In a recent New York Times column, Bruce Feiler weighed the pros and cons of having one’s spouse as one’s best friend. Although happily married individuals often claim this to be the case, Feiler ultimately concludes that there’s a fairly large downside to having the same person as your lover and your best friend: “After all, if your spouse is your best friend, then who do you complain to your spouse about?”
Unfortunately for many people in long-term relationships, friendship networks shrink over time, leaving them with fewer people outside the relationship to serve as friends, much less best friends. In what’s called “dyadic withdrawal,” couples become increasingly likely to abandon their individual friends and instead establish their friendships within those shared by their partner, in addition to the partner himself or herself. Common sense also dictates that couples only have a certain amount of time for socializing, and therefore the boundaries between themselves and their separate friendships essentially collapse.
Even if people have good friends outside the relationship, there's no guarantee that the friends they turn to will, in fact, be able to help them. In a 2016 study, the University of Minnesota’s Kirsten Lind Seal and colleagues wished to investigate what makes a friend a good confidant for people who aren't getting along with their partners. Their hope was to provide an empirical basis for an intervention designed to help people become better confidants for friends or close relations experiencing relationship pain. As background for what they call the “Marital First Responder” training program, the Minnesota team questioned help-providing and help-seeking among people in close relationships. Using a national database from a study of 1,000 adults ranging in age from 25 to 70, Seal et al. asked participants about their confider and confidant experiences.
Two theoretical frameworks guided the study: Social network and social organization. From the social network perspective, people’s feelings and behaviors “flow” through informal networks, of which the confiding relationship is one. Social organizational theory proposes that when people confide in each other, they create “social capital,” or feelings of trust, reciprocity, and cooperation. This social capital accrues and can expand the capacity of the community to support close long-term relationships. The authors sought data to support the Marital First Responders intervention as a method that communities could adopt to concretely provide support to relationships in trouble.
The data were collected via a national panel consisting of 1.2 million U.S. residents who agree to participate in Internet surveys if recruited for specific studies. For this particular investigation, participants were sampled to achieve a representative panel based on gender, age, race, education, party identification, belief system, and interest in politics. All participants were recruited within a three-week period in summer 2013.
To determine an individual’s confidant status, participants were asked to indicate whether they had ever served as a confidant for anyone in a troubled marriage or long-term relationship. They were also asked if they themselves had confided in anyone. Confidants were asked to indicate the nature of the problem their confider presented to them, and confiders were asked which responses from their confidants were most helpful.
If you’ve ever served in the role of confidant, it might be worthwhile for you to think of times that you’ve provided help or support and, if you've been a confider, what responses were most helpful to you. If it was relatively easy for you to think of a time you’d been a confidant, you won’t be surprised to learn that nearly three-quarters of the sample indicated that they had served in this role, and most (66 percent) within the previous year. A smaller but still substantial proportion (63 percent) were themselves confiders. Friends were most likely to be confidants, and most of the women confided in other women, while men confided in other men to a much smaller extent (33 percent), with the remainder more likely to confide in a woman (33 percent) or equally likely to confide in a male or female (33 percent). When family members confided in each other, it was typically within “horizontal” relationships between siblings, rather than the "vertical" relationships between members of older and younger generations.
Now think about the types of problems you’ve either sought help with or provided help with to a confider. The Seal et al. participants were most likely to talk to their confidant about feeling they were growing apart from their partner; their inability to talk to their partner; and lack of attention from their partner. To a lesser extent, confidants sought help with the way their partners handled money, engaged in undesirable personal habits, or, more seriously, whether their partners were considering divorce. Infidelity was a problem for half the sample, and 43 percent sought help with a partner’s infidelity. And a substantial proportion (about a third) reported that they sought help for physical violence or substance abuse by their partners. Thus, the majority of problems were “soft” problems, in the framework of the authors—money, habits, and the like—compared to the “hard” problems of divorce, abuse, and addictions.
Confiders, for their part, chose from a checklist of help-giving approaches recommended by Seal herself and by collaborators who worked in marriage and family therapy.
Given how personal the problems are that confiders bring to their friends are, it’s clear that everyone could use help navigating these complex areas when providing support. These were the three most effective ways to respond, from the standpoint of the confiders:
1. Simply listen. Being a sounding board for your confider is more helpful than you realize. Just pay attention.
2. Give emotional support. Beyond listening, show that you’re there for your friend, without passing judgment. This was particularly important for women confiding in their friends.
3. Give helpful perspective. You might suggest what the partner might be thinking, or you can assist your confider in understanding where he or she is coming from. Providing perspective was more important for men than women in the sample.
1. Give too much advice. You can go over the line in providing advice, or you can provide advice that isn’t all that helpful because it's impractical or doesn't fit with the confider's personality or available options.
2. Talk too much about yourself. It is helpful to share your own relevant experiences, but don’t turn the confiding session into one that’s just about you.
3. Be critical of the spouse/partner. If you’re close friends with someone, it’s likely that you’ve seen some of the problems which your confider is raising. However, be careful about jumping onto the bandwagon and heaping criticism on their partner. You might also want to avoid suggesting that your friend seek an end to their relationship; this also bothered confiders in the Seal et al. study.
The findings show that informal helpers serving as confidants can increase informal networks in the community that can support marriage and long-term committed relationships. Nevertheless, when asked to judge their confidence in their ability to serve in this role, just over half felt that they were qualified to do so. As the authors conclude, “The confidant role is widespread, but there is some room for improvement."
Returning to Feiler’s observation about the importance of having a best friend outside of one's relationship, the Seal et al. study confirms that as intimate as you might feel toward your partner, your relationship will benefit by having such an external source of support.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Seal, K. L., Doherty, W. J., & Harris, S. M. (2016). Confiding about problems in marriage and long‐term committed relationships: A national study. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 42(3), 438-450. doi:10.1111/jmft.12134