I am a vociferous magazine reader and I read a nice diversity of them. Real magazines, the kind you turn the pages to, those you can smell and hold between your fingers, not scroll through with your fingertip. I work hard to keep up with them all each week, but I enjoy them thoroughly. So many ideas and new things to learn about.
And the Atlantic has long been one of my favorites. Founded in 1857, it is one of the oldest continuous and most influential magazines in the world. Of course, I don’t always agree with it, but I have always found it fascinating through the last three decades of which I have been a subscriber. That is at least until about the past few years. Now I just find it terribly predictable and uninteresting. And I came across an article this morning on their site that reminded me again just how true this is.
Entitled, “What If Friendship, Not Marriage, Was the Center of Life?”, it has been trending as their most popular article. I thought, “This certainly cannot be another silly article on why marriage must be displaced by some new alternative!” I like to keep hope alive and believed it might actually be an insightful piece contrasting the pros and cons of two very essential kinds of human love – friendship and spousal – that enrich all of our lives, whether we are married ourselves or not. Even for those not married, we can appreciate that our parents and siblings are indeed loving friends with their spouses and not just friends. This fact enriches all of our lives in profound ways. But I was wrong. That is precisely what this article is. It just another in that tired line of “what if we replaced the nuclear family with innovative new relationships of our own choosing?” mantra. Blah, blah, blah.
It is not a completely uninteresting article in and of itself. It does highlight some various ways in which different human beings are working their way through the very real and difficult grittiness of life by forging rewarding friendships in the hopes of making it all a little easier, even in uncommon ways. I have spent my working days here at Focus on the Family over the last three decades studying these very things with great interest and evaluating their own collective benefits and problems for our individual and communal lives. Sure, what if two single women are dear, platonic friends, the central people in each other’s lives, and have decided to buy a house together? Such relationships can be very wonderful and richly rewarding. I actually have a colleague here at Focus who decided to do precisely that in her later 40s. It is a very delightful and highly workable arrangement for them. These are the kinds of stories the piece tells. But the article’s problem is its editorial direction.
And it is precisely this fact of the article that disproves its own thesis. What if both marriage and friendship, along with parenting, are each two of the richest spices of life? Why would the Atlantic feel the need to pit them against each other as black and white binary choices where we must decide one or the other? That is a rhetorical question. Too many of us have long grown tired of the ideology at work here, and thus, my exhaustion with the Atlantic. Stop attacking those things which have long and universally proven themselves essential.
Of course, friendship is one of the most treasures of a happy life and it would be unimaginable and unlivable without them. Who can disagree? But there is a very good reason that marriage, and not the founding of a new friendship, regardless of how deeply meaningful they might become, is a major life event that people announce with great fanfare. They even make time on their schedules long in advance to travel great distances at large expense to witness the ceremony that founds the fact. That is because marriage establishes something, something we have long referred to as an institution for good reason. It’s why we all celebrate, regardless of our religion, nationality, politics or socio-economic status, unspeakably beautiful milestones like this. And “world’s longest deeply intimate friendship” is certainly to be prized. But enduring marriages are noted and celebrated by all across our cultures because they build things larger than themselves.
And that is why, as the late Southern novelist Pat Conroy famous said, “Each divorce is the death of a small civilization.” And while the end of a friendship can be terribly tragic, it is simply that, the end of the thing itself. That is not the case with marriage and the family it establishes. The author hints at this dramatic difference in importance when she admits, “Intimate friendships don’t come with shared social scripts that lay out what they should look like or how they should progress.” There is a reason for this. These scripts and structures are needed when something larger than the sum of the parts is being established like we find in the universally practiced and celebrated social institution that is marriage.
This author and the editors at the Atlantic well know why this is. They spoke to it in a profound way in April of 1993, explaining how the robust weight of social science literature persuasively demonstrates that dismissing the married, mother-family family “is harmful to children and dramatically undermines our society” as their most popular and republished cover story in the magazine’s long history put it. They spoke to it in another wildly popular article in March 2008, Lori Gottlieb’s Marry Him, subtitled “The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” which was illustrated with this image. Marriage is something special and not just one relational form among many.
Illustration by Lou Brooks via The Atlantic
The fact that few of us, despite our politics, religion or life-philosophy, would be content telling others “My parents never married, they are just really good friends”? illuminates the silliness of the Atlantic’s story here. Marriage builds things that no other relationship does. Not even friendship, as lovely as it is. The ridiculousness of the article is crafting these two great life riches into competitors, as if one should replace the other. Life needs both friendship and spousal love. Each do and produce very different and wonderful things and life would literally be unlivable without either. So, let’s celebrate both rather than pitting them against each other.
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