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The Modernization of Friendship and Marriage

My explorations of women's friendships and marriages provide a view of contemporary family and community that contradicts many scholarly accounts of the decline of community and the evolution of companionate marriage. My research suggests—but does not prove—a view of friendship and family that fits within the perspectives on the modernization of marriage and friendship I outlined in the opening chapter. Let me now situate my findings in that longer view of changes in family and friendship.

Modern friendship and marriage developed intertwined—infused by themes of affective individualism, mutuality, and romance. Nineteenth-century romantic friendships between women thrived because friendship ideals were practicable, whereas romantic companionate marriage was less practicable. As twentieth-century changes accelerated the companionship of men and women, romantic friendships withered. Even so, intimate friendships between women persisted. Indeed, they expanded as affective individualism spread to new sectors of society. In contrast to marriage, the reality of women's friendships outstrips the ideal.

Among contemporary women, friendships—most yet untouched by the sisterhood ideal of feminism—continue to grow in the shadow of the romantic companionate marital ideal. Women still need intimate women friends, and their friendships compensate the imbalance of conjugal ideals and realities. Further, intimate friendships among women provide the unfolding and often-


times unique experience of mutual, empathic, intimate companionship that gives substance to the vision of communication, intimacy, and empathy that women hold for marriage.

The culture of women's friendship continues to nurture the companionate conjugal ideal for the same reasons it has for two centuries—dominant social values enshrine marriage; women need marriage for economic mobility; and the companionate ideal improves women's position in marriage. The romantic companionate marital ideal evolved in the nineteenth-century milieu of growing individualism and gender power difference. The individualism reflected a growing self-consciousness among middle-class women and a recognition that their survival depended on the volition and commitment of men—men who could survive quite well outside marriage. On the one hand, the ideal expressed newly tapped individualistic desires for self-development, emotional expression, and disclosive intimacy. On the other, it propounded a new set of interdependencies between husbands and wives, emphasizing mutual emotion over material dependence.

What may at first appear to be a contradictory stance—supporting an ideal as well as an accommodation to marriages that fall short of it—in fact reveals a consistency with women's interests in marriage. Women espouse an ideal that, if implemented, would improve their power and satisfaction in marriage. At the same time, women reinforce marriages that may represent the best chance of economic survival for them and for their children.

The modern culture of women's friendship took form within a nineteenth-century ideology of domesticity. Now, as then, women friends tend to focus their aspirations on adaptation and achievement in family life. From the eighteenth century until the middle of the twentieth, married women have carried out their friendships almost completely within the boundaries of private life. Since World War II, the increased participation of married women in the workforce has opened a workplace arena for friendships that could in theory emphasize the public (masculine) values of individualism, social achievement, and autonomy. But even workplace friendships still tend to channel women's aspirations back to private life.[1] In the low wages and scarce opportunities of the female employment ghetto, individual pursuits appear to offer perilous economic risks compared to a stable family life with a higher-earning partner.


Thus the friendships of married working women, like those of single working women of earlier eras, are likely to promote popular marriage ideals, commitments to stable marriages, and familial constraints on individual desires. Viewed in these terms, the accommodative emphasis in women's friendships contradicts neither the ideal of companionate marriage nor a widespread recognition of the gap between ideal and reality.

Beyond giving substance to a vision of marital intimacy, women's close friendships reduce the strain of the contradiction between that vision and the actuality of marriage. Responding to each other's needs for empathy, attended self-expression, and relational identity, women are able to limit their dissatisfaction and the potential risk of asserting these needs in marriage. This marriage work in friendship enabled the women I interviewed to report untroubled feelings about marriages of limited emotional intimacy.

Women's friendships defuse marital conflict in another way as well. Recognizing gender power differences, including women's material interests in marriage, women friends advocate strategies of marital accommodation and subtle influence; they discourage overt conflict and divorce. Even though the companionate ideal evolved as a modern vision of commitment, stability, and regeneration for an unstable marital system, individual attempts to implement the ideal often falter. In many marriages, stability still derives from traditional values of selflessness and duty, economic dependence, and passive emotional attachment. By reinforcing older values, particularly duty to children, women's friendships strengthen commitments in marriage that economic dependence alone might not ensure.

Another contribution friends make to marital adjustment and personal integration is their involvement with each other's children and with each other's identities as mothers. I propose that, like nineteenth-century women who forged an authoritative and dignified culture of motherhood in the social domain to which they were confined, contemporary friends conduct a female culture of motherhood in a domain still essentially their own. Providing this community of parenthood they also ease the strains on marriages that do not give such aid and recognition.

In most family sociology, the companionate ideal-type emphasizes the conjugal relationship as the unique site of "marital adjust-


ment" and "adult personality stabilization."[2] As I noted previously, sociologists who analyze marital dynamics assume that as the marriage relationship became sentimentalized and emotionally primary, marriage and the family increasingly bounded the emotional lives of both women and men. These writers suggest the decline of kinship and community originally intensified the couple's emotional intimacy, but ultimately it is by its own internal dynamics that marriage comes to encompass the emotional lives of the partners and thus sustain commitment.[3]

I contend that marriage has never bounded the emotional lives of women. Women developed intimate friendships along with companionate marriages. In these friendships with other women they developed their emotional lives—in some eras, perhaps, more significantly than they did in relationships with men. As the companionate marriage ideal became more popular and more romantic, egalitarian, and empathic, women intensified their emotional investment in marriage. As they did, they relied increasingly on friendships for collaborative emotion management to sustain their emotional balance in marriage and their commitment to it. Thus, women conduct a considerable portion of what family theorists call "personality stabilization" and "marriage adjustment" within close friendships rather than marriage.

Women's friendships do accommodate women to strained marriages. But by serving as repository for marital ideals of reciprocity, emotional communion, and interdependent individuality, they do considerably more than accommodate some women to unequal, emotionally unsatisfying, and identity-submerging marriages. Friends' shared recognition of realities of gender power and their exchange of emotional self-awareness sustain a vision of gender power struggle and a strategic mode of thought about marriage. Writers like Christopher Lasch and Jean Elshtain have viewed such tendencies, as advocated by feminists, as a distorted or pseudo-politics. Yet I maintain that this befriended struggle constitutes a privately conducted politics of gender—not just "antagonism," as Lasch suggests, or manipulativeness and displaced public politics, as Elshtain suggests.[4]

The discourse that exposes gender inequality and erodes masculine authority has changed from nineteenth-century maternal piety to twentieth-century practical feminism ("I'm no women's lib-


ber, but. . ."). Yet it has kept consideration of the asymmetries of gender alive. At the same time that women friends' efforts to sustain marriage provide an example of time-consuming, energy-depleting women's work that men do not perform, they also create resources for women that men have not cultivated.

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