Step Away From That Spouse!

Spouse as friend? Fine. As your only friend? Not so much.

Posted Feb 09, 2009

A few days ago, a post to this Psychology Today website was teased with this preview: "Dr. Bill Cloke on the perils of romance and the value of friendship." I was SO happy! I thought the message was going to be that couples should not get so sucked into the treacly romantic sentimentality of Valentine's Day that they forget the value of their close friends.

Wrong! The real message of that post was that couples should not be just romantic partners to one another - they should also be friends. Now, there's nothing wrong with that message. In fact, it is probably wise. What's not wise is if your spouse or romantic partner is your ONLY close friend.

Why is that relevant in a blog on Living Single? Because when couples decide that their romantic partner is going to be their everything, often the other people in their lives who are getting ditched are their single friends. I hear stories like this fairly regularly, but there seems to be an uptick in this theme recently in the e-mails I'm receiving from single people.

There's a name that scholars have given to the shedding of friends as a coupled relationship becomes more serious - dyadic withdrawal. The members of the couple become more focused on each other, and less likely to maintain separate friends.

I was reminded of the importance of friends, even to people who are coupled and see their partner as a friend, as I watched Katie Couric's story on Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger last night on 60 Minutes. Sully is the pilot who landed a flailing plane into the Hudson River, making survivors out of 155 near-fatalities.

Couric asked Sullenberger's wife Lorrie how she reacted when she first heard the news. Here's what Lorrie said: "I was just in shock, really shaking hard. I called an old best friend and said, 'Sully has just crashed an airplane and I don't know what to do.'"

At what was perhaps the most frightening moment in her life, she reached for the phone and called her best friend. Imagine if the news she received was not just that her husband had crash-landed the plane, but that she had become widowed. That best friend would have become even more important.

I'm not just guessing about that. A study of more than 1,500 older couples found that, compared to married people, widowed people receive more support from friends.

There is evidence that friends are important to coupled people at many different phases of their relationship. They are important conversational partners, even with regard to matters concerning the marriage. In one study, for example, more than 50 wives were asked how often they discussed each of 10 marriage-relevant topics with their close friends and with their spouse. There was only one topic that they discussed more often with their spouse: finances. They discussed in-laws more often with their friends. For the other eight topics (family decision-making, division of chores, spouse's childrearing philosophy, etc.), the wives were just as likely to discuss them with their friends as with their spouse.

Friends are also important when couples make the transition to parenting, which can be a trying and even depressing time. In one study, more than 100 couples were asked about their social networks both before their first child was born, and three more times in the two years after the child was born. The new parents who reported greater satisfaction with their friends also reported feeling less depressed. What's more, that link - between feeling good about your friendships and feeling less depressed yourself - got even stronger over time (i.e., from before the child was born until 2 years after).

Still another study looked at the place of friends in the lives of both heterosexual couples and lesbian couples waiting to adopt their first child. Perhaps it is not surprising that the lesbian women reported receiving at least as much support from friends as from family. But so did the heterosexual women. (In both cases, the support scores were actually higher from the friends than from family, but the results may not have been statistically significant - tests were not reported. For the men, the means were identical.)

Think again about Valentine's Day iconography - and indeed, about all the matrimaniacal imagery that never totally disappears, even after Valentine's Day is long gone. The uber-romantic image is of the couple, leaning toward each other over a candlelight dinner, or walking hand-in-hand on the beach, with no one else in the picture.

Question: What's the appeal of that image?
Answer: There's no one else there.

Question: What's the risk?
Answer: There's no one else there.