Today's Reading

Asking so much of one person looks even riskier when we realize that, most likely, we can't rely on one romantic partner for the entirety of our adult lives. By and large, marriage or a marriage-like relationship is a temporary status of adulthood. Few Americans enter a romantic relationship at age eighteen and stay in one continuously until death. They have stretches of singleness. They break up and divorce. They out-live partners; women are especially likely to survive their spouses: about one-third of American women over sixty-five are widowed. Meg, who had been consigned to the "lunch slot," married at fifty—around the time that many of her friends were getting divorced—and was widowed twenty years later. So far, she hasn't been married for more than two-thirds of her adult life.

Like Meg, many of us are spending a large part of our lives outside of marriage. The average marriage spans fewer of the years that are considered the prime of life—eighteen to fifty-five—than it did a few decades ago. In 1960, the average marriage encompassed twenty-nine of those thirty-seven years; in 2015, it was eighteen. As I read statistics on marriage, divorce, and surviving spouses, I was reminded of Susan Sontag's remark about the precarity of health: "Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick." Most of us hold dual citizenship in the kingdom of the couple and the kingdom of the single. It's prudent for us to embrace forms of connection that exist beyond the dominion of romantic relationships.

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It can be confusing to live in the gulf between the life you have and the life you believe you're supposed to be living. In response to an article I'd written for The Atlantic about friendships much like Andrew and Toly's, I got a flurry of responses from people who are familiar with that confusion. One email came from Paula Archey, who told me about her friend who surpasses the closeness of a best friend. Each time Paula had to designate an emergency contact, she struggled to find a label for their friendship and jotted down terms like "platonic life partner" and "my person." Paula divorced in her midthirties and, since then, had been searching for a new romantic relationship. She wrote, "Even though my person and I provide so many of the things for each other that are traditionally provided in a marriage-type relationship in our society, I've still felt the need to find a person to fill that marriage-type role." Reading stories of other friendships like hers was a "(much needed) slap in the face." Because Paula had absorbed the idea that a romantic partner makes you whole, she hadn't previously considered that she might be happy as-is, that she already had a relationship that sustained her. Eventually, she realized there wasn't a hole in her life that needed to be filled.

There's value in social practices like dating that help us bridge the chasm to other people's minds; by giving us a script to follow and shared expectations and priorities, they spare us the exhausting work of making every decision ourselves. But these practices, and society's messages about relationships, affect us in ways that we can overlook: they alter the possibilities we imagine for our lives. They can make it hard to understand what we want, or, like Paula, notice when we already have what we want. Even if we manage to discern our desires, as long as we think no one else longs for the same thing, we may simply end up feeling isolated. But from the reaction to The Atlantic article and working on this book, I've learned that many people either have or want a life that doesn't fit the one-stop-shop coupledom ideal and are eager to build a life with friends. They just don't know how many other people like them are out there.

It's been a professional preoccupation of mine to uncover mis- matches like these, between perception and reality. By identifying our mistaken beliefs and the social rules that confine us, I hope we can forge deeper ties with others. This is no small matter at a time when Americans are experiencing a "friendship recession" and loneliness is pervasive enough that the US surgeon general declared it an epidemic. Study after study has found that lack of social connection ravages our health and happiness, and even political conservatives have been arguing that we need a broader set of relationships than the nuclear family provides. In the decades since the political scientist Robert Putnam published his groundbreaking book Bowling Alone, which chronicled the decline in Americans' engagement in community life, Americans have continued to withdraw from sources of social connection, as captured in trends ranging from falling church attendance to a drop in the number of friends Americans have. At the same time, depression and anxiety have grown among both adolescents and adults. It's uncontroversial to argue that many Americans need a thicker web of relationships. And yet, the cultural ideal continues to treat a single romantic relationship as the key to fulfillment.

Society neglects the possibilities for profound platonic connection, but the friends I profile in each chapter of The Other Significant Others insist upon them. Friendships, they show, can provide security and transform the people in them. They can contain the thrill and tenderness that most people only expect to find in relationships that involve sex.

Though there are many ways to pursue a meaningful life beyond romantic coupling, platonic partnerships deserve special attention because their close resemblance to romantic relationships offers valuable insights. Comparing these types of relationships exposes deep-seated assumptions about romantic partnerships, friendships, and family that might otherwise go unnoticed.

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