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Will Friends Make or Break Your Relationship?

The surprising role your social network has in romantic relationship success.

This post is the last in a series of three articles written by students in my Spring 2019 Close Relationships course. All three posts focus on how your larger network of friends and family can affect your romantic relationships. This article, by Julie Jackson, Jolisa Lalbeharry, Marcus Laychak, Elizabeth O'Clair, and Noelle Pope, examines how those in your social circle may influence not only who you get into a relationship with, but also what happens as in your romantic relationship as it continues. You can also read the first and second posts in the series.

Moodboard via flickr
Source: Moodboard via flickr

Our romantic relationships don't exist in a vacuum – They're just one of many intertwining relationships that make up our social world. We may have social activities, like parties or casual get-togethers, that involve both our romantic partner and our friends. If you think of the main characters in the popular 1990's TV show, Friends, they were always there for each other, including all the ups and downs of each other's romantic relationships. Like the characters on Friends, we to talk to our friends about our romantic partners, even seeking relationship advice from them. But how important are those friends in the success of our romantic relationships, and do our friends really have the power to make or break our romances?

The importance of having mutual social worlds

It may be possible to conduct a romantic relationship that exists outside of the rest of your social life, but that's usually not a recipe for success. Research shows that sharing a network of mutual friends with your romantic partner is important for a number of reasons.

Research on the self-expansion model of relationships emphasizes how the strongest relationships become incorporated into our sense of self – That is, the relationship becomes an essential part of who you are. Having shared social networks allows couples to incorporate aspects of their partners into their own self-concept, which can automatically increase relationship quality. Even if you're just starting out in a relationship, it has been shown that connecting shared social groups could be greatly beneficial because it helps to reinforce and confirm the identity of the two partners as a couple. That is, other people in your social group will also start to see you and your new partner as a couple. Couples who share social groups and friends tend to have higher levels of relationship satisfaction, commitment and intimacy.

These shared social groups can increase our involvement with our romantic partners when we feel that people in both our own and our partner's social network support the relationship. For example, say you took your new partner out to a social event involving several of your friends or acquaintances, at the end of the event they adore or approve of your partner. This mutual agreement about your relationship would leave positive feelings and emotions that would in turn strengthen your relationship with your partner. In addition, when family and friends approve of your partner, you're less likely to break up.

Do people often seek out relationship advice from friends?

GotCredit via flickr
Source: GotCredit via flickr

After anything negative occurs in one’s life, there’s a desire to share that experience with someone else to either feel better or to get their perspective on the issue. This type of behavior could also carry over into romantic relationships, for if you can’t seek emotional support from the person you love, you’re more likely to turn to family and friends around you. This can be beneficial, as studies have shown that reaching out to friends and family can reduce psychological stress and increase satisfaction with a romantic relationship. Friends are usually the first people those experiencing relationship problems go to, as one study has shown that they serve as reliable informants, referents, and advisers that can offer more helpful advice than parents can, especially when it comes to sex. In that study, female college students reported having more frequent and reoccurring conversations with their friends about sex than with their parents and that the majority of their text messages talked about romantic relations, hookups, and sexual events. This study supports that our friends are the people we go to the most, and the ones who we share our closest personal experiences with.

What types of things do people seek advice about?

There has certainly been at least one person who has googled advice on any topic relating to relationships. If you were to type “why is my relationship…” into a search engine, the first things that come up are “Why is my relationship failing? Why is my relationship toxic? Why is my relationship sexless?” These things aren’t uncommon, as research has shown that many seek advice on topics such as break ups, controlling behavior, trust issues, and partner cruelty to name a few. Sex is also a popular topic to seek advice on, both in person and online. However, many young people turn to friends with questions regarding their sex lives because it may be something that they’re uncomfortable speaking about with parents. Sex is a very important topic that is discussed commonly within friend groups. One study suggested that sharing information and experiences about previous sexual encounters can actually help adolescents make smarter decisions regarding sex due to their friends’ added information.

How accepting are people of this advice? Does it matter if it’s solicited or unsolicited?

When someone looks for relationship advice, they go in with the intention to be receptive and to follow that advice. Depending on the topic and who is giving the advice, Goldsmith and Fitch found that relationship advice from friends and family could be perceived as caring and helpful, or it could be perceived as butting in. For example, if a person is suspicious that their partner is cheating and a friend tells them to break up with their partner, they could perceive that as appropriate. But if a family member (especially a parent) said the same thing, they’d be more likely to interpret that advice as intrusive. This negative effect is mainly due to personal perceptions of familial overstep when dealing with romantic matters. This is also something that can occur in with friends. In general, people are more receptive to advice if they asked for it – Unsolicited advice is often perceived as criticism and is ignored by the recipient.

Are there gender differences in advice seeking or giving?

Generally, women’s friendships tend to be based on sharing emotions and personal information with one another, so they are more likely than men to seek advice from friends. Women tend to seek advice more frequently than men do, and often go into more detail relating to someone else’s problems by offering their own emotional experiences. There also seems to be a gender difference in the types of problems men and women search for in advice. For example, in online forums, men and women both seek advice on trust issues, but they show differences in areas regarding controlling behaviors and breakups. Men are the ones who are more likely to ask about breaking up, whereas women tend to ask about controlling behaviors. Patterns in seeking advice from friends tend to differ with sexual orientation as well. One caveat to this trend in advice, is that while men generally tend to seek less advice from other men, gay men specifically have shown to be more inclined to get advice from women because they are interested in the same group of people, whereas heterosexual men and women do not have interest in the same population. Friendships between gay men and women tend to be stronger than those between heterosexual men and women, therefore the advice they share with one another is perceived as more trustworthy.

However, it's unclear if all of this advice from friends actually helps our relationships. One study actually found that while discussing relationships issues with your partner was beneficial, on average, talking about those problems with a friend had no effect on the romantic relationship. Of course, that is an average effect, so that suggests there are some times when discussing these issues with friends was helpful, other times it was harmful, and other times it made no difference.

The take away from all of this is that integrating social networks can have a positive impact on romantic relationships, by creating a space that reinforces the idea of people as a couple. It also means that the couple has a widened social network of family and friends to draw upon for advice that is better informed about the actual workings of the relationship to better give advice when asked by a member of the couple. That being said, relationship advice is not always solicited, and it is left to the person in the couple to decide how they let that information affect them and their relationship positively or negatively.

Gwendolyn Seidman
The authors: Marcus Laychak, Elizabeth O'Clair (back row), Jolisa Lalbeharry, Noelle Pope, and Julie Jackson (front row)
Source: Gwendolyn Seidman