Katherine Rosman’s piece “Why Friends Help Strengthen a Marriage” in this week’s Wall Street Journal is an insightful look at some ways in which friendships serve as additional support to the ever-challenging marital relationship. Noting that modern times have uprooted many from the anchor of their families, Rosman identifies that friends have become our “family of choice.”
Making friends with other couples is important, not only for practical and social reasons but also because they strengthen our own marriages. Rosman explains, “[A group of friends and I] all agreed that friends help you gather perspective on your relationship to your spouse: When you’re inside a marriage, it’s easy to focus on the points of friction and the minutiae of daily life.” Therefore, friends serve as a buffer, a release valve to ease tension.
As I was reading, however, I began to think of ways in which the opposite could be true. (I should note that I agree with everything Rosman says. Many/most of our own Saturday nights are busy with dinner plans with friends, people my husband and I both enjoy being with. I think it’s not easy to find couples where all four individuals truly enjoy each other’s company. Clarke and I treasure these friendships and really enjoy spending time with the people we care about. I do think it helps our marriage to be with other couples and to see how others interact. The “perspective” concept is vital.)
Here is a dynamic where I think the opposite could be true; that is, friendships with other couples could undermine the marriage:
You go out with couple A and see how they interact. Perhaps one spouse speaks really nicely to the other, compliments him/her in front of others. Or at dinner one spouse doesn’t talk too much and gives the other time to talk. One prompts the other with things like “Tell that story… I love when you tell it. It’s so funny.” Couple A spends time together, helps each other, and/or travels together. While they aren’t perfect as a couple, (who is) they are generally respectful and happy.
Now, Couple B sees this relationship. One person thinks, “Wait a second. Our marriage isn’t like that. Is that what it could be like? Why doesn’t my husband/wife talk about me that way or help me out. Maybe I could do better? Or I would rather be alone than be treated like this if I see some other people have these types of warm and supportive relationships?”
Suddenly, there is a comparison, a reference point. It is precisely this comparison component of friendship which can often be destructive. You might do the comparison on your own, or in a one-on-one chat with a friend (“How does it work in your marriage?”)
Besides comparison, another potential wedge can be introduced into a marriage with critique. Most often, we just need friends to listen. However, sometimes we ask for or they feel compelled to offer opinions, advice, and criticism. In our loyalty and love for our friends we may advise them “you know, your partner doesn’t treat you as well as s/he should.” What we take as normal, tolerable, average, a friend may plant the seed of doubt. In an effort to be supportive they may be “bashing” the spouse. “You could do better,” may be proffered.
I think Rosman’s scenario works but until a tipping point. When all of the couples are happy, (or at least have a similar sense of dissatisfaction) and the disagreements in the marriage don’t escalate, the friendships serve as buffers, releases for some of the frustrations that inevitably accompany two people in a long-term relationship. However, the critique and comparison can ultimately cause trouble. The tolerance for frustration may change as the number of years of marriage increase.
Finally, what happens if one of the couples eventually splits? Not only does that breakdown affect the dynamic of the foursome, (couples will be forced to “pick sides”) but it also serves as an example of how marriage can go awry. “If it can happen to them it can happen to us” may be a question difficult to dislodge. If comparison results in the opinion that their marriage was as happy as your own, the implications for your own long term success may eventually be called into question as the years go by and more and more couples split.
Comparison, critique, and divorce are three ways in which friendships may undermine our own marriages.
I really enjoyed reading Rosman’s piece; once again she has brought a fascinating topic to the page, one that many of us deal with in our daily lives.