Preferred Citation: Oliker, Stacey J. Best Friends and Marriage: Exchange Among Women. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.

Chapter Two Distinctive Values of Friendship

Community, Power, and Love

In our first glimpse of women friends and of husbands, a few issues stand out in relief. They bear on friendships and also on modern community, gender power, and ideals of modern marriage.

Evidence of a moral discourse among women friends on motherhood and childrearing touches upon the theory of the decline of community, which holds that the historic decline of kinship, neighborhood, and parish leaves individuals without a community of moral interchange and constraint. My research reveals a significant area of personal life—childrearing—where women's close networks weave a moral community that observes, influences, and sanctions mothering responsibility. I cannot say how widespread this moral discourse is or how it works. Since its effectiveness is limited by the voluntary association among friends, it could certainly not approach the level of social control found in traditional settings. Still, this flexibly woven fabric of constraint constitutes a much more authoritative moral community than most "decline" theorists concede to modern life.

Furthermore, this moral discourse on motherhood and family obligation may well undercut the tyranny of expertise that "decline" writers see working within women's isolation in families.[12] I have not gathered evidence on my respondents' dealings with health and family experts. Listening to the language in which they talk about childrearing, though, I can clearly distinguish echoes of expert voices that have reached these women through media and education. Still, the women's reports of extensive discussion with close friends on children and childrearing suggest that among mothers, there remain funds of traditions, practical knowledge, and communal resistance to egoistic, individualistic solutions. Expert advice appears to be discussed, reworked, perhaps rejected—in short, significantly mediated by dialogue among friends.

A second issue turns on how the compensations of best friendship contribute to relations of gender power. Does the unique companionship among women friends, which fills the gap between


marital ideals and realities, affect women's marital or social power? In choosing friends who provide what husbands do not, women may gain power in marriage; this adaptive response to power asymmetry may well establish women's resources of power. The "principle of least interest" formulated by Willard Waller in his writing on marriage holds that the partner who is less invested in continuing the relationship has power on that account.[13] Although wives' economic dependence constitutes a considerable investment in marriage, their emotional alternatives in friendships—for which men apparently have no parallel—may well augment women's marital power. If men lack the intimate friendships women sustain, their meager possibilities for achieving personal integration outside marriage may limit their power. Intimacy validates the inner self; without intimacy, there remain only the solutions of solipsism.

What then is the place of the twentieth-century ideal of companionate marriage in the lives of the women I interviewed? What of the touted themes of equality, engagement, and mutual understanding that have amplified the nineteenth-century companionate vision? My research suggests that the ideal of companionate marriage remains an ideal—imperfectly practiced and not seriously anticipated as possible. The women I spoke to professed a desire for the relations that make up the new ideal. But most did not expect husbands to provide those relations.

Among the women I interviewed, the practical standard for marriage seems to be a fairly minimal one in terms of the companionate vision. Its components are compatibility, affection, and economic support of children. In contrast to the supposed hegemonic vision of engagement and struggle for perfection, a survival standard appears most prominent. Success means keeping a marriage together while countless others fall apart. Women are willing to credit men as husbands and fathers if they are caring, faithful, and good providers. If their men are "not big discussers," if they withdraw from emotional engagement, if they somewhat distantly regard the inner lives of their wives and children, and if they disparage their wives' desires for autonomy and accomplishment, these terms are tolerable. The remainder of this study explores the ways close relations with friends work with this stance toward marriage.


Chapter Two Distinctive Values of Friendship

Preferred Citation: Oliker, Stacey J. Best Friends and Marriage: Exchange Among Women. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.