Should your other half be your best friend?
After President Obama’s tribute to Michelle, nine writers reveal their marital secrets.
It was the farewell speech that brought tears to his (and our) eyes, not least for outgoing president Barack Obama’s moving tribute to Michelle.
“For the past 25 years, you’ve been not only my wife and mother of my children, but my best friend,” he said during his final address in Chicago on Tuesday night, praising her “grace and grit and style and good humour”.
His words came days after Hollywood heart-throb Ryan Gosling declared in his Golden Globes acceptance speech that without the support of “my lady” – his partner, Eva Mendes – “it would surely be someone else up here other than me today”.
But does a “best friend-spouse” make for a better marriage?
Gyles Brandreth, presenter
According to my wife of 44 years, Michele, what men most want in life (besides the obvious) is praise, admiration and reassurance. She manages a fair amount of these (“more than enough”, she’d tell you), but leavened with candour.
The other day I was midway through an after-dinner speech and feeling it was going rather well. I glanced down to see my wife, seated two places away, scribbling a note on a menu. It was passed to me and, through the laughter and applause, I read her missive: “I first heard that story in 1972. Time for a new one?”
My best friend, a bloke I was at school with, would never have dreamed of telling me to eat less, talk less and improve my posture. A best friend accepts you as you are. A wonderful wife – as mine is – makes you strive to be better than you might be. My wife is my conscience and my guide, as well as being beautiful in all senses of the word. I love her because she is Jiminy Cricket and Helen of Troy rolled into one.
Libby Purves, journalist
The “lovers for life” idea suits very few: however healthy your sex life, a desire to drown in one another’s eyes and swoon with longing is unlikely to last for decades.
You can still glance across a full dinner table sometimes and think “Wow, I scored that one!”, and hold hands in romantic settings right into the Darby and Joan years. But if you’re not friends as well, it’s tricky. If you live together, raise children together, balance household budgets and diaries, and face work difficulties and grief side by side, it is unlikely that you can each remain mooncalves, engrossed mainly in one another’s unique wonderfulness. And if there is no calmer, kinder friendship between you, enchantment may very soon turn sour.
Being friends does not, perish the thought, mean sharing every interest (I see a lot of plays which wild horses would not drag Paul to, and he is perfectly fine with my utter indifference to Scandi-noir TV). But auld acquaintance, friendly affinity, is vital. Nietzsche – generally a miserable soul – got it right with “Marriage is a conversation”. So it is.
Ben Fogle, presenter
Without my wife Marina, I would be like a rudderless ship on the open ocean. She forgives me my foibles (and snoring) and roots for my success. She looks after the children, runs the house as well as her own business – but at the heart of our relationship is that friendship.
We enjoy the same things, holidays, food, film, music, and we are as content in a comfortable silence as we are with belly-aching laughter. Our relationship is marked by long periods away (I am writing this from the Egyptian desert) during which time Marina is often my only connection to the world beyond.
In many ways she is much more than a best friend – she has become a crutch, a limb, even. I’ve never asked Marina if she feels the same about me, but isn’t that what best friends are for? You don’t need to tell them.
Bettany Hughes, historian
My husband Adrian and I didn’t know each other very well when we married in 1993 – it happened very quickly – but we have always been best friends. A partner should be someone with whom you can discuss both the meaning of life and the best tog rating of a duvet; a combination of the monumental and mundane.
I would say there’s been a best friend, power-sharing couple behind some of the most successful civilisations on earth. Take Pericles, the great premier democrat of Golden Age Athens. He had a loving relationship with the acutely intelligent courtesan Aspasia, who brought fascinating ideas from the East. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if the reason for his particular success was that she was his sounding board?
We see the same with the Byzantine emperor Justinian, whose legal Code became the basis of modern European law. He was married to one-time prostitute Theodora; they clearly adored each other and he talked of her as his most sacred life partner. When he was with her, the city of Constantinople was at the very height of its power. To me, that suggests that success can come when you go to bed every night with someone who has your best interests at heart.
Richard Madeley, TV presenter
I suppose there must be marital power-pairings who cordially detest each other, but if so, their time in the limelight is likely to be short-lived. It simply isn’t possible to negotiate a life in the public gaze if your partner isn’t your best friend, strongest ally and doughtiest defender.
It definitely helps if you’re on the same page politically, too. I’m not sure how the day would unfold if Judy said to me over breakfast: “Isn’t Jeremy Corbyn wonderful?”
Celia Walden, journalist
I don’t want to be my husband’s best friend: that would mean him knowing everything there is to know about me and also seeing me in tights (which he never has and never will).
At most, husbands should be privy to about a third of their wives’ history, character and motivations. It’s a long old life, you may have as much as half a century together, and dropping a bombshell a month might just get you through it.
Then there’s the quaint old notion, mystique. My best friend has always known what I’ll tire of, grow out of and cast aside – men, shoes, career projects and health and fitness fads – well before I do. And while she quietly factors my insecurities into any career and fashion choices I have to make, Piers has been deliberately spared this pointless mental clutter.
Because nothing (not even tights) is less attractive than self-doubt and intrinsically, if not physically, I want to stay attractive to my husband forever. The same can’t be said of my best friend, who has seen me in my weakest and most disgraceful states from childhood onwards – and somehow likes me anyway.
Nick Curtis, journalist
In my early twenties I had a conversation with my best male friend about what we’d look for in an ideal woman. Of course, there were detailed descriptions of physical attributes and sexual adventurousness, but I also said she would be someone with whom I would get the maximum enjoyment out of any given situation, just because I was with her.
A few years later, I met that woman when the same male friend persuaded me to talk to a tall, beautiful blonde at a party. Her name’s Ann and we’ll have been together 22 years this year.
We are not the same person: she’s tolerant and I’m not, she’s a lark and I’m an owl, she’s slender and elegant and I look like an unmade double bed. But I know I can utterly trust and rely on her and think she feels the same. She puts up with me and she’s got my back. Which is what best friends do.
Jane Green, novelist
I had a lot of friends during my first marriage. I saw them almost every day, we spoke on the phone and I turned to them whenever anything in my life went wrong, or right.
Now that I am remarried, I still have those same friends, but I no longer have the same needs, because I am married to a man who has become my best friend. I love my husband, and I also really, really like him. He is the wisest man I know (even though he isn’t always right. Particularly about the kitchen cabinets). He is a great listener, the first person I call when anything in my life goes wrong, or right. He’s the best sounding board, and the best friend I have ever had.
William Wharton once said: “Love is a combination of admiration, respect, and passion – If you have all three, then you don’t need to die; you’re already in heaven.”
Judith Woods, columnist
After 28 years together, of course my husband and I are the best of friends, but not, crucially, best friends. I take friendship far too seriously to leave it in the hands of my husband, who is woefully ill-equipped for the selflessness, commitment and pep-talking the position demands. He gets away with behaviour I would never put up with in a girlfriend; curmudgeonliness, sofa-based inertia, a tendency to hog the remote control, and is excused from emotional triage duties and the drinking of overpriced wine in poncey bars while cackling with laughter and, of course, complaining about our annoying, useless partners.
However, my husband thinks of me as his closest confidante, which is quite sweet, even if he never confides much. But, truthfully, it’s an honorific title only; after all, what on earth use is a best friend if you can’t bitch about your spouse to them?
The Telegraph, London
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