Read: What if friendship, not marriage, was at the center of life?
Best friends get enjoyment, satisfaction, and meaning from each other’s company. They bring out the best in one another; they gently tease one another; they have fun together. President Calvin Coolidge and his wife, Grace, famously had such a friendship. According to one story (perhaps apocryphal), when the president and first lady were touring a poultry farm, Mrs. Coolidge remarked to the farmer—loud enough for the president to hear—that it was amazing so many eggs were fertilized by just one rooster. The farmer told her that the roosters did their jobs over and over again each day. “Perhaps you could point that out to Mr. Coolidge,” she told him with a smile. The president, noting the remark, inquired whether the rooster serviced the same hen each time. No, the farmer told him, there were many hens for each rooster. “Perhaps you could point that out to Mrs. Coolidge,” said the president.
Promiscuous roosters notwithstanding, the romance of companionate love seems to make people happiest when it’s monogamous. I say this as a social scientist, not a moralist: In 2004, a survey of 16,000 American adults found that for men and women alike, “The happiness-maximizing number of sexual partners in the previous year is calculated to be 1.”
The deep friendship of companionate love should not be exclusive, however. In 2007, researchers at the University of Michigan found that married people aged 22 to 79 who said they had at least two close friends—meaning at least one besides their spouse—had higher levels of life satisfaction and self-esteem and lower levels of depression than spouses who did not have close friends outside their marriage. In other words, long-term companionate love might be necessary, but isn’t sufficient for happiness.
It will be no surprise to you that while I love reading Shakespeare, Pablo Neruda, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning on passionate love, my Spanish romance is best expressed by Miguel de Cervantes. In Don Quixote, Cervantes gives the hero this song about his beloved Dulcinea:
The divine Tobosan, fair
Dulcinea, claims me whole;
Nothing can her image tear;
’Tis one substance with my soul.
This conveys the intensity of passionate love perfectly. But when it comes to happiness, it is important to heed the un-poetic Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote, “It is not the absence of love but the absence of friendship that makes marriages unhappy.” True, Nietzsche never married, and was reportedly rebuffed in proposals three times by the same woman. (Nihilism isn’t much of an aphrodisiac, it seems.) He is correct nonetheless.
Read: How negativity can kill a relationship
All the data and studies aside, the best evidence I have about happiness and companionate love is my own life. Three decades and counting after tilting at the windmill of an unlikely romance, my Dulcinea accompanies me through good times and bad. We share our joys, and tremble together in fear—fear that, for example, one of our three adult children might do something ridiculous, like run off to Europe chasing passionate love. We hope to enjoy plenty more decades of life in love and friendship together. And then hers, I pray, will be the face I see as I draw my last breath—her image one substance with my soul.