In a charming piece in today's Wall Street Journal, Mike Kerrigan, a lawyer in North Carolina, takes issue with the common description of one's spouse as a "best friend."
Mr. Kerrigan was pondering the Valentine advertisement of a jeweler, which suggests buying two diamonds, one for one's "true love" and another for one's "best friend."
No, the jeweler isn't (as far as we know) suggesting presents for two people. The diamonds are joined in one setting. But Mr. Kerrigan is put off by the best friend pitch:
The average married guy might simply give his wife full custody of the pendant, on the theory that she is his wife and his best friend. But that’s a crime against etiquette. A person is properly addressed by the highest honorific attained in life, since the greater includes the lesser. Will George H.W. Bush be remembered as a president or a vice president?
Thus the title of spouse subsumes best friend. When Devin and I joined our lives together, God was present. Friends and family traveled from afar. There was fondue. None of these marked the moment in middle school when Tommy intervened in a scuffle, saved my bacon, and became my best friend.
There are substantive differences to consider, too. Aristotle said we are what we repeatedly do. The person who habitually builds you up is your spouse. The one who habitually reminds you that, though he knows your ruinously embarrassing secret nickname, he’ll take it to the grave? Your best friend.
Cold, Aristotelian logic was insufficient for Brutus, so like Marc Antony, I’ll speak to the heart. Which song takes your breath away, “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge, or “Best Friend” by Harry Nilsson ?
I don't want to get too didactic on a holiday dedicated to romance (which this year falls on Ash Wednesday, a solemn day for Christians, who'll have to save the chocolates for tomorrow and celebrate today by doing something nice and kind that doesn't involve a steak dinner!), but I want to call your attention to a serious Valentine's Day piece in the Weekly Standard.
The article, by Lawrence Mead, professor of politics and public policy at New York University, also uses the day to celebrate not just romance but marriage. The piece is headlined, "Happy Valentine's Day. Now Go Get Married." The decline of marriage is possibly the most serious problem in society today. The causes of the decline run deep. Mead writes:
Is there anything to be done? Some experts suggest that generating more good jobs for low-skilled men could reverse the trend, while others hope that some new program will appear that strengthens marriage. But these hopes are probably ill-founded. Because the main cause of marital decline isn’t a policy matter. It’s simply that, while most Americans still affirm the value of marriage, it no longer has moral authority. It has decayed into a distant ideal that no longer governs actual behavior.
. . .
But marriage isn’t only a private concern. One reason lower-income society is falling apart is that the decline of marriage leaves too few adults who are willing and able to help each other. Spouses who cannot get along within the family also cannot contribute much to the wider society. They have little to offer others in the joint work of building strong communities. Government and nonprofit bodies attempt to fill the void, but even they cannot substitute for families based on strong adult commitments.
Because of the social costs of nonmarriage, “tolerance,” while laudable, should not be society’s only goal. Instead, we should be working to strike a balance between free choice and the promotion of the stable, supportive environments that create the best outcomes for both children and adults.
Any return to marriage norms, however, must take into account the feminist critique. Two generations ago, wives were often subordinate to their husbands or blindly deferred to them. Most advocates of marriage today recognize that the institution can be rebuilt only if it is done so on more egalitarian lines. Husbands and wives must be partners, without either ruling over the other. This does assume, however, that the spouses can work out differences more openly than they often did in the past.
I will note one very positive development this Valentine's Day: While Google reveals that an ample number of campuses will celebrate the day by hosting readings of "The Vagina Monologues," the bloom seems to be off this smelly rose: the excitement is gone; it's perfunctory.
Which is good because this should be a day to think about romance and the good relationships that begin in romance. So happy Valentine's Day (even without the big ticket dinner!)!
And,by the way, this is my candidate for a real love story, and it doesn't include diamonds or chocolate.