Before we began to date, Greg and I were friends for more than three years. We attended the same college and had classes together. I also became close friends with his sister, Kari, and dated one of Greg’s roommates. Some of my sweetest college memories involve group activities in which Greg participated, and our easygoing friendship allowed us to discover each other’s personality in a nonthreatening way. We enjoyed many of the same activities including hiking, playing pickup basketball at the neighborhood park and bargain shopping.
As we transitioned into a romantic relationship, our friendship remained steady, and it has held us together for more than 25 years.
We found that the words of psychologist and author John Gottman ring true: "Happy marriages are based on a deep friendship." In a healthy marriage, the qualities of common kindness, honesty, empathy, loyalty and trust are gifts that each spouse gives to the other. This friendship foundation enhances relationship happiness throughout the marriage.
Research supports what Greg and I have experienced in our marriage. According to longitudinal survey results released in 2014 by The National Bureau of Economic Research, “Married individuals whose spouse is their best friend have higher life satisfaction [scores] . . . even when controlling for age, gender, income and health limitations.” And it gets better for people of faith. Spouses who share religious beliefs and are also best friends are defined as “super-friends” and report even greater well-being indicators. The same survey shows that the benefits of marital friendship are long term. They extend past the newlywed years far into the mature years.
However, because of the fast pace of life and many other factors including crises, some couples get off track, and the foundation of their marriage can begin to crumble.
Building a strong marital friendship
I have hope for those of you who may be wondering, How do my spouse and I get back to being great friends? If you’re willing to give it intentional effort, these practical tips can help:
Laughter and fun are foundational to building a friendship with your spouse. I really appreciate this quip from comedian Victor Borge: “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” If you want to become more emotionally intimate with your spouse, look for ways to laugh together. At events where Greg and I talk to our audiences about keys to a strong marriage friendship, both men and women say laughter is important.
Laughter can set a lighthearted tone in your relationship. One way to foster it is to retell humorous things that have happened during your relationship. In our marriage, Greg feels valued when I pull a prank on him. I’ve learned how to set up some awesome-but-harmless practical jokes that start us laughing when we reminisce.
If your spouse has a sturdy temperament, consider playing a practical joke on him or her every now and then.
Participate in the things that your spouse likes to do even if they don’t interest you. All couples experience this tension. For example, I love to bargain shop, but Greg isn’t into that anymore. However, at times he will make the sacrifice and come with me to my favorite stores. And Greg loves to watch sports. Although I don’t enjoy that as much as he does, I will often join in and root for his favorite team or athlete.
What are your spouse’s hobbies? What does he or she love to do? Does your spouse have a regular workout routine? Does he or she walk or jog? I recommend joining your spouse even if you can’t keep up. Putting out great effort will draw your spouse toward you because it shows you care.
Leave time for your spouse. Give him or her special time with you apart from the children by planning special times together (date nights and weekend getaways). Be sure to also allow enough time in your schedule for spontaneity.
I admit to having struggled with this goal over the years because I love a fast-paced life. After attending the kids’ activities, going to work and spending time with friends, I have often felt that I’m serving my time leftovers to Greg. He and I have become extra careful to make marriage time the top priority in our schedules. We have to be intentional about continually pursuing each other and making certain that we allow plenty of time to share experiences.
Reminisce about the early days. If you feel your friendship has faded, invite your spouse on a date and remember the early days of your dating relationship. Ask question like: "What did we talk about?" "Which of our dates were the most memorable?" "What did you most enjoy about me then?" Consider looking at pictures of those special years or even visit some of the places that were special to you both.
On one of our anniversaries, Greg and I spent the day in Denver, Colorado, the city we lived in during our first 18 months of marriage. We drove from place to place where we had studied, worked and walked. We reminisced about the fun things we did, about bringing our first daughter home from the hospital and also about some of the challenges we overcame.
Put the cellphone down. There’s a new word for ignoring someone while looking at your cellphone — it’s derived from “phone-snubbing” — don’t phub your spouse! Set the cellphone down! (I am lecturing myself here.) When I asked couples what they have done to keep their friendship alive, almost every one of them said they plan times to do something fun together, and they leave the cellphones either at home or put away. When your eyes are on a screen, you are distracted from being present in the moment because your attention is diverted from your spouse.
I have decided that Greg deserves my eyes — because he is more important to me than any other person on this earth. And a spiritual friendship with him is the foundation of my happiness now and for the future.
Erin Smalley serves as the marriage strategic spokesperson for Focus on the Family’s marriage ministry and develops content for the marriage department.