7 Rules of Friendship Can Improve Your Romantic Relationship
Research explains how friendship rules can improve romance, intimacy, and sex.
Posted Nov 27, 2020
“My husband was my best friend," a widow in her sixties told me when I was gathering information for a project on women’s friendships. “I think that was the secret to our marriage.” She and her husband were together for 40 years before he died. “Don’t get me wrong. I had women friends, and he had men friends,” she said. “And sex was very good. But I think it was the friendship that got us through difficult times and that kept us together when life got complicated, painful, and even when it was just boring.”
I heard similar things from a number of women (and men as well), and research says they aren’t alone: In one study, 44% of participants said that their romantic partner was also their best friend. And there’s evidence that these folks might be onto something: In 2013 a group of researchers published a study showing that romantic couples who value the friendship aspect of their relationship seem to have a secret weapon for managing the problems and disruptions that can beset any relationship over time. Additionally, these researchers found that these couples report that loving feelings, mutual sexual pleasure, and romantic commitment to one another has increased over time.
What is it about being friends as well as lovers and romantic partners that impacts a relationship in such a positive way? A recent compilation of 112 studies about romantic relationships suggests that romantic partnerships work better when a couple supports and affirms one another the way friends do.
Recently, with the pandemic spiking and couples at home and in each other’s hair 24/7, tensions are rising, and relationships are shaky. I have started thinking about this idea of friendship as a necessary component in a romantic relationship and integrating it into some of the work I do with couples I see. When it feels appropriate, I ask each member of a romantic pair to write down 5-7 rules that they apply to their friendships. Then I ask them to discuss these rules with one another: How did they come up with their particular choices? What happens when a friend fails to live up to their standards? What happens when they do not live up to their own standards with a friend?
Many interesting questions come up during the discussion, including some of the similarities and differences in their friendship expectations. I encourage couples to carefully talk about the ways their lists match and the ways they don’t, without criticizing or negating the other’s choices.
I then ask them to apply their lists to one another. It doesn’t matter if they have different expectations, especially in the beginning. Often what differences exist are superficial or a matter of wording. Sometimes they come from “traditional” male/female differences, in that women sometimes put more emphasis on talking about feelings than men, but I have found that it is often problematic to make the assumption that men do not share feelings with their friends or that women do it “better.” In her fascinating new book on friendship, Lydia Denworth shares research that shows that men’s and women’s friendships have much more in common than not. So I encourage couples not to be judgmental about what’s on the other’s list.
And then I ask them to talk about whether they apply the same rules to their relationship that they do to friendships. Many couples are very much taken aback by the question – and by the realization that they don’t treat their life partner with the same care and concern they offer their friends.
Is that true for you? If it is, you might take a few minutes to write down your own list of friendship rules and consider whether they could make a difference in your romantic relationship. Here are seven rules from friendship that I have found to be very useful for couples.
- Friends are honest, but not judgmental or unkind.
- Friends have each other’s back.
- Friends support one another in their efforts to achieve their life goals, both personal and professional.
- Friends do not treat one another as servants or employees.
- Friends listen to one another.
- Friends disagree, but they do not try to undermine, negate, or embarrass each other.
- Friends protect and respect each other’s boundaries.
There’s no need for you to live by this particular list, but feel free to use as much of it as you like. You can also just use it as a jumping off point for your own list – and if you have other “rules” to add, feel free to write them below in a comment. They could be useful to someone else.
Once you’ve got your list of friendship rules, try applying them to your romantic partnership. It can make a big difference not just now, but in the future as well.
Facebook image: Budimir Jevtic/Shutterstock
L. Denworth (2020) Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond
L. Machia, J. Wilson, C. Agnew (2013) On the benefits of valuing being friends for nonmarital romantic partners Journal of Social and Personal Relationships