I love my wife. She’s a remarkable, godly, and wonderful woman. I am thrilled to be married to her and to have spent these last ten years growing together. To expect her to meet all of my relational needs, however, would be incredibly unfair to her. Romantic love is a wonderful gift from God, but all of our relational needs cannot be met in one relationship. We need more than romantic love to be happy.
There are loads of clichés about love. “Love is all we need.” “I married my best friend.” Songs invite couples into an “us against the world” mentality. But these clichés are misleading and will ultimately damage relationships. Romantic love serves a wonderful purpose, but it cannot do more than it was designed to do. It cannot replace the important role of other friendships.
We Need the Love of Friends: Five Reasons
At least five reasons ground my claim that romantic love is insufficient for a fulfilled life.
1. Marital relationships exist for something beyond themselves. Marriage is not meant to be a self-contained reality. In his article “Marriage for the Common Good,” James K. A. Smith writes beautifully of the inherent selfishness of our modern conception of marriage:
Indeed, the myths we load into weddings almost doom marriages to fail. Weddings are centered around the romantic “coupling” of two star-crossed lovers, as if marriage was an extended exercise of staring deep into one another’s eyes—with benefits. But even then, my spouse is one who sees me, will meet my needs, will fulfill my wants, will “complete me.” Even our romantic coupling becomes a form of self-love.
Too often, we reduce romantic love to self-interest. The spousal relationship is viewed, in this conception, as a whole community unto itself. But this reduces marriage to something far less significant, far less biblical. Smith proposes “households” instead of these idealized marriages. He writes:
“Householding” is crucial for social architecture, for it is in such families that we incubate not just love for one another, but love of God and neighbor, pushing out the door in pursuit of the common good. If we want to raise up a generation passionate about the common good, perhaps we should say “No” to the dress—and all of the spectacular trappings of Wedding, Inc.—and instead plan for a marriage with open doors, honest in its vulnerability, even eagerly dependent. “There ain’t no shame in reaching out for a friend.”
This is the model that the Bible gives us when it speaks of marriage as a symbol of the gospel. The union of a husband and wife is meant to speak to the beauty of Christ’s love for the church. How can it do this in isolation from the rest of the world? Marriage must exist for the greater good; it must exist for something beyond itself.
2. We are complicated individuals who need a diversity of relationships. To expect my spouse to meet all my relational needs is to expect her to be more than who she really is. She cannot share all my interests and hobbies. She can pretend to be interested in that sociological study I read, and I appreciate her efforts. But we all know the difference between genuine interest in a subject and more general interest in a person. My wife honors my interests, but she can’t enjoy them all. And I don’t need her to enjoy them all. I love her for who she is, and I love other people for who they are.
3. Our spouses can’t teach us everything we need to know. This is blatantly obvious about marriage. We may often recognize the importance of spending time with couples who have more years behind their marriage, because obviously my spouse and I can’t teach each other everything about what it means to be married. We need the insights of people who have gone before us. This is also true about the wide swath of human, intellectual, theological, and professional experiences. As valuable as my wife is, and as brilliant as she is, her experiences and training are limited, as are mine. If she wants to learn how to be growing and diverse human being, she needs to interact with people beyond me.
4. There are certain things we simply can’t communicate with spouses. Most of us know this with regard to correction. There are certain things that my friends can say to me that tend to become grating and frustrating when they come from my wife. We do not receive some forms of criticism well when it comes from our spouses. Perhaps this is sinful. Perhaps it is owing to the sensitivity of our relationships. We need others who can come alongside us and help us grow through difficulties and failures. We also recognize that certain sin struggles need to be dealt with apart from the constant involvement of our spouses. A husband or wife who struggles with lust should not constantly share with his spouse his temptations and struggles in this area. Such a bombardment of information will discourage a spouse and weaken a relationship. There is a place for such confessions, but we should not rely solely on our spouses to help us with all our spiritual problems. They shouldn't have to handle that weight.
5. God has designed us to need friendships. The church is the clearest example of this truth. The church is a collective body of believers who love one another, bear one another’s burdens, instruct one another, and rebuke one another. The church is God’s ideal for human relationships. The church is his vision for transforming the world. Marriage is important, and God speaks highly of it. But it is the church that will exist into eternity, not marriage (Matt. 22:30). Jesus calls the church his bride, yes, but he also calls the church his friends (John 15:15). God has designed us to need friends, to be friends, to rely on friends. Romantic love is not enough.
Our celebration of marriage is a good thing, but it can easily become an idolatrous thing. It can be overemphasized. It can be made some unrealistic ideal for all people. It can be valued to such a degree that we lose sight of the significant importance and role of friendship. Romantic love is great, but we need more than romantic love to be healthy, growing, people.