Consequential Strangers

Why All Relationships Matter

Outsiders Can Make a Marriage Stronger

It's time to rethink what kind of "togetherness" actually works.

Sandy (not her real name) was "moved to tears" after hearing me talk about the advantages of connecting with consequential strangers--people other than family or close friends--because they give us information and insights we don't get from our loved ones, and they inspire us to try on new personas and go beyond our comfort zone.  Sandy later explained her reaction in an email:

[My tears were] about my husband. I realized when you were talking about how these consequential strangers enrich our lives that my husband (a stay-at-home dad) hasn’t taken advantage of the consequential strangers he has access to, which has led to depression. I also realized that b/c my experiences are so rich and different from his (I get to meet people like you!) that he’s missing out and I just want him to be able to share experiences and “people” with me b/c it will enrich both of us, as a couple.

Sandy's story brought to mind a point I often make about CS and marriage:  Outsiders can make a marriage stronger!  Understandably, the academic literature on marriage typically stresses the importance of mutual values and interests--the couple that does things together stays together.  Still, that doesn't preclude the fact that casual social ties outside a marriage (excluding sexual liaisons,  of course!) can also infuse a relationship with new life.  Nor does it address the reality that one person cannot be "all" to another.

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Family historian Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History, explains: When women entered the workforce in the sixties, “overturning the cult of togetherness” that peaked in the 1950s, couples began to forge relationships outside the purview of marriage.  As she wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece, Too Close for Comfort:

Researchers soon found that men and women with confidants beyond the nuclear family were mentally and physically healthier than people who relied on just one other individual for emotional intimacy and support.

Rather than hunker down solely with our intimates, Coontz suggests, “we can strengthen our marriages the most by not expecting them to be our sole refuge.”

Similarly, in one of her blog entries on this site, psychologist Bella de Paulo, author of Singled Out questions the dominance of "intensive coupling" as the sole model for a good marriage.

No longer do Americans march in lockstep through a life path that begins in early adulthood with marriage, then continues through parenting and retirement and grandparenting. That path, even including an intensive version of the coupling, is still a possibility, but now it is only one of many options. In the 21st century, we have greater opportunities to create the interpersonal lives that best fit our unique sensibilities.

Sandy's arrangement with her husband is a perfect example.  She's the major breadwinner, and he's Mr. Mom.   Ask any woman who stays at home with little kids--you need other people to get through the day!

More to the point, marriage (or cohabitation) and intimacy work best when both people are individuated–there’s no merging; each knows where he or she ends and the other begins. Each has his own set of resources.  Family therapist and passionate marriage advocate David Schnarch and is fond of using a "boat" metaphor in his couples workshops:  Rather than than imagining yourself going through life in the same boat, see yourselves in separate boats going down the same river.

In short, rather that expect your romantic partner to be your "everything," as so many romantic songs suggest, take side trips with consequential strangers.  Talk to a variety of people, learn new things.  As a result, you become more interesting and more interested in others, including your partner! Then, when your boats come together, you are each stronger, more integrated, fuller.  Your side trips on the river bring novelty and new ideas into the marriage, and it stimulates the the relationship, which bodes well for your sex life, too.

I'm all in favor of intimacy and long-term relationships, but so many marriages end badly--the divorce rate still hovers around 50%.  So perhaps it's time to rethink what kind of "togetherness" actually works.   For Sandy, a "light bulb went off" when she heard about consequential strangers.  See allowed me to reprint her email to "help others" who might be struggling with similar issues.  Most important, she was able to talk to her husband about it.

It was a healthy realization for me and is something I have talked about with him since. We’re on our way…

Journalist Melinda Blau, author of Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don't Seem to Matter, researches and writes about relationships and trends.

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