Two Plus Two: Couples and their Friendships with other Couples
One of the biggest challenges for couples is to determine how to spend their time - do they spend it alone with just each other, alone without their partner, each partner with individual friends, with family, or with other couples? In our new book, Two Plus Two: Couples and their couple friendships (Routledge, 2012), Kathleen Holtz Deal and I explore the intricacies of how couples make and maintain their friendships with other couples. We offer a language that couples can use to begin to talk about these complicated relationships so that their time can be optimized with friends, family, and each other.
It is well-established that people with friends live longer, healthier, and happier lives. Friends keep us on our toes, socially engaged, and mentally active. They teach us how to play bridge, shoot a basket, and cook a new dish. They point us in the direction of the next Oscar-winning movie, Pulitzer-winning book, and the best wine for the value. We place sports bets with friends, watch how they raise their children, and travel with them to near and far-off places.
Spouses and partners (22% of the nearly 400 people we interviewed were in partnered relationships) often consider each other friends and sometimes each other's best friend. Equality between partners can be an important ingredient in building a solid relationship. Marriage Enrichment groups often teach the importance of friendship, according to Lauri Przybyzs, Coordinator of Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Many of the Marriage Enrichment websites support this as they encourage partners to be friends with each other so a spouse will not seek friendship outside of a marriage. Research suggests that if one does not have a best friend, the spousal relationship becomes even more important to one's well-being.[i] Friendship between partners is also recognized as a key ingredient in marital happiness, according to psychologist John Gottman.
Further, couples who share friends (which include individuals or family members) tend to be happier. These couples get to be together with friends and family and engage in enjoyable and meaningful activities. They are more fully integrated into their social network if friendships are shared and this may re-enforce their own relationship.
So here we have the benefits of individual friendships, the benefits of being happily married (or partnered) to a person who is also a friend, and the benefits of sharing friends. We explore how couple friendships work between couple friends and how we believe a better understanding of these friendships leads to a happier marriage or partner relationship. We believe couples not only derive great enjoyment from their friendships with other couples - they also appreciate each other more. Their marriage/relationship is strengthened by healthy couple friendships.
Friendship with another couple is "value added." As we discuss with the help of the voices of many couples we interviewed, well-functioning couple friendships make a marriage more fulfilling and exciting because:
1. each partner is comfortable with the couple friendship and the nourishment and fun that arises from that friendship make partners more attractive to each other;
2. the couple's marriage/relationship is more apt to be re-enforced by being with another couple (as opposed to being with a single friend); and
3. each partner interacts with the opposite sex friend which can lead to greater understanding of his/her own partner and men and women in general.
In addition, and related to marital/partner happiness, couple friendships can strengthen individual friendships that the couple has with one or both members of the other couple. Many of the couples we interviewed described friendships that began on a one-to-one basis; the men knew each other from college or the women met at work and then introduced their spouses to each other. The opportunity to still go out alone with the close friend as well as with the other partners of the friends re-enforces the earlier friendship.
Seekers, Keepers, and Nesters
One of the ways to think about friendships with other couples is to consider how couples approach other friendships with other couples. We believe from our research that they fall into three categories. Seekers tend to be extroverts and are always looking for other couples with whom to socialize; Keepers have a large number of friends and very full lives. They have families and little time for meeting new people. They would be happy if a new couple came into their life but they are not looking for them; Nesters tend to stay to themselves and have a small number of couple friends. They are content with being home and in their nest and tend to be introverts.
We hope that these categories and our research on couple friendships will give couples a language for talking about what they are looking for in their friendships. My next blog will explain two other important dimensions of couple friendships - fun-sharing versus emotion sharing relationships and cross-sex relationships.
[i] Birditt & Antonucci (2007).
[ii] Slatcher (2010).