When Friends Are Like Family, What Happens When You Marry?

For me, it’s fitting that as friendship month is coming to an end, we’re closing with Jen’s piece on Friends as Family. I haven’t had best friends in years (it’s possible that blew up for me with the world’s most spectacular friend breakup in high school). But I do view my community as family. They can be royal pains in my ass, we sometimes have huge fights, they might not get my every quirk—but they’re loyal to death/bailing me out of jail, and they’ve got my back whenever I need help. Jen says, “I’ve noticed that the first few rows at wedding ceremonies are often sparsely populated or even empty, the result of guests giving deference to family but leaving far more space than the family can fill.” I read it, and literally grabbed at my heart. In my life, that space has been filled with friends who have supported us through awkward teen years, college, weddings, and the birth of our kid. They’ve done it imperfectly, but for that, they have my undying gratitude, and near militant loyalty.


by Jen McCreary

For many years, my college friends were my urban tribe, the family of friends who stood in for a more traditional family structure of partner and children—the people I lived with, spent holidays with, shared my daily life with. When I finally found my life partner, it made sense that my dynamic with my tribe would shift. But I have struggled to accept the inevitability of this change gracefully, to embrace it as a natural part of life. I like to hold on, usually as tightly as I can, in the face of change. Because it is scary, not knowing what is coming next, and I never want to lose anyone I love.

My college friends are the tight-knit group of like-minded co-conspirators I fervently wished for throughout my youth. We were so frequently together in college that some upperclassmen dubbed us “The Breakfast Club” for our habit of eating all our meals at the same time in the same dining hall, as a big group. There were eight of us in college, three men and five women (who as a group corresponded closely enough in appearance to The Spice Girls that we went to a formal dressed as them—even though it was not a costume party), and after school, we absorbed another half dozen college peers into our circle as we expanded into the cities of the northeastern U.S.

I have been fiercely protective of my relationships with these friends, individually and as a whole. These are the people who held the space for me to transform from adolescent to adult, to discover my true self. They’re the people I started every new year watching one action and one comedy movie with, who did cancer walks with me when my dad got sick, and with whom I had standing weekend brunch plans.

But nothing stays the same, even when it’s really good. Everyone is always growing and changing, and we don’t—we really can’t—stay as we were in our late-teens and our twenties. I first felt the truth of this change at our friend Beth’s wedding a year ago. Seven of us flew to Oregon to be with and support her, but over the course of the weekend, I realized we were not actually spending any time with her. Of course, she was the bride and was busy, but as someone who had just gotten engaged, I thought about how left out I would feel in her place. I’d miss brunch and going to Powell’s Bookstore and walking across the Burnside Bridge. And I couldn’t imagine not being with everyone.

So of course, I tried to control this situation with my own wedding. I encouraged my friends to arrive on Thursday, so we could hang out before the big event, and while a lot of them did fly out early, they didn’t spend those days before the wedding with me. Abby, my Lady of Honor, my roommate for years, my bestie, had to remind me that I had other responsibilities: my family, my fiancé Stephen’s family, other guests—not to mention the actual wedding to prepare for. I couldn’t spend the days before the event going to taco stands and the beach with everyone, and I shouldn’t be offended at our friends accepting this reality more readily than I did.

But the reason it was so important for me to be with everyone is because I was rarely with them anymore. I had moved to California for grad school and stayed. I missed birthdays and brunches regularly now. For the first couple of years, it didn’t seem so different. I flew back a lot, and friends came to see me. Also, I thought I’d move back East when school was done. Even after I graduated, I told myself “next year”—every year. I didn’t want to admit that having the life I loved in California meant giving up a certain amount of another life I had loved before. So I didn’t admit it—until Stephen and I got engaged, at which point I finally had to acknowledge that I wasn’t going back.

It has been hard for me to accept what that means, even though I can see that the seeds of it were planted long before I made the commitment to Stephen and to our life in California. The truth is that time has passed, and with its passing, my friends and I have grown and changed. As much as we care for each other, we have evolving lives that include elements—like spouses, serious careers, children, newer friends—that are not solely focused around one another. But while we’re not friends in the same ways we were a decade ago, that doesn’t mean our relationships are any less vital or meaningful. Having a new family doesn’t negate this family of friends, or any other family for that matter.

I’ve noticed that the first few rows at wedding ceremonies are often sparsely populated or even empty, the result of guests giving deference to family but leaving far more space than the family can fill. The night before my wedding, when I finally got to hang out with my college friends for an hour at a bar (before honoring my reasonable bedtime), I spoke with them about how this has bothered me. The next day, when I walked down the aisle, the metaphorical and literal path of my transformation from single to married woman, I saw my college friends. They were seated directly behind my parents, filling the second and third rows. Whatever has changed, they were there, up front with my family, as my family. Supporting me and my new husband, holding us in their love and good wishes, for what comes next.

Photo by Jenn Emerling of YEAH! Weddings

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  • Kristen

    I really enjoyed the bittersweet sentiment of this piece, like eating dark chocolate. And I especially love hearing about friendships that take place across states, countries and continents. We talked earlier this month about how you can’t do all your friendships and socializing online, but having the internet allows us to keep a different kind of contact and connection with friends who are far away so in cases like this one, it probably enriched and continued these friendships, which is lovely.

    P.S. I wish we had a mirror piece to go with this about what to do when you marry and your friends ARE your family.

  • Katherine

    Okay, that last paragraph gave me chills. I’ve seen it happen a bunch of times at weddings where it’s only the “blood” family that sits in those few first rows, and there winds up being space between them and the rest of the guests. Having my closest friends filling that space on my wedding day would be amazing to see, and probably result in some bawling on my part. You are so lucky to have friends like that in your life, Jen!

    • Ally

      This is also a good point for actually doing the whole escorting guests down the aisle thing still – if you tell the groomsmen you only need a single row for family if that’s the case, then the gap shouldn’t happen… But I am totally for having a row or whatever reserved for the closest friends etc. I’ve seen it done and been one of the family friends that got seated as family as well. But don’t leave it up to your friends if that’s what you want, have a note that they’re to be seated there!

  • Amanda L.

    Every word of this piece resonated with me. As someone who has that group of close college friends that gathers every year but are spread not just around the country but around the world, the changing of the friendships was difficult, but oh so worth it. These ladies have seen me go from an unsure, semi-reckless college student to an independent, confident, madly-in-love woman. We get to delight in old stories while living new ones. Hold on tight to them, but know that ‘holding on tight’ now really means a well-timed email, phone call, or Facebook comment!

  • Oh man, this hit home. I moved to the East Coast after college and stayed. I’d been very close to my high school friends, but as I continued staying here, they stayed there. I miss them, but I love the life I have here more. Still, it’s not easy.

  • Jan

    So happy you were able to have the people that you care most about right up front. If I could go back and redo my wedding, the majority of my blood relatives and in-laws wouldn’t even be invited. I don’t know if I should feel guilty about this, but I don’t.

    • Sierra

      This comment made me realize how happy I am that we only invited people who we would want in the front-row! Granted, we had about 30 guests so they didn’t all fit in the front row, but had they all fit, they all would have deserved to be there.

  • Ruth

    Thank you so much for writing this piece. I have felt a similar shift happening with my close college friendships post marriage, and have fought it kicking and screaming. While I absolutely adore my life with my husband, I find myself really grieving over no longer having close geographical proximity to my closest friends. I think the thing that scares me is that I just have no idea what close friendship looks like in your thirties. I see so many thirty somethings who haven’t seen their college besties since their weddings and that terrifies me. I really, really appreciate all the posts this month on nurturing friendships and making new friends as an adult – it’s so important and not enough people talk about it. P.s a shout out to all APWers in the NYC area – I’ve heard there’s a facebook group for local getogethers, but I can’t seem to find it. I’d be happy to organize a meetup – I so love the comments in this community – it makes me want to meet you all in person :)

    • I love the way you phrase this, Ruth: “I think the thing that scares me is that I just have no idea what close friendship looks like in your thirties.”

      I want to say something brave and bold, like, they look like however you want them to! But I understand where you’re coming from. I thought that there were parts of my 20s that were hard, as people slowly met their partners and moved in or got engaged while I was so far from that. But I find that this moment is the hardest, when distance, economic differences, and children really start to have an impact. It’s about not kicking and screaming (says a fellow K&S’er).

      I feel like I haven’t really had to work hard to make a good friend since college, and now I’m confronted with not only trying to make new friends where I live, but redefine and process how to maintain old friendships that really benefited and flourished from proximity. It’s a mind boggle fo sure.

  • Kelsey

    This is so true!! I’m struggling with this with my own upcoming wedding as well- how will I make the time for ‘beaches and taco stands’ (or the Denver equivalent) and still make time for my family, and my gal’s family, and, oh yeah, my darling, introverted partner? This is one of my biggest worries about the wedding, honestly. Like you said, I don’t get to see everyone very often anymore, and I’m so happy they’ll be here to celebrate our wedding, but I am a little sad that I won’t actually get a lot of hang out time at next year’s reunion.
    Thank you for writing- lovely, resonant, piece!

  • Thank you so much for this post, Jen. I have had a lot of strong feelings lately that I couldn’t give name to, but you did it so eloquently and made me feel much better about the situation.

    I was so, so fortunate to live in a town with my dearest friends for the first seven years out of college. We had an amazing run, even as people got engaged, married, and had babies. But then I met someone who lived two hours away and little by little I became less a part of the scene until circumstance led us to move closer to my husband’s job and away from the surrogate family I loved so dear.

    It’s been really hard to be on the outside of that, as brunches, and births, and silly little things go by. I feel really sensitive to the situation and tend to take it very personally, placing high expectations on how the group should still be. But I’ve been trying to focus on being less resistant to the changes and reading your lovely story has really helped.

  • js

    Shit. This made me cry.

  • I have always considered my friends my family of choice. They have been there for me during times my blood family has not. This post resonated deeply with me and I understand the feeling of not wanting these relationships to shift as we move into different life phases. On a different note, I am wondering if your friend Beth is my cousin Beth. That line about her wedding gave me shivers and sounded like it might be, so I had to ask. :)

  • Anjali

    Oh that is the sweetest. I really, truly believe that friends are the family we choose, and I’m so glad that yours were there for you in a way that was really meaningful.

  • Rosie

    Lovely piece, Jen! As one of the first to leave the East Coast, I have noticed this for years. It’s hard to maintain very long distance friendships while also trying to make life meaningful in one’s new place. It isn’t so easy to just fly or drive to see each other when you have other responsibilities, but it’s important to remember that we should keep trying!

    Congrats again! Love, Rosie

  • Late to the party, but this: “Even after I graduated, I told myself “next year”—every year. I didn’t want to admit that having the life I loved in California meant giving up a certain amount of another life I had loved before. So I didn’t admit it—until Stephen and I got engaged, at which point I finally had to acknowledge that I wasn’t going back.” Just completely sucker-punched me. This is me. I think this is probably a lot of us. And as always, it’s nice knowing we’re not alone.

    Lovely piece.


  • This rang so, so true.

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