Marriage matters when friends and family blur

  • May 9, 2024

Growing up, my Aunt Louise was at our house for every major holiday. My sister and I slept over at her house when my parents were moving. To this day I get nostalgic about Dr. Pepper for the simple reason that she let me drink it.

She took me to get my ears pierced. Later, I’d take her to medical appointments. She was family. Except she actually wasn’t. None of our biological family was in Canada. Before she died, my Aunt Louise was a dear family friend who I called aunt. She helped my parents make their way in a new country. I knew no other biological relative so well. 

It came as a surprise to me, growing up as I did with married parents born in Eastern Europe (read: not avant garde), to learn this kind of friendship standing in for family is getting a makeover. It is being re-cast as trendy and incongruous with the nuclear family.

Rhaina Cohen is author of a new book called The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life with Friendship at the Center. She writes about what is good and different about powerful, non-family-who-are-like-family friendships. She is not alone. The idea of improving on marriage and family, reimagining marriage, creating the better, perfect more reliable community is something of a running discussion in our lonely world. Long may unique friendships prosper and flourish I say, except that, for the most part, much discussion casts these friendships in opposition, not as a complement to, marriage. 

Bluntly, those advocating to put friendship at the centre of our lives generally appear to believe marriage has failed and is not actually up to the job.  

When Ezra Klein of the New York Times interviewed Cohen, he started with the idea of marriage failing. Of course we have no comparable data on how friendships fare over the long haul. We know for certain that fewer people have robust community today than in the past. The trend was illuminated in Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. It seems if marriage is failing, so are many of our friendships. 

Diminishing the importance of marriage in acting as a social glue, however, doesn’t do anyone any favours. In some examples, the strong “marriage-like” relationships Cohen describes are born out of marital failure. It’s not surprising that two people hurt by prior marriages ending now speak in hostile terms of marriage. Doing so doesn’t change the data about the power of a good marriage. 

Neither should this be an oppositional dialogue. We should be able to see healthy marriage as the powerful protecter of health, wealth and children that it is, without denigrating any aspect of great friendships. Instead, we are often presented with marriage as constrained, tight and selfish — that’s the nuclear family version, a group that never emerges from behind a white picket fence. But chosen family, we are told, these are the people living happy, social lives, serving others far and wide outside their immediate networks.    

I’d argue that in losing the institution of marriage to a more romantic “soulmate” version, we began to lose something in every category of relationship, be it marriage, extended family, aunts and uncles — and also friendship. Where marriage came to be dependent on romanticized feelings, it ceased to include outside networks as much. Breathlessly fawning over the other is more of the modern marriage model, until that is, we can’t keep it up and divorce ensues. 

If soulmate marriage is thin gruel, what is the alternative? A more grounded institutional approach. Marriage that is a building block for starting a family. Marriage that connects families, that binds social, economic and familial interests into one union, and does not declare the other person must be one’s all. 

Great friendships are a goal worthy of everyone’s aspiration. So too is opening our homes to people to whom we are not related. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares,” is a citation from Hebrews too many  Christians forget. Yet creating a lasting bond for the enduring benefit of children is still best done through marriage. Don’t let anyone claim marriages are incongruous with deep friendships. My Aunt Louise,  proved they are not. 

(Mrozek is Senior Fellow at Cardus Family.)

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