Some thoughts on Katie Rosman’s “Why Friends Help Strengthen a Marriage”

July 3rd, 2011 § 4 comments

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.

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§ 4 Responses to Some thoughts on Katie Rosman’s “Why Friends Help Strengthen a Marriage”"

  • Lindsey says:

    Fascinating. i’m off to read this article right now. It’s a conversation I’ve had many times: we have a handful of “family” friends – not just couples but the kids are friends – where I feel my marriage strengthened by the time together. Other people who don’t have as many friendships like this have noted that they must really edify a marriage. And they do. I think your scenario is thought-provoking though, and I will think more about it.

  • Shari says:

    I really enjoyed her article as well! Coming from two families that don’t have great, strong family ties, Mike and I have certainly chosen our friendships as the relationships of choice. This was apparent in our wedding guest list in 2001. We had a destination wedding with limited space for the wedding reception. We had to cap our guest list at around 65 people….when the in-laws handed us a list of 50 relatives that we ‘had’ to invite and we knew none of them personally, we put our foot down and decided it was more important for us to have our close friends in attendance.

    Over the years, as those friends have married, had children, and focused on their extended families, it has been difficult for me (us). We do not have a close extended family, and the friends we cherished now spend most of their time with family. Many have moved away and when they return for visits they are obligated to see family.

    We have made new friends, often dictated by who are children are playing with. I have felt the pains of meeting new couples, only to have 2-3 of them truly ‘click’ and not all four really enjoying each other. One of my new (as in the last 8 years) best girlfriends who I do a great deal with……I cannot stand getting together with her husband, sadly. It is hard to meet new people that you really enjoy, with same interests, and who have time to get together. I find myself cherishing some of my long term, high school relationships the most!

    Additionally, I have experienced first hand, what happens in a divorce. Essentially, the four way friendship divorces too. My ex and I had a dear couple that we often got together with, even vacationed with. For years, I did not see them at all. In time, I reconnected with the woman, but we have yet to get the husbands together and share the kind of fun times I knew in the past, and probably never will.

    You bring so many interesting points to the table on this one, Lisa….with comparing. In my last relationship (with the ex), I do recall being with other couples and thinking some of those same thoughts. Perhaps that should have been an indicator to me that things were not quite ‘right’ with us.

    Nicely written, love how you showed the other side!

  • Greg says:

    Well written blog, Lisa, from a personal and psychiological perspective. The couples sharing time together is quite a gift in a world that sometimes offers 1-1 relationships causing issues in a marriage. I think the key is finding the right person to marry, the right people with whom to associate singularly and the right couples with whom to associate. Thanks for posting.

  • Erika Robuck says:

    I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit, and I can see both sides. It’s all about the compatibility of the couples, and the strength of both members. Good people, make good friends, which affirm both relationships. Divorce can be devastating to groups of friends. We love our friends dearly, and I believe they are an important part of the support of our marriage.

    Great post, Lisa!

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