Why Lovers Still Need Their Friends

What you need to know about the theory of dyadic withdrawal.

Posted Feb 15, 2016

El Nariz/Shutterstock
Source: El Nariz/Shutterstock

Your good friend meets “the one.” Their eyes light up when they talk about their new love. They have a spring in their step. And you’re over-the-moon happy for your friend. At last, they've found their “soul mate,” and it’s the best thing ever. Except: They stop calling you back like they used to. Plans with their mate seem to be the only priority. Instead, they say that they’ll see when they can “fit you in." They don’t have the energy to meet you for coffee or drinks after work. They have to check with their partner before they can do anything at all. Sometimes, these changes creep in like the tide slipping out to sea—slow and sneaky. At other times they are quite abrupt—your friend practically falls off a cliff the moment they meet their partner. And at still other times, this drift occurs after a move, the birth of a child, or while coping with hard times.

The Dyadic Withdrawal Hypothesis

Dyadic withdrawal can be defined as, “When two people fall in love and disappear from everyone else.” The theory states that as couples become more romantically involved, without a conscious effort, their friendship networks shrink and they become less involved with those friends who remain in their network. Research has found that, in some circumstances, dyadic withdrawal can have devastating effects on friendships. Friendship networks are especially likely to shrink when people start dating or get married. They may further dwindle after an individual has children. One study showed that fully 24% of new moms feel lonely, isolated, and "cut off" from friends.

Why is it so important to prioritize friendships? Friendships help you live longer, experience more life satisfaction, and thrive in the midst of tough times. Having more couple-friendships has even shown to improve your marriage.

Even if you absolutely love spending time with your partner, one person simply cannot fulfill all of your emotional needs. Having a friendship network (even a relatively small one) can infuse your life—and your partnership—with novelty, insights, humor, fun, and connection. Friendship also provides your relationship with “space,” which psychologist Terri Orbuch says is even more important to a couple’s happiness than a good sex life. 

Here are a few steps to protect your friendships from the trap of dyadic withdrawal:

  • Make time for them. Meet friends for outings, meetings, dinners, walks, trips, coffee, drinks, or adventures. Spending time together predicts sustained closeness.
  • Call people back. Researchers found that reciprocity is a top predictor of friendships.
  • Double date. Cultivate couple-friendships that enable all four of you to hang out together.
  • Be consistent. Set aside a time each week when both you and your partner can make plans to see your friends.

Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD, is the author of Joy Fixes for Weary Parents (2017). She is an individual and couples counselor in Chicago's western suburbs. Sign up for free updates on building more personal and family joy at The Joy Fix or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

Copyright Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD