IF YOU WATCHED the Academy Awards last month, you might have noticed a different kind of pairing on the red carpet. Where nominees typically bring romantic partners or family members, Manchester by the Sea star Michelle Williams was accompanied by her best friend, Busy Philipps. The former Dawson’s Creek costars have been attending ceremonies together all awards season. When Williams says Philipps is “the love of my life,” it’s a testament to the strength of their friendship, which supported Williams, and her daughter, especially after the death of her partner Heath Ledger.
Philipps, who has two children with her screenwriter husband, has said she and her female friends talk about forming a commune and raising their kids together, without men. And they may be onto something. Today, fewer American women in their early 30s are married than at any other point since at least the 1950s. The US marriage rate overall hit a record low in 2015, seeming to confirm an earlier study that found 55 percent of singles are not looking to get married. With women increasingly marrying later or not at all, the supporting companionship once provided by husbands is now often being provided by friends.
Today, marriage isn’t the priority it once was. Women are no longer stigmatized or restricted if they are single. They can work, borrow money, buy houses, start businesses, travel the world, and even have children without ever formally attaching themselves to a man.
“Traditionally, marriages were considered the sustaining bonds of people’s lives,” says Rebecca Traister, author of the best-selling All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. “But today friends can be the people you go home to at night, the people with whom you hash out family stress, decisions about jobs and raises, the people you go on vacation with. Friendship is as crucial and sustaining as a marriage. And often more sustaining than a bad marriage.”
Female friends have been crucial for Belmont’s Gail Erdos. When Erdos got divorced at age 41, she drew support from a web of friends she’d developed, mostly when her children were small and her musician husband was traveling. Two years after her divorce, Erdos was diagnosed with breast cancer, and that circle of friends became central for her. After she got her lumpectomy and before she started chemotherapy, five of her closest friends, some of whom she’d known for 20 years, met at her house. One after another, they tied a different color string around her right wrist and made an individual wish for Erdos. “I was about to embark on this horrible, horrible thing,” she remembers. “And here were these fantastic women, coming together in my honor, pledging their love. It was very emotional.” Her friends took turns escorting Erdos to her four-hour chemo treatments every other week. “It was actually a really nice way to hang out with someone,” says Erdos, now 55. “We’d just sit together and talk.”
For women who are married, the importance of having strong friendships increases as they age. Seventy-five percent of married women nationwide will become widows, at an average age of 57. With more grown children now living farther away than they did in past generations, women often rely on female friends for their sustaining emotional connections.
Decades ago, Maggie Meehan met her best friend through her boyfriend, Peter. He was lunching at the bar at Charlie’s Kitchen in Cambridge and decided the waitress would be a good pal for his girlfriend. Meehan, who’d come to the United States from England to be an au pair, says Peter wanted to set her up with a friend because “he wanted to go out drinking with his own friends.” The three went to an orchid show and the young women hit it off.
They became so close that when Meehan married the boyfriend, the waitress, Marge McNulty, was the maid of honor. When Meehan had her first child, McNulty, a divorced mother of two, was there to offer advice. When McNulty went through her second divorce, Meehan consoled her. “We’ve held each other up for years,” Meehan says.
By the time Peter developed terminal cancer, their kids had moved out of state. McNulty accompanied Meehan to each of Peter’s many operations, made sure she ate, and provided a shoulder to cry on. At one visit near the end of his life, Peter looked at the women and said, “You girls should live together, save some money.” For a few years, the friends continued living on their own — Meehan in a Framingham ranch and McNulty in a ranch in Belmont. Then, in the epic winter of 2015, Meehan went out to feed the birds and lost her balance in the deep snow. “It occurred to me that I could die out here and no one would know!” Peter’s advice made sense: If she and McNulty moved in together, they could save a lot on a mortgage.
The strong real estate market allowed them to quickly sell their houses. After looking at a series of condos with “Stepford Wives lawns and fees to match,” as Meehan puts it, the two decided to build a house in Hudson. They designed it with master suites on separate floors, a garden they could plant together, and a two-car garage to make winters easier. They moved in last summer.
Their complementary sensibilities have made living together easy. McNulty, who is 73, is a self-employed bookkeeper, and Meehan, 66, works for the town of Wayland. They share a sense of humor and a taste for tidiness and have fun cooking together. Dating for both is a low priority. “I’d like to go out to dinner or dancing,” says Meehan. “Other than that, I’m just not that interested.”
IT’S ONE THING FOR OLDER divorced or widowed women to band together. But younger women are doing it, too. Jenny Laden always wanted to be a mom, but came from a broken home and didn’t want to have a child with a partner unless she knew it would work. At 32, she decided if she didn’t meet someone by the time she was 36, she’d try to get pregnant with an anonymous donor. She started attending the local chapter of Single Mothers by Choice. The facilitator at one workshop said the most important factor in raising a child alone is the ability to build a social network. Well, I know how to do that, Laden thought.
At 36, she made an appointment with a fertility doctor. Three months later, she was pregnant. Throughout the process, Laden leaned on friends. Her best friend from college, Amy Sananman, was the same age and already a mother and had always supported Laden in going it alone. She was there at the appointment when Laden learned she was having a girl and after Laden’s C-section was the first person to hold the baby. Friends came with her to fertility doctor visits and threw her a baby shower.
During her second trimester, Laden called on another friend, Danielle Silber, who was 24 and looking to leave St. Louis. Laden offered her the spare room in her Brooklyn apartment in exchange for help with the baby. “She felt like a sister to me. I couldn’t think of anyone else I could stand to have living in the house,” Laden says. For six weeks, Silber helped with night feedings, cooking, cleaning, and “providing unconditional love.” In her moms’ groups, Laden had noticed that many women experienced a cycle of expectation, disappointment, and anger with their husbands. “I never had that with Danielle.”
Today Laden, 46 and back in her native Philadelphia, calls these friends her daughter’s “aunties.” They telephone, visit, and even vacation together. “I need my daughter to feel that she’s loved, that all these people are rooting for her. The social network — you need it as a parent. But you also need to provide it for your child.” She’s open to a romantic partner, but she’s busy. “I’m at capacity taking care of my child. Find me the dude that doesn’t want to be taken care of and I’ll go out with him.”
In the 19th century, the term “Boston marriage” emerged (possibly inspired by a relationship depicted in Henry James’s The Bostonians) to describe independent single women who live together, whether romantically or platonically. Today’s committed platonic relationships between women don’t yet have a social label. “What’s so funny about this moment,” says Kate Bolick, author of the best-selling Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, “is that while these relationships have become so much more prevalent, we still don’t have the language for them. We keep reaching back to the playground with terms like ‘BFF’ and ‘Besties.’ It’s not serious.”
Bolick points to Bella DePaulo, a researcher and author on singleness, who advocates giving friendship unions the same tax breaks and shared health benefits as those in domestic partnerships and marriages. With so many millions of American women remaining unmarried, maybe the time to do it is now.Alysia Abbott is a writer in Cambridge. Follow her @alysiaabbott, and send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.