Girlfriends? Bromance? When Harry met Sally? What do all these variations on friendships mean? One of the hardest tasks for couples is to figure out when the couple has time for just the couple alone. Folded into that decision is when to have time for one's gal friends, guy friends, family, and alone time. In our book on how couples manage friendships, Two Plus Two: Couples and their Couple Friendships, Kathy and I found that when couples figure out this Gordian knot of relationships, much can be gained. The partnership is strengthened.
Yes, you can be friends with a member of the other sex in the context of a couple. As long as no flirting is going on, it is clear from most of the more than 120 couples we interviewed that couples are a safe harbor for such friendships. Couples allow this to happen whereas you may not be able to socialize alone with a member of the other sex. The couple context makes this more possible. Having fun with another couple is an opportunityto see your partner at his or her best. If everyone is comfortable and trusting, you build a history with another couple through healthy interactions with them and with your partner. The synergy is evident as each relationship builds on the other. Shared positive experience is good—but it may have to be carefully structured.
To structure your time well with your partner and another couple, two things need to be kept in mind.
First, men's and women's styles of interaction are not the same. Men, as I have written before, in Buddy System, have shoulder-to-shoulder friendships (they get together and do things) and women have face-to-face friendships (they interact often by looking at each other and talking). The art is to figure out when you are with another couple whether you will only be engaging in face-to-face activities (like talking over dinner) or whether you are going to do shoulder-to-shoulder activities (like playing sports or seeing a movie). Often both activities occur which values both styles of interaction. Couples plan an activity and then have dinner or grab a drink. This gives both men and women a chance to have a comfortable way of interacting.
Second, a couple's style of interaction may vary—some people seek out other couples (people we call "seekers" in our book) while others, on the other extreme, prefer to stay home with one couple ("nesters"). Think about extroverts and introverts. Often people with two different styles marry (I am a seeker and my wife a nester) and they have to negotiate their style of friendship-making, My wife and I compromise so that we socialize a little less than I want and a little more than she wants. One's nature as well as our work context can fuel this. My wife has a more demanding job and needs more down time than I do. Couples need to talk about how interested they are in meeting other couples.
When you as a couple are planning an activity with another couple, get a sense that both of you are on the same page. Without clear communication, a couple will founder. With communication about expectations a couple's relationship can soar and both can reap the benefits of friendships which include greater happiness and better health.