Are Your Spouse's Friends Interfering in Your Marriage?
A husband’s disapproval of his wife’s friends predicts divorce in white couples.
Posted Oct 16, 2018
Does your wife have a friend whom you feel is just an outlet for her to complain about you? Or perhaps your husband has a drinking buddy whom you feel is a bad influence on him? Although one of the benefits of marriage is thought to be the joining of two social networks, the "merging" of these networks is not always easy. Even though when you marry, you suddenly have access to additional social "resources" (i.e., additional relatives and friends you can call on for advice or support when you need it; Acock & Demo, 1994), you may not always get along with those relatives and friends well enough to benefit from those resources. There is plenty of research highlighting the challenges associated with in-law relationships; for example, one study showed that even in long-term marriages, conflicts with extended family can erode marital stability and satisfaction over time. It is also clear that how our friends or our partner’s friends perceive us can impact our relationship — in fact, if our friends do not approve of our relationship, that relationship is less likely to last (Doxey & Holman, 2002; Sprecher et al., 2002). However, less is known about how our perceptions of our spouse’s friends, or their perceptions of us, can affect our marriage.
In our recent longitudinal study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, my colleagues and I explored this question using data from the Early Years of Marriage Project. This longitudinal study of marriage and divorce has tracked 174 white and 199 black couples from Michigan since 1986, when they were newlyweds. Approximately 36 percent of the white couples and 55 percent of the black couples had separated or divorced within the first 16 years of marriage. What we found is that among white couples, when husbands expressed disapproval of their wives’ friends at the beginning of the study, those couples were more likely to divorce across the 16 years. This was true even after controlling for potentially confounding factors, such as income and marital quality. Interestingly, a wife’s disapproval of her husband’s friends did not predict divorce.
Why would it be more problematic for husbands to disapprove of wives’ friends than vice versa? First, we know that wives can more easily take over for men’s friends (e.g., doing activities together) than husbands can for their wives’ friends (e.g., engaging in emotionally intimate conversations), and that husbands rely on their wives more for support. Thus, husbands might be able to more easily give up friends whom their wives do not like and spend more time with her instead, reducing a source of potential marital disagreement. In contrast, a wife may be less willing or able to give up her friends, even when her husband doesn’t like them. Furthermore, wives are much more likely than husbands to discuss their marital problems with their friends, which, over time, may make any existing marital concerns worse and could actually increase the likelihood of divorce. Whether or not wives are actually making their marriages worse by complaining to their friends may not be relevant, since it’s the husbands’ perceptions of the wives’ interactions with friends that seem to play an intrusive and potentially detrimental role in the marriage.
Alternatively, since we know that friends not liking a partner can lead to marital dissolution, it could be that the feelings between husbands and wives’ friends are mutual — that is, the husband doesn’t like his wife’s friends simply because they don’t like him — and what’s driving the eventual divorce is actually the friends’ opinions, not the husbands'. Unfortunately, we did not have information from the friends themselves, so we weren’t able to tease out that possibility in our study. We also didn’t know the gender of the wives’ friends — the husband’s disapproval could of course be linked to feelings of jealousy, particularly of opposite-sex friends, but we also know from some recent work that husbands may be jealous of their wives’ same-sex friends as well. It may also be that the husband feels that his wife’s friends are intrusive. In fact, husbands' reports of interference from wives’ friends (a more "proximal" variable measured at Year 2 of the marriage) was an even stronger predictor of divorce than the "disapproval" variable measured at Year 1.
Interestingly, a husband’s disapproval of his wife’s friends only predicted divorce among white couples. Why was this relationship not found among the black couples? It may be that interactions with family are more relevant for the stability and happiness of black marriages than for white marriages. Our own work has shown that black couples are more likely to be embedded in networks focused on family than are white couples, who are more likely to be embedded in friend-focused networks. We also know that black Americans construct extended kin networks with close trusted family and friends (known as "fictive kin") as a way to garner support that may be unavailable from more traditional formal sources (Taylor, Chatters, & Celious, 2003). Thus, this focus on the family could protect the marriages of black husbands and wives from the otherwise negative effects of disapproval of each other’s friends. However, the interference variable mentioned earlier (husbands reporting that their wives’ friends "interfere" in the marriage) was a strong predictor of divorce for both blacks and whites — implying that they are not immune from these effects.
This issue may become even more salient given recent historical changes in the way that courtship operates, as outlined in Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg’s book, Modern Romance. That is, when you think about courtship historically, people used to be introduced to potential partners through their friends and families, or they would meet people who lived in the same building or on the same block — in that sense, they often already shared much of their network. With the rise of online dating, people are frequently introducing two entirely distinct groups of friends — making this merging that much more challenging.
So what might be some tips for people caught in this situation? First, be honest with your spouse (and yourself) about your feelings regarding their friends. Talk about the underlying issue. If you don’t like your spouse’s friend, explain what you are feeling. Do you miss your spouse? Do you feel betrayed, because your spouse confides in the friend and not you? Are you jealous of their intimacy? If it’s your spouse who’s jealous, reassure him/her, and reiterate that your partner is always your top priority. Second, acknowledge the things that these friends and family may do for you. For example, maybe you don’t really like all the time your wife spends with her friends and/or family, but think about what kind of support they may provide — can you reframe it and think about how those individuals are benefiting your wife and/or helping you as a couple? Finally, remember that working on your marriage does not mean just focusing on your relationship with each other; it’s also about considering your relationships with your friends and family (those you have in common and your own). Acknowledging the potentially powerful role that friends and the wider social network can play in the marriage may be an important (albeit often overlooked) process in maintaining a healthy partnership.
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