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What Happens to Friendships After Marriage?

Should you cut the guest list on a what if?


When Michael and I got married, I planned on giving a speech to our guests. I wanted to thank them all for everything they’d done to help us get to that point, and for supporting our relationship so unquestioningly. I had practiced a few times in the mirror, gone over my thoughts in the car, but when it was my time to speak, I got up and mumbled a few words, made this awkward face, and then proceeded to drink the rest of my beer. In short, I choked. (Let this be a lesson to you about writing things down.)

Maybe there was just too much to say. If anything, getting married at twenty-three gave me a heightened sense of the role our community played in making our relationship a reality. It’s really hard to manage the logistics of a teenage romance across state lines unless the people in your life are on board. I wanted to find a way to quantify that, to let our friends and family know that their efforts had not gone unappreciated. But how do you say, “We literally wouldn’t be here without you?”

Putting together our guest list was an experiment in fortune telling. Who would we be friends with ten years from now? Who would ghost out of our lives shortly after the wedding? The truth is, you can’t ever know where your friendships will go after the wedding is over, and the details are packed up, and you’ve moved to Connecticut and then California, and when life has done that thing where things change not with a bang but a slow fizzle. Weddings are not timeless. Neither are friendships. As David Plotz writes in Slate:

When you are in the throes of wedding planning… it seems inconceivable that somewhere in this group, the group of people that you are closest to in the entire world, the people with whom you will share the most extraordinary moment of your life, are dear friends you will never see again after your wedding day. You don’t know who the last-timers are—in fact, you can’t know—but they will be there on the dance floor and in photos. And suddenly, one day—two, five, twenty years on—you will think to yourself: I haven’t seen her since our wedding. And then: How did that happen?

When I talk about last-timers, I don’t mean those old friends of your parents who got invited over your protests. Of course you’ll never see them again. I also don’t mean the various disposable plus-ones. Any wedding of any size will be populated by boyfriends, girlfriends, and even spouses who will have been dumped or divorced by the next time you see your friend. My brother-in-law’s then-fiancée is all over our wedding photos. She was on her last legs as a fiancée, but we didn’t know it at the time. Sweet, kind Liane: Where are you now?

No, the last-timers I’m talking about are real friends, but the friendship has entered a slow fade to black that is obscured by the euphoric fog of the wedding. Sometimes, geography is to blame. A decade ago, my wife Hanna attended the wedding of a friend who was marrying a Swede—and moving to Sweden. Hanna hasn’t seen her since. The ties that they might have maintained had they lived two hundred miles apart frayed and finally split at three thousand miles.

But in some ways, I think the fortune telling analogy is all wrong. Putting together a guest list isn’t about predicting who will be part of our lives five, ten, fifty years from now. It’s about choosing. Who do we want to be part of our lives?

Huge life events have transformative effects on friendships. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. When my sister passed away, for example, I was in middle school. At the time I had a big group of girlfriends, the kind of terrifying pre-teen clique that was tighter and more unnerving to be around than the Plastics. As high school loomed and my family life became more stressful, the majority of those friendships slowly came undone. But there will always be a soft fondness for the friends I knew then, if only because of our shared history. If I see them in passing on a trip home, I don’t have to explain anything about myself, and there’s something so comforting about that.

In the same way, I don’t think it’s an accident that the friendships most likely to survive our three thousand-mile move, crazy work schedules, and prolonged absence from everyday life are almost unanimously the people we invited to our wedding. These are the friends who let us crash on their couches every time we’re in New York. The ones who keep us up-to-date on their romantic developments, because we’re their only married friends. The ones who always, always visit us when they are in town for work, even if it means a quick hug on a busy streetcorner. These seem like such small gestures compared to our everyday relationships. But when you’re clear across the country from most of your friend group, it’s so easy to lose touch. And yet, we stay tethered. These are the friendships that can span years without a single communication, and then stride right back into familiarity when we see each other again. In this way, the guest list was like a self-fulfilling prophecy. We chose the people who mattered then, and in turn, they’ve become the people we cherish most now (and vice versa).

Recently, I attended a wedding for a friend I haven’t seen in nearly a decade. I’d never met her partner. And I only knew a handful of people at the wedding. Half a dozen drinks deep at the reception, I found myself tipsily pontificating to a group of high school acquaintances on the virtues of marriage. “The best part,” I explained, “is that you can’t just leave.” Which, for the record, is a terrible sales pitch. What I meant, is that sometimes you’ll endure the hard stuff for a lot longer, because you’re in it for the long haul. Going into our young marriage, I realized this was going to be true for us, and it’s been a freeing knowledge as we’ve worked through some of our growing pains.

What I didn’t realize is that the same would be true of our friendships. In the six years since our marriage, our friendships have been tested: by time, by distance, by shifts in priorities and life experiences. On more than one occasion, I’ve found myself rationalizing “but they were at our wedding” or “but she was my bridesmaid” as cause for not giving up on a friendship, and being so grateful months or years later that I didn’t.

If getting married young has taught me anything, it’s that life stretches long in front of us. Where we are now feels lifetimes away from where we were when we got married. And it’s important to leave space for the ebb and flow of relationships. Because really, even the last timers might not be last timers. Maybe the last timers will be back in fifty years when by coincidence we end up in the same retirement community, and rekindle our relationship over shared memories of the wedding. Who knows. But if you want that possibility, then it starts with inviting the people you want to matter, not with slashing the guest list on a what if.

When Michael and I got married, our vows included a promise that we were becoming family. Maybe the only toast I needed to give to our guests was the promise that they would be too.

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