying together every morning not only sets the tone for our day, and releases the burdens on our hearts, but it puts us on the same page in so many areas. God meets us in the midst of our friendship every morning.” —Justine
- Affirm one another every day. Be intentional in communicating the other’s strengths.“My wife and I make it a habit to regularly communicate those things we admire or value in the other. This practice has strengthened our friendship.” —Al
- Be transparent with one another.“One activity I suggest to married couples is, at some point during the day, identify an emotional reality to your spouse. Label that feeling in a self-disclosing way such as ‘I’m angry, fearful, resentful.’ We often limit our conversation to the reporting of events rather than communicating how we really feel.” —Bill
- Communication. Most experts agree that regular communication builds a friendship that weathers the storms of life.“For us, communication, in part, is negotiating the rules that will make our relationship work better or flow more smoothly.
For example, just recently, I had the implicit assumption that my bike tools should be placed on the kitchen table. My wife, Annie, challenged this assumption, and conflict arose. By the end of our negotiation, we had made a new rule: bike tools do not ever go on the kitchen table.
It sounds silly, but her demand felt like a threat to how I operate, and therefore a threat to my personhood, my masculinity. In that encounter I had to learn that I was no less Jason, no less a man, no less a person, to concede to my wife’s demands that certain spaces are set aside for certain purposes. My personhood goes beyond and deeper than that.” —Jason
Recovering Friendship in the Wake of Broken Trust
They remained the best of friends … or so Ruthie thought.
They were close friends first, having met in a fellowship group, then playing in a college Christian rock band. Somewhere in the mix Ruthie and Jacob fell in love and three and half years later married and moved to Massachusetts. He worked from home as a building manager, she as a social worker. They remained the best of friends … or so Ruthie thought.
Next door neighbors, Mark and Chrissie, provided the bulk of their Christian fellowship in the largely secular city of Boston. So when Chrissie started struggling with depression, Ruthie encouraged Jacob, who was home during the day, to reach out. “She was vulnerable, and I basically gave her my husband,” said Ruthie. According to Jacob, he and Chrissie spent a lot of time talking.
“At first it was an emotional relationship based on her need and my concern,” said Jacob “Within a year, however, it turned physical.” Unbeknownst to Ruthie, the relationship would carry on for three years.
“I thought everything was fine,” said Ruthie. “I felt like we had a good marriage and we were good friends on all levels.” When Jacob finally did confess the relationship, her world crumbled. “The betrayal was incomprehensible to me,” said Ruthie. “I don’t know what felt worse, that my best friend had stabbed me in the heart, or that I encouraged it.”
“For both of us, there was no question whether or not to salvage the relationship,” said Jacob. “We decided we would do whatever we could to repair the friendship and honor the commitment we made to each other and God.”
“We also committed to the process of reconciliation because we saw value in each other and in our relationship,” said Ruthie. “Neither of us could imagine living without the other. I remember telling Jacob that I loved him in the midst of horrible, painful, tearful conversations.”
The first act Jacob and Ruthie took was to spend a week in the Colorado wilderness. It was a time of simply being together and building new memories. They spent a lot of time talking and crying.
Jacob and Ruthie did all the right things to repair their shattered friendship. They went into marriage counseling and found support from their church. “I don’t think we would have made it without professional help,” said Ruthie. “We learned how to communicate, and we learned about the brokenness and behavior patterns we brought into the marriage. Clearly there were issues that had lain dormant for years.”
The couple also cleared their lives of all time commitments outside of work, “We needed intense face time,” said Ruthie. “We had to face deep, painful and uncomfortable things about one another, and we had to do it alone.
“Jacob said over and over to me through tears, ‘I can’t be trusted.’ I checked in every day to see if he was being honest and faithful. I policed his Internet use. This kind of exercise fueled my suffering. Finally my counselor told me that Jacob needed someone else to monitor his thoughts and activities. He entered into a transparent accountability relationship with our pastor.”
Ruthie knew she also needed accountability, a compassionate ear, and encouragement. A mature Christian woman from her church stepped forward and provided that support.
“Jacob and I became a lot more intentional about reading the Bible, said Ruthie. “We read it out loud every night, and we prayed every morning together. And seven years later we still do! Our prayers then were cries of desperation; we knew we wouldn’t make it without Jesus in the mix.”
“I didn’t know who I was anymore,” said Jacob. “I was dependent on God for everything. Every step that actually worked was a miracle and I knew that God was in it. God also gave me patience. My wife turned into an angry, bitter woman and I didn’t know if and when she would ever heal from the wound I inflicted.”
On the sexual front, Ruthie did not know how she was ever going to be naked in front of her husband again. “We took small steps toward intimacy,” she said. The betrayal took a long time to get over.” It would be years before she didn’t think of Chrissie during their most intimate moments.
The couple credits the affair and its aftermath with the creation of a transparent, vulnerable and rock solid friendship. These are the hallmarks of their relationship today:
- They spend significant “face time” together, taking care to connect when life gets hectic.
- They’ve made a habit out of thanking one another for the mundane, such as doing the dishes or taking out the trash.
- They engage in little every day kindnesses. They serve the other at every turn.
- They are accountable to one another.
- They’ve found many common passions and they engage in them regularly.
- Jesus is the center of their marriage.
Jacob and Ruthie remain best friends.
Next Steps and Related Information
Additional resources addressing sex and intimacy in marriage
Popular questions on this topic:
- How can I get my spouse to forgive me?
- What does it mean to have a “Christ-centered” home?”
- My spouse and I have busy lives and have become emotionally distant. How can we reconnect?
- I’ve been sharply critical of my husband in the past, and he can’t forgive me. How can we get past this?”
- God’s Design for Sex
- Managing Temptation
- Building a Pure Marriage
- The Overcoming Marriage
- Devotional: Sex and Intimacy
- Devotional: Spiritual Foundations