The couple were devout Christians and virgins when they first met. Forty years later, the pain of their marriage showed on their faces. As they spoke to me of their troubles, they each hung their head in loneliness and grief.

There had been no adultery. There had been no divorce. But there had also been no friendship. Although they did a lot of work together, they hadn’t had much fun. With their children grown and home empty, the glue that once held them together was gone, and they were reduced to life as nearly sexless roommates.

What about you? How is your love life?

Maybe you’re newly married and still filled with wedded bliss, or a married couple so exhausted from the constant demands of work and parenting that your marriage is slipping. You may be reeling from a devastating sin in your marriage. Or the two of you are still in love and doing pretty well, but you want to avoid ending up like other couples you know who are not getting along and possibly even getting divorced.

All the talk about spending time and doing life together, making memories, being a good listener, growing old and talking are of each other, being honest, having the long view of things, repenting and forgiving can be summed up in one word — friendship. Friendship is an integral part of a truly Christian marriage.

Three kinds of marriage

In our teaching and counseling, we have seen people respond well to a simple explanation of three kinds of marriages: back-to-back, shoulder-to-shoulder, and face-to-face. A back-to-back marriage is one in which the couple has turned their backs on each other. As a result, they live separately and do not work together (shoulder-to-shoulder) or draw each other out in friendship (face-to-face). In such marriages the partners range from strangers to enemies, but are not friends.

A shoulder-to-shoulder marriage is one in which the couple works together on tasks and projects, such as keeping the home, raising the kids, growing the business, and serving the church.

A face-to-face marriage is one in which, in addition to the shoulder-to-shoulder work, the couple gets a lot of face-to-face time for conversation, friendship, and intimacy.

As a general rule, women have more friendships than men. And their friendships tend to be more face-to-face. This is because men commonly have shoulder-to-shoulder friendships around shared activity. If they take the time to reflect on whom they have considered friends in different seasons of their life, most men recall boys they played with on a sports team and guys they worked with on a job. But they often know very little about these guys they called friends, because their tasks consumed their time and conversation, as they talked about the task in front of them rather than the emotion between them.

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Conversely, women’s friendships tend to be face-to-face and built around intimate conversation. This explains why women do the sorts of things with other women that men do not do with other men, such as going out to lunch or coffee just to talk, sharing deep intimate feelings while looking each other in the face without a task bringing them together.

A word to husbands and wives
Wives, to be a good friend, learn to spend some time with your husband in shared activity. If he’s watching a sporting event, sit down and share it with him. If he’s working on a project, hang out nearby to help or at least ask questions and be a companion if nothing else. If he’s going fishing, ask if you can come sit in the boat with him just to be in his world. For a wife to build a friendship with her husband requires shoulder-to-shoulder time alongside him.

Husbands, to be a good friend to your wife, learn to have deeper and more intimate conversations. Open up, telling your wife how you’re doing and ask­ing her how she is doing. Listen without being distracted by technology or a task (put your cell phone away), but instead focus on her, looking her in the eye for extended periods of time. Draw her out emotionally, and allow her to draw you out emotionally. Keep your advice to a minimum and learn to listen, empathize, comfort, encourage, and in so doing resist the constant male urge to find a problem and try and fix it. No wife likes feeling like a problem to be fixed rather than a person who wants to be intimate. For her, intimacy means “into-me-see,” which means she wants to know her husband and be known by him. For a husband to build a friendship with his wife requires him growing in face-to-face skills.

Intimacy is ultimately about conversing. As an old proverb says, “The road, to the heart is the ear.”

What friendship looks like to us
For me (Grace), friendship with Mark is his willingness to work through tough trials together and not give up or treat me like a project. It means patient correction; providing for and protecting the kids and me; praying with me; having patient intimacy and sex; holding me if I’m crying; having “understanding” or teaching conversations; spending time together (like having date nights, snuggling after the kids are in bed, and listening well); holding hands and taking walks; being generous with compliments or encouragement; and building memories together.

For me (Mark), like many men, I know a lot of guys and get along well with a wide variety of people. I have a lot of fans as well as foes, but until recent years few godly, safe, real male friends. There were not many people I would open up to, trust, and could not conceive of a life without. Some years ago, I sat Grace down and told her that I really needed her to be my intimate friend and “functional pastor.” I think this surprised her on two levels. One, like most men I project a sense of complete self-sufficiency, needing nothing, which is untrue because I hate feeling lonely and really need the intimate connection, conversation, and comfort of Grace. Two, while we do not believe a woman can be a pastor according to the Bible, I asked Grace to be my functional pastor.

As a pastor myself, I’ve never had a pastor since I left college. So I invited Grace to be the one who checked in on my heart, prayed for me, gave me wise counsel, and knew the most intimate parts of my past and present as well as my longings and fears about the future. And, although Grace does not wish to hold any formal office in our church, she does hold the unofficial office in my life as my intimate friend who pastors my heart, something that has changed my life and our marriage.

Adapted from Real Marriage

Copyright © 2012 by Mark & Grace Driscoll. All rights reserved. Published by Thomas Nelson, used with permission.