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

Chapter Two
Distinctive Values of Friendship

The passionate sentiments of romantic friendship, so evident in nineteenth-century middle-class women's culture, virtually disappeared over the next century as companionate marriage became the focus of middle-class—and then, cross-class—sentimental culture. In the 1980s, the companionate marriage ideal emphasizes equality, psychological intimacy, sexual pleasure, and unfolding process—an ideal of best friendship between spouses. Popular representations of women's friendship, in contrast, evoke recreation rather than emotional life, in a zone of tenuous and ambiguous attachments where private life merges with public.

The companionate ideal pictures marital bonds as unrivaled and sufficient primary attachments, which comparably ardent bonds with kin or friends would presumably subvert. This is the popular belief, echoed in the sociology and anthropology of marriage and kinship.[1] Careful study of marriage and of women's close friendships, however, reveals marriages that diverge from the cultural ideal and intimate friendships so complex that they invite us to analyze their cultural invisibility.

This chapter presents an overview of the evidence I gathered about contemporary women's close friendships and how they relate to women's marriages and family lives. In it, I begin to answer these questions: What kinds of values and exchanges are embodied in elective close relationships outside the nuclear family? How do


they correspond to the predictions in theories of companionate marriage? How do they affect marriage? The women's answers to these questions raise issues that the following chapters will examine in depth.

First Glimpses of Husbands and Best Friends

One way to compare friendship and marriage is to compare how women describe their best friends and how they describe their husbands. Early in my interviews, before probing either relation-ship, I invited open-ended descriptions of husbands and closest friends: Tell me a little about. . .. There were patterned differences between the two characterizations. Descriptions of husbands often sounded like Kay's:

He's a very hard worker. He takes his work seriously. There are disadvantages because he puts in long hours. But he does get paid well. He's very easy-going—doesn't get mad easily. He's a very good father to the kids. He's got some double standards and can be opinionated about what people should and shouldn't do. But basically he's good.

Characterizing their husbands, most women (twelve of seventeen married women) offered a positive personal quality or two—frequently "thoughtful" or "easy-going." Half said something about the husband's work, describing him as hardworking or identifying his occupation. Seven of seventeen described their mates as good fathers. And seven mentioned some negative quality, such as being aloof or moody.

Descriptions of close friends often sounded like Jean's:

She's the nicest person. If my life fell apart right now, I'd probably go to her. She's very nurturing, very understanding, very warm. And she has more integrity—that's one of the main things I think of when I think of her. Just rock-bottom honest with herself and others. She doesn't compromise with her beliefs. She doesn't impose them on others, but her moral code is very important to her.

All but one of the women described their close friends in terms of positive personal qualities. A good sense of humor and nurturance were the qualities they most frequently evoked, but the range


of qualities was broader than the one they offered in descriptions of husbands. Women were also more likely to emphasize personal qualities as opposed to roles when describing friends. They rarely described friends by their work, as good friends, or good mothers. Still, the relational qualities they applied to friends are those generally considered to constitute friendship. When asked, What do you like best about your best friend? women emphasized amiable qualities like sense of humor, caring, warmth, and moral qualities like honesty.

Because women tended to characterize husbands in terms of roles and close friends in terms of personal and relational qualities, the first glimpses of the two figures revealed sharper individual images of women friends. Their use of different terms to describe husbands and friends was highlighted in women's answers to questions about the distinctive values of each relationship.

Distinctive Values of Close Friendships

Among the most thought-provoking responses to my interview came in reply to two questions: Can you think of things you care about or need from a relationship that only your women friends provide? Can you think of things you care about or need from a relationship that only a husband can provide? An examination of the answers to these questions, individually and in comparison, clarifies the place of women's friendships in their lives.

Looking first at statements about the uniqueness and value of close friendships with women, I found that, indeed, women could think of values that only their women friends provide. Only two respondents were unable to identify values uniquely provided by women friends. Although few had ever considered this question, they answered immediately and affirmatively. Even the women who maintained that "ideally, a man could" satisfy these needs acknowledged, "For me, it's always been women." Although women were apt to trivialize certain values that they exchanged only with women, they granted others their respect.

The responses to this question clustered in one area—an intimacy women most often characterized with the terms talk, understanding, and feeling.


Women go back and forth, back and forth, just sitting and talking. I need that in a relationship.

I don't know if it's just my husband, but women are more understanding of other women's problems.

Feelings, compassion, because a woman could relate to my problem.

Wives talk to husbands, of course. Since women rarely disparaged this companionship, when they said that "just talking" was what their women friends uniquely provided, they were referring to a particular kind of talk. They especially needed, first of all, a mutually desired exchange:

It's talking to my friends. Could be anything. Otherwise, my basic outlet for talking is my husband. And if he's just come home, he doesn't really want to talk. He'll listen to me, but it sometimes irritates him to do it.

Kay and I will sit and gossip for hours at a time. We'll talk and talk about the kids, for example. George and I would never do that.

Just the gab time. Just to sit and talk about anything and everything. Where a guy would think, "Is she ever going to shut up?"

Husbands and wives talk. According to the women I interviewed, however, husbands are not always pleased to do so, whereas friends usually are. This finding is echoed in recent research on conversation patterns between spouses that shows that even though husbands talk more than wives in conversations, they are less likely to respond to wives' communications than wives are to respond to theirs.[2]

Second, talk between friends is an exchange between individuals with significant common experience, enough to generate a profound understanding. My respondents believed the ultimate basis of this special understanding was "being a woman," a characteristic that varied in their descriptions from an ontological state of being to a sociohistorical construction. Understanding meant the sympathetic knowledge developed in "being a woman" and in occupying gendered roles such as wife, daughter-in-law, and mother. Thus, common experiences (or the natural state) of "being a woman" create a gender consciousness from which women exchange understanding.

The understanding, in turn, establishes a context in which


women can sustain a positive self-orientation. It enables them to avoid exchanges with husbands that would undermine their self-orientation:

There are some things we understand about each other. Like this dizziness I sometimes get. I don't think it's physical—just nerves. Karen's the one I'll talk to on the phone and say, "God, I can't breathe today." And we'll talk about it. If I told Jerry, he'd either say, "Then get your butt to the doctor," or, "You're crazy!"

Annette can understand the feelings of jealousy I have toward my son's girlfriend because she has a son too. She'd be sympathetic where Mike wouldn't—he d put it off as me being a silly, jealous woman.

I tell Doreen when I start thinking about going places, doing different things with my life. Jesse kind of snorts when I start talking like that.

Empathy is a third characteristic of the talk with friends that women value. Women I interviewed often expressed a belief that women both maintain a more variegated emotionality and exercise a greater capacity and willingness to participate in another's emotional life.

I just think women feel more.

A lot of times my feelings about anything are easier to talk about with June than with Lloyd.

There's a quality of intensity and the ability to focus on what's happening right now that I find in conversation with my women friends alone.

Jack can understand when I'm upset, but a woman can feel the upset. She'll say the right things and contribute to making me feel better. A husband will say, "Oh, quit griping."

Over and over again, women who claimed they had never reflected on their friendships easily described understanding and empathy that they found unmatched in other close relationships, including marriage.

Although they were describing characteristics they cared about or needed in a relationship, nonetheless women often deprecated some of these values. That women repeatedly spoke of valued areas of exchange with women as "gossip" and "girl talk" suggests something of the stigma on women's culture that women themselves accept. They appeared to translate impatience and hostility toward


their interests that they attributed to their husbands into self-deprecating assessments of their friendships. They tended to disparage the exchange of news within personal networks, particularly events in primary relationships; and the discussion of physical, psychological, and emotional states. They also belittled a major area of family decision making that is dominated by women—household purchases—even though sociological studies of domestic power often interpret this decision making as evidence of women's marital power.[3]

Women rarely disparaged certain other exclusive topics of feminine friendship. They were straightforward in describing discussions about children, and personal problems in marriage and motherhood, even though these topics also might have been slighted by husbands or the larger culture. In general, they seemed to enjoy participating in an exclusive women's culture, bracketing some of it with stigmatized terms and defending other aspects of it against social devaluation.

Women's Culture Defended: Women Friends as Mothers

Among mothers, the most frequent answer to the question of the unique value of women friends was talking about children or about being a mother. Twelve of fourteen mothers with children at home mentioned this valued exchange. Women friends, they said, had a different way of talking about children than women and their husbands do. The uniqueness and importance of this exchange emerged over and over in their answers to general questions about friendship that did not explicitly refer to children. Women said they talked to friends about the individuality and the moral and psychological development of their children and about the parent-child relations they saw as crucial to these areas. They believed their husbands were not as minutely interested in these questions and were less helpful in approaching them than other mothers were. The unique value of husbands as partners in parenthood lay elsewhere—most often summarized as the bond of a long-term commitment and its legacy in daily relations with children.

Women of varied classes and educational backgrounds noted friends' interest in discussing the moral and psychological individ-


uality and development of children, although their language for discussing these concerns varied. Frances, for example, is not a highly educated consumer of childrearing expertise; nonetheless she felt it important to answer her young daughter's questions about sex with delicacy and sensitivity: "I've been real concerned that I tell her the right way—that I've said the right thing to her. So I tell my friends about our conversations. Women are more understanding of these problems. Jack wouldn't understand it, quite. A woman is more tuned in to it."

Louise explained why she could talk about "parenting things" more easily to her best friend than to her husband, whom she considered a good father:

Somehow I take it more seriously than Gary does. Deep down, I think he looks on it as my job and my problem. If the kids are doing something that worries me, he won't let it worry him. He looks at it as something she's doing this second. He doesn't look at it over a long-run scale of the reasons why they're doing it. So, a lot of stuff Jan and I discuss among ourselves.

Both Frances and Louise appreciated their husbands as fathers and valued them as partners in childrearing. Still, like other mothers, they found their husbands not as willing and not as effective in "figuring out the kids," placing their behavior in a "long-run scale of the reasons why they're doing it," or evaluating their own responses in light of this sense of the child's individuality.

These childrearing concerns, which Louise enunciated so simply and elegantly, form what may now be a cross-class culture of child socialization. Both Frances and Louise come from classically defined working-class households. Yet their emphasis on the child's individuality and motivations and on the delicacy of their maternal role is the same childrearing ethos that their affluent college-educated sisters have. And the women's beliefs that husbands were unpracticed at these intricate aspects of childrearing were also cross-class. Debby and Thea are affluent, educated women married to men they view as loving and "involved" fathers. They described why they needed close friends to discuss children:

My husband is very devoted to the kids, but there are just some things he just doesn't feel and I do. . .. It's not just because so much more of my time is devoted . . .. It's just some kind of tug. I'd have to explain myself so much more talking with Jay than I do with Joanne.


Most of the husbands I know are very involved with their kids. But it's the mother who—my husband just doesn't empathize with them.

This exchange of childrearing problems among close women friends opens a moral discourse about childrearing. Stressing caution and delicacy, women said they discussed childrearing values with friends and attempted to influence each other in this area.

Talking generally about moral influence, constraint, and obligation among friends, women first mentioned the needs and interests of children as appropriate terrain for moral constraint. By and large, the women I spoke with thought it rarely appropriate to attempt to change a friend's attitudes or beliefs or ways of doing things. But when asked to imagine occasions in which such influence would be right, they thought most often of situations in which a child's interests were at stake. Weighing a friend's obligation in situations clearly involving a child's welfare—when a parent is too ill to care for a child or when a child is being abused, for instance—women answered unambiguously that a friend was obligated to intervene. "Always," they responded to such questions of obligation; "children always come first."

These unparalleled discussions about children, framed by shared moral beliefs about the obligations of friends toward each other's children, forge unique bonds between close friends. Women also construct and symbolize these bonds by the exchange of children in child care. In answering questions about trust in close friendship, women spontaneously referred to the solidarizing effects of exchange of child care.

"Do you trust Anne?" "I'd trust her with my kids, which is all I have." Another woman answered more explicitly: "Did anything ever happen to make you especially trust Doreen?" "She'd leave her daughter with me. I'd pick her up at school and take her home with me when Doreen couldn't be there. That's how we became really close."

Over and over again, women brought up children when talking about the construction and meaning of trust in close friendships. They frequently referred to favors with child care when explaining how friends helped them out when they had difficulties in their marriages: "She'll take the kids so Ed and I can go out and talk."

Some referred to exchange of child care with a close friend that helped keep marriages together. Exchanging loving care of the


people women most love and for whom they feel most responsible, in a context of shared values of care, women construct bonds of material and emotional reliance and moral constraint.

Understanding and Women's Sphere

Women are most likely to want the unique understanding and empathy of women friends for those aspects of life that are both important to and characteristic of women. As we might expect, the more distinct the lives of husbands and wives, the more women emphasized how uniquely women understood "being a woman." Women who stayed home with young children were particularly likely to value the understanding and empathy of someone in the same circumstances. "I think you definitely need a woman to talk about how you're feeling, being home with the kids. Just that kind of antsy feeling that a man, I don't think, understands."

The birth of a child, for whom a woman will be the primary nurturer, creates a new sphere of responsibility, interests, and problems. And it may require companionship and help from someone who has experienced a similar transition. Most women find a lack of empathy and engagement in their husbands, whose child-rearing role differs significantly from theirs.[4] This lack particularly strikes women whose lives before childbirth were more similar to their husbands', perhaps in education and work commitments:

We had been each other's best friends. But when I suddenly found myself with a baby, it was something he could share in only a limited way. He could understand some of the problems, but he couldn't understand what it meant to spend every waking moment devoted to this baby who was really a handful.

At the same time, the ability of mothers of young children to cultivate or maintain friendships may be hampered by a lack of time, decreased physical mobility, exhaustion, and the constant presence of an infant. Several women recalled this as a time when they had no close women friends and suffered from that absence.[5] One woman explained, "I was confined at home with small children, I didn't have any close friends, and it was a really difficult time. I was lonely. I was isolated. I felt I was the only person doing what I was doing. I felt so totally cut off."

Frequently, the transition to parenthood follows immediately on


a honeymoon phase of "libidinal withdrawal," in which a newly married couple withdraws from old friends to explore the marital intimacy promised in courtship.[6] The time just after marriage was the second most frequently mentioned period when women lacked close friendships. In contrast with the period after childbirth, however, it was one when women rarely reported the absence of friendship, presumably because they shared more of their absorbing interests with their husbands and dwelt less in their separate sphere: "Andrew and I were extremely good companions. I don't remember needing somebody else then."

Arlene and her husband, Jeff, were students together when they married; and later both worked at full-time careers. When their first child was born, Arlene quit work for several years of full-time motherhood, while her husband continued in his occupation. She felt satisfied with her choice but found herself newly aware of a need for the empathy of other mothers.

I think my women friends have a different attitude toward children and toward the activities that mothers are bound up in that, certainly, my husband doesn't understand—I've never met a man who did. Jeff thinks I sit around and eat bonbons all day. He doesn't understand why I'm tired, how taxing my life can be. And my friends do, because they're going through the same thing.

"My husband certainly does not appreciate what it's like being a woman now," said Arlene, expressing a conviction that had been growing in the years since she became a mother. Her conviction was probably influenced by the wide cultural diffusion of feminist ideas; but feminism had been popular in her premotherhood days as well without arousing her deep sense of gender difference. "He wouldn't know what I was talking about if I said, 'This is the situation I find myself in as a thirty-four-year-old, soon-to-be-mother-of-two in a changing world.' Only my women friends can appreciate that, and it's very much a part of our conversations."

Housework and shopping continue to be tasks that wives perform. Time-budget studies over the last three decades show little significant change in husbands' participation in housework, even when wives have full-time jobs.[7] Both spouses tend to view husbands' ventures into domestic labor as "helping out the wife." Thus, shopping and housework are activities that women view as


distinctive experience to share with women friends. Reflecting the low social prestige of this unpaid work, women discounted their conversations with friends about housework and their joint shopping ventures: "We talk about what we do—like cooking, sewing—things my husband would say are trivia. He just really doesn't have an interest in it."

Sylvia recounted her husband's attitude toward her daily work without the slightest irritation. Like others, she described the companionship of homemakers as valuable but trivial. These women know, although they did not mention it, that the quality of their household care is an important measure of their wifely role, within and outside the family. And the quality of their domestic display is a public measure of their family status-building effectiveness. To husbands and to the world, the effort of homemaking is generally invisible. But women know how much work is involved, and what judgments are balanced on its outcome.

"Can you think of some kinds of things you care about or need from a relationship that only your women friends provide?"—"There's things you just don't talk about with your husband. It's just household things. But they think it's nonexistent."

It seems ironic that women acknowledge that advice and help in shopping and keeping house are exchanges they want and need in a relationship and, at the same time, that these are just "small stuff" and "girl talk."

Personal appearance is another area of concern in which women find their lives distinct from men and which they recognize as important, although not morally comparable to motherhood. Maintaining an attractive appearance is important to women's social well-being. Like homemaking, cultivating appearance is family status-building work. It is a pursuit that husbands approve of, even demand; but according to the women I questioned, it is one that men are rarely willing to abet. Husbands tend to expect that in appearance making, as in homemaking, the sweat and artifice should be concealed.

Women friends share in this labor. Seriously, they help each other in appearance making. And in accepting the limits of their ability to be beautiful. Thus, when Lee, a young single woman, responded that "standing in front of a mirror together and looking at each other's flab" was the kind of thing she values most in a


relationship with a woman, she was not being facetious. She was talking about an intimacy and empathy that felt crucial to a young woman who lived in a society whose values she did not create. Similarly, Frances placed among important values her friend's considered opinion on a prospective purchase: "If I went shopping with my husband to buy a new pair of pants, they could be halfway up to my knees and he'd say, 'That's just fine.' Carol would know how she'd feel in my spot and give a better opinion."

Motherhood, housework, and cultivating appearance are three activities so regularly exclusive to women that they exaggerate the experience of gender and heighten the distinctiveness of women's culture of friendship. Moreover, in its own way each activity figures prominently in the marital power balance, making it a difficult subject for communication and confrontation with husbands. The clearest example is that of motherhood, which research shows to signal major decreases in women's power in marriage.[8] The decrease in power that follows childbirth also discourages the communication and confrontation with husbands that might elicit understanding.

If Not Unique, Preferred

The values I have been describing are the ones that women believed women friends alone could provide. Throughout the interviews, respondents identified other important values for which they preferred to turn to friends, even though husbands or others could also provide them. Once again, most of these values circulated in communication rather than material exchange. I asked women specifically for subjects they could talk about better with close friends than with husbands. Thirteen of seventeen married women identified such subjects (seven further identified some they could talk about only with friends). Since I assume that the preference for talking with friends tells something about the distinctiveness of the bond of close friendship, I shall explore these subjects here.

"Him, mainly—I can talk about him better to Jan," was a typical answer to my question. This answer tended to have two main subtopics: figuring him out and solving problems with him. The


women who preferred talking about "him" with friends to talking to "him" in person generally believed that conversations with good friends were more likely to help them understand husbands' attitudes and motivations than were probing conversations with taciturn mates. Chapter 6 looks more closely at this collaborative "marriage work," in which friends discuss their husbands and marital problems.

Another group of topics that women preferred to discuss with other women includes topics that husbands concede, or perhaps delegate, to friendships. This group includes the subjects women described as gossip, like news in personal networks; and those they elevated, like detailed discussions of children. Although women sometimes reported that husbands complained when they revealed personal details of the marriage to friends, they reported few jealousies of the sharing of personal problems that did not implicate their mates.

I don't usually talk to Jeff about problems. My husband believes when you've got problems, you can solve your own. I learned early on in marriage that he's not a good choice. I'm not sure if it's a lack of sympathy or empathy—but it's sure a lack of patience. He'd rather I tried someone else, so I do.

A third category of topics women preferred to discuss with friends includes areas of contention between husband and wife in which a woman wishes to preserve or defend her method or perspective. One such area is emotionality and emotional dependence. Several women said they relied on friends in expressing emotion, both to reveal emotional states and to use an emotionalized mode of expression.

Feelings. For example, I can talk about experiencing sorrow far easier with a friend.

Women are allowed an emotional freedom that men are just not allowed. They can really express how they feel to other women. I really enjoy that warmth I get in friendships with women. It's totally different from the warmth I get from my husband or any other man I know. It's a unique shared experience.

Women friends are comfortable with and encourage emotional revelation; husbands are often less at ease with this mode. Even sym-


pathetic husbands, their wives said, often responded to emotional discourse with hostility, withdrawal, or an attempt to "help" modulate feeling.

A husband will say, "Oh, quit griping!". · · My husband is not reassuring like my friend is.

He can't understand me, but he cares. It worries him [when I'm upset]. He wishes he could do something, but he doesn't know what.

Mike would be less sympathetic that I'm feeling jealous [of my son's attention]. I feel intimidated by it.

Related to this reliance on friends for emotional discourse is an accepting recognition between friends of emotional dependence. The women I spoke to believed their husbands needed them; yet they found when their husbands acknowledged this need, the men were uncomfortable. They said that husbands were especially loathe to admit dependence on anyone other than their spouse and that husbands could not comprehend their wives' emotional dependence on others. One woman described this contrast: "Catherine understands needing other people. Andrew sees himself as a loner, not needing others. He pooh-poohs that need."

Women also reported turning to friends to defend differences of opinion with their husbands.

Dennis always said he respected me intellectually and trusted my opinions, but if he disagreed with me on something that was really crucial to him, he would put down my opinion. With my women friends there was more respect. Even if they disagreed with me, they wouldn't tell me "somebody's been trying to put ideas in your head." Even if there was a disagreement, there wouldn't be a put-down that came with it.

In this exchange Jean, talking about her former husband, illustrates a pattern of talking to friends to protect areas of belief, opinion, or practice under contention in the marriage. Chapter 6 explores how this pattern of confiding in friends may be construed as marital problem solving that adds to the wife's power in marriage.

Jean's account of her former husband's contempt for her differing opinion illustrates another situation in which women turn to friends to protect their methods or beliefs: women seem to prefer talking to their close friends about thoughts, plans, or fantasies of autonomy.


I can talk about wanting more independence better with June. I act it out more with Lloyd, rather than talk about it.

I talk to Doreen about thoughts of other things . . . different walks of life. Maybe other men . . . doing things with my life.

Once you're a mother, you don't have such a mind of your own as you did before. That's one of the qualities Jerry used to like in me. But now, if I talk about that change to him, either he turns it into a fight, or he thinks I'm being ridiculous. It's easier to talk about it with Karen.

When I thought I was pregnant and would need an abortion, I couldn't speak about it to Les. I didn't want the confrontation of him wanting me to have a baby. I knew Brenda would urge me to change my mind, but I could say "no" to her and know she'd still be with me.

This last statement, about keeping an abortion decision secret from a partner, is Lee's. A single woman, she confided in a close friend rather than her boyfriend. One might think that this would rarely happen in a marriage. Informal discussion with health clinic workers discourages such a conclusion, however. On the abortion decision, as on less momentous issues of individual autonomy, women often feel too powerless to hold their own in debate with their husbands. The finding that women avoid discussing issues concerning autonomy with their husbands—and that they prefer to engage these issues with friends—is one of the strongest patterns that emerge in this research.

Friends' special exchange of thoughts about autonomy or individuality is indicated also among the responses to questions probing various personal exchanges. The question, Is there anyone who encourages you to try new experiences or activities?, elicited the names of close friends or kin—but not of husbands—from over half of the married women. Women included their husbands in answering most of the other thirty-three questions of this kind. I pick up this issue of friendship and autonomy again in chapter 4.

As unique values of close friendship, then, women described intimacy in self-disclosure and a mutual validation of individual activity and inner self through understanding and deep affection. Such descriptions of intimacy and emotional depth are worlds apart from Robert Nishet's depiction of modern friendship as "pseudo-intimacy with others, a kind, of pathetic dependence on the superficial symbols of friendship."[9] In fact, they are close to Ernest Burgess's transports on companionate marriage.


Unique Values of Marriage

If women's close friendships contain many of the elements generally attributed to companionate romantic love, what then do women find irreplaceable in marriage? And there values they want and need in a relationship that only a husband can provide? Immediately, as when I asked about friends, women answered affirmatively. But in interesting contrast to the earlier occasion, this time they found the values difficult to articulate. Women described more easily how women friends uniquely satisfied their needs than how husbands did. The details of what only a husband could provide took more time to think of, were more abstractly phrased, and were more likely to be retracted: "Oh, I guess a good friend provides that too."

This pattern paralleled the responses to a long series of name-eliciting questions asking who provided (or received) various emotional or psychological exchanges. I phrased the questions to discover a woman's strongest attachments. Surveying the responses to each question, I rarely found a response (and never more than one) that listed the husband alone as the provider (or receiver) of the significant exchange. Responses nearly always listed close friends or kin. An earlier question produced a similar pattern: among those to whom they would talk personally all the women who listed husbands listed a friend or relative as well; the reverse was not true.

Ultimately, however, each woman was able to describe values unique to marriage. Kay's answer includes most of the frequently mentioned elements: "Love, a deep commitment. He's always there. Companionship. Planning together. Sex (I would hope that would only come from your husband). Just the security of knowing things are going a certain way and knowing that next week things will probably be that way."

Most of the women specified love, affection, and companionship as values unique to marriage. A few said they were more likely to use the word "love" to describe their feelings about family than friends. But they, too, admitted to deep affection, dependence, intimacy, and a sense of bonding in friendships. When women used terms like love and companionship to describe a unique relation of marriage, they situated these feelings in the context of per-


manent commitment and daily cooperation. Commitment, physical intimacy, and domestic sharing seem to define the unique experience of love, companionship, and security that women feel only with their husbands.

Maybe it's just that you're loved in the way that a man loves a woman. Not necessarily physically—it's just that you're there with him. . . Just depending on him in a different way than you earl depend on your friends.

Intimacy. There's a bonding with someone who you've lived with as many years as we've lived together, that you can't share with someone you don't live with. It's more irreplaceable than love.

Women who did not pinpoint the qualities of commitment and domesticity were more likely to find themselves confused by the contradiction of their sense of uniqueness and their inability to find a unique emotional exchange. Lisa provided an example of this: "I wouldn't say strong emotional feelings because I've felt like that for Doreen. I'd hate to limit it to sex—I know there's something else."

Women who regarded their marriage as very companionate were inclined to look for unique values generated in their individual marriages rather than in formal elements of marriage, like commitment and domesticity. These formal elements they sometimes ignored, thinking about their own husbands rather than husbands in general. Having just answered the parallel question about women friends that focused on dynamic aspects of their friendships, women often sought and had difficulty finding unique dynamic qualities in their marriages. They laughed sheepishly—"I know I must be letting a lot of important things go by. . .." The sheepishness suggests their sense of deviating from the companionate conjugal ideal, which emphasizes individual relational qualities.

Another set of responses to the question of a husband's unique values described the satisfaction of having realized an ideal:

Maybe it's what I really wanted to do with my life—to be with a man.

Identity—I know I feel stronger to go out into the world because I'm part of a couple.

I like being married. It's what I want to be. I like depending on a husband. That's why I don't like women's lib—I like being taken care of.


Perhaps the singular force of these statements stands out clear- est from the context of the last one: ironically, it comes from a woman who finds her own marriage spiritually and emotionally empty, who is economically more independent than most, and whose emotional needs are met almost entirely by friends. In prac- tical terms, she is less "taken care of" by her husband than most women. "Being taken care of" is thus for her more a matter of social status than a personal exchange. The preceding words convey one sentiment I heard frequently: one thing women want and need that only a husband can provide is marriage itself. Being married marks the achievement of a most valued social status; it is both socially approved and materially critical to a woman's economic well-being; for these and other reasons, being married brings something of psychological value to many women.

Other frequent responses to the question of uniqueness referred similarly to achieving and fulfilling marital roles· Husbands were uniquely valued as men, as fathers, and as economic providers. One of the values of being married was being with a man, most often described as being able to see the world from a man's point of view. "They do think differently from women. You have a man's point of view." Exploring this thought, another woman says, "I like the view of living in this society as a male. I learn from it. Some- times I enjoy the vicarious experience."

Other wives phrased the experience more abstractly: "I like having the male figure in the home—male companionship." Still others mentioned the security they derived from a sense of male protection: "I don't like to be alone at night. At night when he's home, and I hear noises, I think 'Oh, macho man will take care of you.'"

Women—married, divorced, or single—spoke of appreciating the public social identity in being associated with a man: "There's times when you go out, that you don't want to go with women— you want to be escorted by a man."

"He's the only one who can be the father," answered Nancy, summing up the views of others who also acknowledged that a male parent was unique. The same women who said they needed a woman friend with whom to talk in depth about children expressed the need for a husband who shared a history with and "stake" in the child.


Our interest in the children is different from anybody else's. . . Our commitment to them—I don't share that commitment with my friends.

You're the only two people who care about them as much as you do.

It's the feeling of shared responsibility having to do with children. It's sort of a lightening of the load.

A few women stated that economic support was one of the values that husbands alone provided. But many, including those who clearly relied on such support, were reluctant to describe it as a value. Sometimes they began to say so and then retracted, as Karen did: "That he'll provide—or rather, that we'll take care of each other in different ways.'" If valuing economic support as something they "needed in a relationship" seemed too mercenary to women who believed in companionate marriage, they generally acknowledged lack of money as one of the most serious problems they would encounter if the marriage ended. All but three married women answered immediately that finances would be their biggest problem. Of the three exceptions, one earns a high income, one is the sole wage earner because her husband is unemployed, and the last is a young, childless working woman.

One final value unique to marriage recurred in women's descriptions, a paradoxical ability to "be alone together."

I can get space from Lloyd. I can go to the other end of the house and be involved in what I'm doing and still we have a relationship.

You can be totally yourself with friends, too, but I find myself a little more "up" with friends than I feel I have to be with him. It's nice to have somebody who I don't necessarily have to sit and talk with, but I can still feel real comfortable and close just to be in the same house. With my friends, I feel real comfortable and close, but I think "maybe we should be talking about something." I like being able to be sort of separate together.

At first, I thought these responses referred to the authenticity of marital relations versus others—that husbands are sole co-residents of what Goffman calls the "back stage" of sociability. Yet, surveying what women said about the uniqueness of close women friends, I found repeated comments on authenticity there also. Indeed, women are frequently admitted to a "back stage" to which


men are barred; one example Nancy described in the post-party debriefings she and Annette loved to stage: "We laugh and joke about what our husbands did at the party, about our designs on other men there, and that sort of thing that we'd never tell our husbands." Being separate together, however, is distinct. It is a kind of authenticity that women did feel they shared only with those they live with. It is not the authenticity of active sharing so much as the authenticity constituted by intimately living out daily life alongside another person.

As they described what they wanted and needed in a relationship that husbands alone could provide, women focused, on the formal dimensions of marriage rather than unique attributes of their partner or relationship. They noted the special character that commitment and domesticity gave to love and companionship. And they emphasized the gratifications of fulfilling marital and parental roles over individual companionate values.

Comparing Close Friendship and Marriage

Set against the voluntary exchanges of women's friendships are the contrasting benefits of the compact of marriage. Most of the values women attributed uniquely to marriage are its constitutive, formal characteristics rather than emergent or dynamic qualities of a companionate relationship. Women valued the state of marriage and savored their realization of this socially rewarded ideal, which is intertwined with a social recognition of womanhood. They enjoyed sharing the intimacy and history that, in some form or extent, are the product of any conjugal coresidence. Women prized the sense of stability and security that results from a formally permanent commitment and were gratified by the confident planning for the future that such a commitment allows. And they valued the physical intimacy that is accessible in marriage and socially proscribed in extramarital relations.

What seems noteworthy about these values is that they distinguished the nineteenth-century marital ideal rather than the egalitarian, romantic companionate ideal that unfolded in the twentieth century. This is not to say that the modern ideal lacks values like commitment; but the values that best distinguish this contem-


porary ideal are not salient in the women's accounts of unique attributes of their marriages.

Dynamic companionate values—such as empathy, mutuality, multifaceted engagement, and evolving common interests—are much more often invoked as unique aspects of close friendships. Although time and commitment enrich these attributes, companionate bonds often develop among women friends independently of time and commitment and are intrinsically gratifying. In this sense, companionate values are less time-bound—they can gel quickly—and are less contractual or covenantal. They seem to develop from qualities or capacities of the participants and from dynamic qualities of the relationship rather than from fulfilling a role. Unique friendship values emerge in voluntary exchanges of friendship, in contrast to unique marriage values, which result from fulfilling the general marriage compact.

The companionate conjugal ideal is nurtured by the ideal of romantic love, whose powerful feeling transforms capacities, transcends distances and limitations, and establishes a spiritual communion between lovers. Contemporary culture extols a companionate romantic love that extends beyond the souls' companionship celebrated by nineteenth-century poets. To be sure, partners are to be spiritual companions; but within this communion (or perhaps prompting it) an unparalleled intimate friendship develops. Husbands and wives are to be each other's best friend.

To an extent my research confirms the idea of contemporary marriage as intimate friendship. Certainly in comparison with nineteenth-century marriages whose partners dwelt in essentially separate spheres, the marriages described here were both intimate and friendly. But they involved one set of meanings, and friendships an overlapping but partly distinct set. The intimacy of marriage was born of sharing and daily cooperation in the context of physical intimacy and permanent commitment. The intimacy of friendship was made of mutual self-disclosure and empathic understanding in the context of voluntary support and contingent commitment. The friendship of marriage affectionately appreciated difference, uniquely experienced an intertwined history, and valued fidelity. The friendship of women friends attracted engaged and empathic others who share a gender consciousness; it valued the shared experiences of womanhood and motherhood and the rela-


tion between serf and others that is characteristic of contemporary women's culture.

This situation leaves us with a puzzle. We have accounts of deep and vital friendships, but no cultural ideal. We have accounts of deep and meaningful marriages, but an unacknowledged contradiction to the cultural ideal. How do we assess these two patterns and their respective sets of contradictions? Furthermore, if close friendships illustrate values that are prominent in (or exclusive to) the cultural ideal of marriage, might not friendships compete with and undermine marriage? The following chapters address these puzzles. Here, I present women's own testimony on the questions, which I posed after each woman recounted the unique values of her close friendship.

Do Values of Friendship Interfere with Marriage?

Do the values unique to a woman's close friendship help her marriage work more smoothly; do they interfere; do they do both, or neither? Answering my question, half the women stated that friends' special understanding, empathy, and companionship in shared interests made the marriage work more smoothly. None believed the effects were only negative. One quarter called the effects both bad and good; and the last quarter said there were no real effects on their marriage (this last group frequently listed positive effects, however, when I asked, How has your close friend helped when you've had difficulties in your marriage?).

The positive effects that women specified included garnering personal resources that enrich a woman's contribution to marriage; satisfying needs that marriage did not meet; and developing the model for a good relationship. In the first category, women reported that they improved their marriages by bringing to them a self-regard enhanced by friendship, by developing their talents and interests, or by learning how to resolve marriage problems.

I'm happier and not dwelling on my problems. So, that improves the marriage.

Talking about problems with her gives me a chance to sift through and get to what I want to talk about with him.


I figure there must be an easier way to do this than arguments. She helps me come up with a better alternative.

Explaining the compensatory effects of friendship, women stressed that they could take the strain of their own dissatisfactions off their marriages by turning to a friend rather than their husbands for engagement, mutuality, and empathy. "I'd probably be at my poor husband's throat all the time," remarked one. Sylvia, who had described her husband's desire to avoid conversation ("He'll listen to me, but it sometimes irritates him to do it"), managed this rejection with equanimity because she can talk to friends: "If I'm able to talk to someone besides my husband, I'm able to give him that quiet time."

Similarly, Jean, now divorced, believes friendship helped her endure an unhappy marriage: "I think [friends] made it work more smoothly because I was getting what I needed there. So my life was acceptable."

Betty said that because her close friend satisfied important needs, she could refrain from overwhelming her husband with them. "I'd probably be putting too many demands on him. I'd be pressuring him for everything I needed and that would suffocate him."

Although one might imagine that a gratifying relationship would make women more dissatisfied with others they find lacking in comparison, this is not the effect women reported. These wives seemed to believe that marriages rarely approached the companionate ideal; surviving in their own marriages was more appealing than either looking for one that worked better or setting out alone with their children. They said their friends' companionship buttressed marriage, meeting needs for empathy and understanding that husbands could not satisfy and allowing them to free husbands of demands that might antagonize them.

Relatively few women suggested that friendship values served as a model for successfully changing marriages. Yet this category is a promising one, for it suggests a potential effect of friendship on marriages once women have gathered the social power to risk more assertive domestic influence: "I think they make my marriage work better. If I've had a good experience that's important in my life, then I work to get some of it—at least, some of it—in my relation-


ship with Lloyd." I am certain that the two women who noted this effect of marriage had been emboldened to ask more of their husbands because both had recently improved their social options with education, employment, and the construction of friendship networks.

Paradoxically, the same women who had been emboldened by supportive friends to demand more in their marriages were among those who reported that friends' help had also made their married life rockier. Rita, just quoted on striving to build friendship values into marriage, continued to reveal the paradox: "He may not think it improves the marriage, but I do." Similarly, Louise took friendship as a model of give-and-take in a marriage where she had mostly given: "I guess Gary and I would have hit fewer bumps if I hadn't become friends with Jan. Because for him, things were running more smoothly before. He's had to learn to make some compromises in the marriage." And assessing her feelings, Nancy experienced both exhilaration and guilt after talks with Annette inspired her to assert her needs in the marriage: "Lots of times [such assertion] is real contradictory to the way you've been brought up."

Other questions, reviewing times when women lacked women friends and other times when they forged new friendships, corroborated their accounts of the effect of friendship on marriage. Except during the honeymoon period following marriage, being without close friends often left women lonely, depressed, and feeling they "could not survive on [marriage] alone."

I was down and depressed and jealous that he had his friends if he wanted to get out.

It was the first time in my life that I ever used tranquilizers When he had to travel, I'd say "Don't leave me." I think now if I'd had someone to talk to, all that might not have happened.

They reported that during such times they felt more boredom and dissatisfaction with their marriage, more jealousy of husbands' friends, and more "suffocated" reactions from husbands who felt that their wives "asked too much."

It was a stagnant time. If it had continued, it would have hurt the marriage. Any time we've had friends, we get along fine together.


I think I was too dependent on my husband then. I'd get easily disappointed. Then angry. You know the cycle.

I was afraid to let him do anything without me. I felt trapped and blamed him, even though it was my fault. I wasn't happy any of the time, not even when I was with him.

The stories of first budding friendships after these times heralded improved personal and marital well-being. One woman exclaimed, "I began feeling good about myself for the first time in a long time, which of course was very positive for my marriage. Oh, it was just a panacea for all my ills!" A few accounts of the evolution of new friendships suggest another provocative comparison with companionate marriage and hint at one way new friendships enhance marriage satisfaction. These accounts often portrayed the beginning of a new friendship in terms of excitement, heightened energies, frequent thoughts about the other, invigorated self-regard—in short, in terms of the ardent sensibilities of romantic love.

I spent a lot of the time on the phone with her. A lot of time thinking about her and about things I wanted to tell her.

It was a catharsis. To release all that was pent up. . . That hour [spent together] was so exceptional in my life. It certainly turned me around.

The respondents themselves did not offer this analogy with romance. Yet their descriptions of the joys of new friendship often sounded much more like courtship than familiar routines of friendship or marital love. My research with Claude Fischer, which compared the friendships of men and women through the life cycle, indicates that women form new friendships regularly throughout their lives, whereas men do not. Men are more likely to rely on older friendships; and their store of close friendships significantly declines as they approach old age.[10] Zick Rubin, who measured liking and loving elements in various relationships, found that women, more often than men, express love as well as liking for their same-sex friends.[11] All this research suggests that when couples remain faithfully married, wives are more likely than their husbands to have ardent relationships throughout their lives. It also suggests a nonsexual motive for men's apparently greater marital infidelity. If men do not seek intimate friendships with other


men, sexual affairs with women may be men's route to ardent and intimate 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.