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January 16, 2013

Are Girlfriends the New Husbands?

She's had your back through breakups, pink slips, even that ridiculous paleo diet you tried last fall. Is it any wonder that for a generation of women staying single longer, BFFs are now pinch-hitting as spouses? Whitney Joiner reports on the perks — and pitfalls — of the new buddy-as-hubby system.

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When Cynthia Hill decided to have a baby via in vitro fertilization three years ago, the then 41-year-old principal of a Los Angeles-based boutique marketing firm knew exactly who to invite over for a bottle of wine and an evening spent flipping through binders of sperm-donor profiles. She knew who would administer progesterone shots in her backside and who would tag along to childbirth prep classes at the hospital. It was the same person who would be in the delivery room with her, squeezing her hand tightly as she gave birth to her son, Ronan. For all intents and purposes, Hill was having a baby with Cathy Finley, her best friend of more than a decade. To be clear, they weren't having a baby together, but Finley's presence in Hill's life was so important, so intimate, that at times it certainly seemed that way. "At our birthing class, people were like, 'Oh, the lesbian couple!'" says Hill. "I'd say, 'No, I'm having a baby solo. This is my best friend.'"

And yet, best friend doesn't seem to adequately describe what Hill and Finley mean to each other. Across the nation, tens of thousands of single women are in committed quasi-unions with their closest confidantes, behaving like married couples in virtually every respect (save for the sex, of course). They hit up family functions together, stand in as emergency contacts on doctors' forms, even cosign mortgages together. In other words, if your mother's been nudging you to settle down and find a husband already, tell her to relax, you've kind of, sort of, got one. "Between our 20-something lives and our delayed marriages, girlfriends are being asked to step in," says writer and social commentator Lucinda Rosenfeld, author of I'm So Happy for You: A Novel About Best Friends. "As we move away from early marriage, when a woman's life isn't all wrapped up by age 30, friends play a role somewhere between spouse and therapist."

And while the best friend has always held a vaunted place in a woman's life — to every Lucy, an Ethel — today's BFFs are filling a seismic demographic void created by an unprecedented number of single women in this country. Over the past two decades, as more women have pursued degrees and careers, the average age of a first-time bride has crept up three years, to about 27. That may not sound like a lot, but among young women, this bump has ushered in a wholesale change in attitude toward marriage, which, at its root, has historically represented a social and economic contract between two helpmates. But if women are earning more while also running their households — a 2010 study found that young, urban single women outearn their male counterparts by 8 percent — and finding emotional support from their friends, what exactly does the husband bring to the table other than a warm body to sleep with? A record 46 percent of adults 25 to 34 are unmarried, according to the Pew Research Center, a figure likely to climb even higher given how dim a view Millennials have of the institution: 44 percent think marriage is obsolete altogether.

In place of marriage, there's a new, ultramodern partnership that melds the camaraderie and loyalty of a friendship with the intimacy, support, and pragmatism of a husband. Here's a glimpse of it in action: On January 13, former Saturday Night Live costars and longtime buddies Tina Fey and Amy Poehler will host the Golden Globes. Both are comic powerhouses and could easily have taken on the gig as a solo performance. (Last year's host, Ricky Gervais, is hardly as well-known a name in American households as Fey.) But the pairing is a spot-on example of the new BFF-as-husband zeitgeist. There's something deeply reassuring about seeing them together, especially since Poehler's recent split with Will Arnett, her husband of nine years. The Parks and Recreation star once told a reporter that the first time she met Fey, she thought to herself, "I finally found the woman I want to marry." A joke, of course, but also a poignant nod to the deep satisfaction of meeting someone who gets you so totally, so completely, that were she a guy, you'd probably marry her.


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