A Surprising Predictor of the End of Relationships
New research examines the relationship between divorce and approval of friends.
Posted December 11, 2018
According to interdependence theory, as people in a romantic relationship begin to make a stronger commitment to each other, they develop a couple identity (mutual sense of “we”). Couple identity, which has been linked to increased marital satisfaction, is also associated with an increased number of mutual friends.1 However, what if one of the couple does not like the other’s friends?
In the October 2018 issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Fiori and colleagues report on the relationship between spousal friend approval and divorce across 16 years of investigation, with the conclusion that a man’s disapproval of his wife’s friends can predict divorce.2
Study of men’s disapproval of their wives’ friends and divorce
Data for this investigation came from a longitudinal study that followed 373 same-race couples (174 White; 199 Black) during their first 16 years of marriage.1
By Year 16, 46 percent of couples — 55 percent Black and 36 percent White — had separated or divorced.
In White couples only, husbands’ criticism of their wives’ friends at Year 1 appeared to predict divorce 15 years later. This association remained even after researchers controlled for other factors shown to predict divorce in previous research (first-year marital quality, income, etc).
Why? Two questions needed to be answered:
1. Why is a man’s negative perception of his wife’s companions (but not a woman’s perception of her husband’s) predictive of divorce?
2. Why is this link absent in Black couples?
Let us start with the second question.
Disapproval of wife’s friends was not related to divorce in Black couples, perhaps because research shows that Black couples are more family-oriented. That is, the stability of Black marriages is more dependent on family connections than on friend networks.
Answering the first question is more complicated.
Why does men’s dislike of their wives’ friends predict divorce?
Let us consider some possibilities why a man’s dislike of his partner’s friends can predict divorce.
One possibility concerns the differences in women’s and men’s relationships with their friends. Women’s relationships are often characterized by emotional intimacy and support, while men’s relationships emphasize joint activities.
Indeed, it might be easier for a woman to take on the role of her husband’s companions than for a man to take on the role of his wife’s close friends. Thus, it is less difficult for husbands (as opposed to wives) to replace friends whom their partners dislike.
Another difference between men and women friendships concerns the women’s tendency to share their marital problems with their friends.
According to the interference model, sharing marital problems with friends may worsen marital difficulties. Sharing relationship difficulties could “catalyze the feeling of marital dissatisfaction” by “building dissatisfaction with marriage, convincing a spouse that the partner is . . . detrimental to one's interests, or intimating that only coercion or withdrawal can solve the marital problem.”3
How does men’s disapproval of their partners’ friends predict divorce?
What mechanisms explain the relationship between divorce and negative perception of the spouse’s friends?
When a man dislikes his wife’s friends, he may begin to question his perception of his relationship with his wife, wondering how he could have such a positive view of his romantic partner when he finds her best friends so objectionable.
Further, negative perception of his partner’s friends might — via keeping his own and his wife’s network of friends separate — undermine the pair’s identity as a couple and, as a result, reduce their marital quality.
Another possibility is that criticism of his partner’s friends results in arguments and conflicts which might, over time, damage the couple’s marital relationship.
Lastly, men may feel threatened by close bonds between their wives and their wives’ friends, even becoming jealous of their strong emotional connection — especially if the woman’s companions include men.
Implications for preventing divorce
Couples often try very hard to make their marriage work. When the disadvantages of staying in a marriage outweigh the advantages, divorce may become necessary. While divorce can be a solution to a bad situation, divorce is also associated with negative outcomes and health consequences (e.g., financial difficulties, depression, isolation) for everyone involved, especially children.
Therefore, trying to prevent marriages from heading toward disintegration, when divorce becomes inevitable, is important. So, how can we make our marriages stronger? The authors note that “targeting the integration of couples’ networks may offer a more malleable way to strengthen marriage.”1
While disapproval of a partner’s friends is not the only factor that can predict divorce, other factors (e.g., financial difficulties, sociocultural acceptability of divorce) may be more difficult or impossible to change. So, while dislike of a partner’s friend is no reason to panic, according to this study, it should not be ignored either. The couple may want to discuss such opinions and feelings, and be mindful of changes to their individual and shared network of friends.
1. Kearns, J. N., & Leonard, K. E. (2004). Social networks, structural interdependence, and marital quality over the transition to marriage: A prospective analysis. Journal of Family Psychology, 18, 383–395.
2. Fiori, K. L., Rauer, A. J., Birditt, K. S., Marini, C. M., Jager, J., Brown, E., & Orbuch, T. L. (2018). “I love you, not your friends”: Links between partners’ early disapproval of friends and divorce across 16 years. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 35, 1230-1250.
3. Julien, D., Markman, H. J., Leveille, S., Chartrand, E., & Begin, J. (1994). Network’s support and interference with regard to marriage: Disclosures of marital problems to confidants. Journal of Family Psychology, 8, 16–31.