Two Plus Two: Couples and their Couple Friendships

In the previous blog, I shared some words from Two Plus Two: Couples and their couple friendships that I co-wrote with Kathleen Holtz Deal and which was published this week. The book is the first study of how couples make and maintain friendships with other couples.  Kathy has been married for 43 years (to David) and I have been married for 36 years (to Maureen). We found that the research we gathered from other couples has helped us to better understand our own marriages and appreciate our couple friends more.

Part of that understanding arose from our thinking about how we interact with other couples and comes directly from research interviews with 123 couples and 122 individuals. We looked at what couples do with each other when they get together, how they interact. We believe that couples tend to be on a continuum from "emotion sharing" at one end to "fun sharing" on the other end. Many couples we interviewed, when they were asked how they defined couple friendships, said these were friendships with another couple with whom they could spend time and with whom they could have fun. The emphasis was on "doing something" with the other couple. A smaller number of couples we interviewed defined couple friendships as being relationships where they had close, sharing relationships and where there was a mutuality of friendship among all four partners. We consider the first group to be closer to the fun sharing end of the continuum and the second group to be closer to the emotion sharing end of the continuum.

We recognize here, as psychologists Jean-Philippe Laurenceau. Lisa Barrett, and Paula Pietromonaco point out, that considerable variation exists in how people develop and sustain intimacy and even in their need for warmth and validation from others. In studies conducted by these researchers, self-disclosure and partner's self-disclosure were related to greater feelings of intimacy between the partners. Some couples were better at and more interested in self-disclosure than others. Emotion sharing couples may also be fun sharing. What we wish to illustrate here is what couples do when they are together with their couple friends. This is pursued in greater depth with case illustrations in the book.

So to recap: Why are couples' friendships important? Friendships are important to the individual's well-being and couples' friendships, by extension, are important to the individual's, the couple's, and the family's well-being. The marriage/partnership may be the greatest beneficiary of a couple's friendship. According to one group of family therapists, "Friends can potentially be a great hindrance or help to a couple's marital adjustment...friends can prevent escalation of conflict, can help reduce enmeshment, and may be used as a therapy resource." Couples' support systems will help them to weather crises. Socializing with other couples is a key part of the development of the couple as a unit that is different from socializing with individuals. Just as a friend can provide a mirror on the self, another couple can provide a reflecting team that supports or impedes couple growth.

As each couple interacts with another couple, their own relationship is reconsidered. This topic gets to a core component of the marriage. Couples engage in "relationship-presentation" either consciously or unconsciously. According to Agnew and colleagues, couples put on a public face "to maintain a sense of intimacy and exclusiveness regarding their relationship or to conceal aspects of their relationship..." Unhappy couples tend to be more isolated from friends and co-workers. On the flip side, we know from a study of 49 couples by Stein and colleagues that couples where each has a network of friends experience a high degree of marital content. Couples do not operate in social vacuums—they are sub-units of families and often have children, relatives, and their own friendships. Happy couples will maintain more functional families and, by extension, healthier children. 

Couples' friendships allow the couple to go to dinner, see a movie, bowl, golf, and travel while also enjoying the company of two others who, when all goes well, enhance the experience. Is it fun shooting a hole in one when a spouse is the only witness? Certainly - but it is even better when it is a shared experience. Ditto to seeing a great movie and having a lively discussion afterward, sharing impressions of the new first grade teacher, commiserating about the minister who is about to retire, laughing at the soprano who missed the high note, and bemoaning the batter who struck out.

Spending time with another couple provides benefits beyond greater enjoyment of shared events and activities. It provides a cross-check on one's own marriage by offering a lens on the inner workings of another intimate relationship. Do they treat each other well? Are they affectionate with each other? Do they compete with each other, interrupt, and deprecate each other? Or do they encourage, take pride in, and compliment each other? Are any of this couple's relationship patterns worth emulating? Or avoiding? Couples' friendships, by giving us a unique perspective into another couples' operational definitions of closeness, allow us to understand our own relationship better and offer a different model of how couples can relate.

In the book we show how Seekers, Keepers, and Nesters (described in Tuesday's blog) live out their friendships and how a couple's interaction style affects what couples do when they get together. Such an understanding will help to connect couples more meaningfully with friends, short-circuit potential problems within the couple as to how to incorporate couple friendships into the couple's life, and help couples build new friendships if that is their desire. While we believe more friends can enrich one's life, we also understand that some people and couples are comfortable with a small circle of friends or just with each other. From conducting the interviews we know that many couples have never considered how they balance often conflicting pulls on their time in relation to family, friends, and each other. We hope that reading about other couples will help all couples understand what their style is and how to work as a team to maximize their own potential as friends and as a couple. I know it has helped us to be better couple friends to those we care about (cites available on request).

As to how couples deal with cross-sex friendships, I will describe that in the next blog.

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