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Why Your Friends' Approval Is So Crucial to a Relationship

Research finds that a suspicious social network can blow up a romance.

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

In the final season of Sex and the City (2004), Carrie becomes involved with a famous artist, portrayed by dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, whom she refers to as “The Russian.” Despite the fact that Carrie is quite smitten with her paramour, when he finally meets her friends, he makes a less than stellar impression. In fact, her friend Miranda can’t stand him. Unsurprisingly, this causes quite a bit of tension between the two friends. Carrie is extremely upset that Miranda and The Russian don’t get along, while Miranda would prefer that Carrie cut The Russian out of her life. Ultimately, Carrie does end the relationship with The Russian, and her relationship with her friends returns to normal.

Sex and the City is, of course, fictional, but the situation in which Carrie finds herself is fairly common. Many of us, at some point in our lives, will date, or even marry, a partner with whom our friends or families are less than thrilled. But when our social networks don’t approve of our romantic choices, what happens? How does the tension of discord between our friends and lovers impact our relationships?

Relationships do not occur in vacuums. We may like to think that our feelings for our partners are the only ones we need to consider, but the truth is that our romantic connections are embedded within our broader social lives. Thus, our romantic relationships occur in and around our broader social networks and relationships with family and friends (e.g., Wright & Sinclair, 2012).

Across several different research groups, something referred to as the “social network effect” has emerged. The social network effect states that our relationships with romantic partners are enhanced when our other social ties approve of the partner—and that social network disapproval can lead to the end of a romantic relationship (e.g., Felmlee, 2001).

There is quite a bit of empirical support for this idea, including a meta-analysis (a statistical synthesis of many different studies on the same topic designed to distill key findings) in which the researchers found that our perceptions of our social network’s approval of our romantic partners predicted reduced likelihood of relationship termination (Le et al., 2010). We are also more satisfied and committed to our relationships to the extent that we think our friends and family support and approve of our partner (Sinclair, Felmlee, Sprecher, & Wright, 2015). Importantly, this effect exists across both dating and marital relationships, heterosexual and same-sex couples, Internet-based relationships, relationships with large age gaps, and international samples (see Sinclair et al., 2015).

In sum, we all seem to care to some extent how our friends and family feel about our romantic relationships, and our perceptions of their approval or disapproval can influence how we feel about the relationship itself.

Other recent work, however, has found that our individual characteristics play a role in determining how much others’ opinions influence how we feel about our relationships. Specifically, Sinclair and colleagues (2015) demonstrated that individuals who were dispositionally higher on independent reactance were less influenced by their social network’s approval or disapproval of their romantic relationships. Independent reactance reflects a desire to resist the influence of others in the hopes of making independent choices and decisions. It's distinct from defiant reactance, which reflects a desire to do the opposite of what others expect or push you to do. Across three studies, researchers found that independent, but not defiant, reactance predicted participants remaining committed to relationships even when faced with disapproval from friends or parents.

What’s the take home point of all this work?

Our romantic relationships do not exist in a social void. Our friends’ and family’s feelings about our romantic partners can influence how we feel about our relationships. We feel more connected to partners to the extent that others approve of them, and less connected to the extent that they don’t. However, our personal characteristics—the ways of viewing the world that we inherently carry with us—can alter the extent to which our feelings for our partners are influenced by the approval of others.

Felmlee, D. (2001) No Couple Is an Island: A Social Stability Network Perspective on Dyadic Stability. Social Forces, 79, 1259–1287.

Le, B., Dove, N., Agnew, C.R., Korn, M.S, & Mutso, A.A. (2010). Predicting Nonmarital Romantic Relationship Dissolution: A Meta-Analytic Synthesis. Personal Relationships 17, 377–390.

Sex and the City, Season 6 (2004). HBO.

Sinclair, C.H., Felmlee, D., Sprecher, S., & Wright, B. (2015). Don’t tell me who I can’t love: A multi-method investigation of social network and reactance effects on romantic relationships. Social Psychology Quarterly, 78, 77-99.

Wright, B.L. & Sinclair, C. (2012). Pulling the Strings: Effects of Parent and Friends Opinions on Dating Choices. Personal Relationships, 19, 743–748.

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