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Couples With Supportive Friends, Kin May Be More Likely to Divorce

How should we think about this finding?

If you are married, does it matter if you have emotionally supportive people in your life other than your spouse? Suppose you are having problems in your marriage. If you have friends or relatives you can talk to when you are feeling upset or just want some advice (and not just about your marriage), would that relieve some of the tension and decrease the chances that you would divorce? Or would it instead reassure you that if you divorced, you would still have people in your life who cared about you? Or would it just not matter?

Pennsylvania State University sociologist Marina Haddock Potter addressed those questions in “Social support and divorce among American couples,” which will be published in a 2021 volume of the Journal of Family Issues and is already available online.

Potter analyzed data from a representative national sample of 7,321 couples in the United States who were married when they were first contacted. They were asked about sources of help and support in their lives, along with many other questions about themselves and their marriage. Then, Potter determined who had divorced five or six years later, and looked at whether the couples who had more emotional support outside of their marriages were any more or less likely to be among those who had divorced or separated.

How Social Support Was Assessed

The couples were asked about three kinds of support:

Emotional support: “Suppose you had a problem, and you were feeling depressed or confused about what to do. Who would you ask for help or advice?”

Emergency help: “Suppose you had an emergency in the middle of the night and needed help. Who would you call?”

Emergency financial help: “What if you had to borrow $200 for a few weeks because of an emergency? Who would you ask?”

In response to each question, participants could indicate “No one” or any number of the following: “Friends, neighbors, coworkers;” “sons or daughters;” “parents;” “brothers and sisters;” and “other relatives.”

The couples were also asked whether they actually had received help in the past month with babysitting, transportation, repairs, work around the house, or advice.

Outside Emotional Support Was Associated With Divorce

Married people who reported having emotional support outside their marriage—they had friends or family they could go to for help or support if they were feeling depressed or confused—were more likely to divorce. None of the other kinds of support mattered. Married people who had people they could ask for emergency help in the middle of the night, or who could ask for emergency financial help, were no more or less likely to divorce. Whether they actually had received help with rides, babysitting, and so forth did not matter, either.

Were those couples simply needier? Maybe married people who have emotionally supportive people in their lives are those who are already having difficulties, and the difficulties are why they are divorcing. Potter tested for that, by looking at factors such as the married people’s depressive symptoms, health problems, unemployment, and whether they had kids at home. Taking those factors into account did not change the results. Neediness did not seem to matter.

What Do These Findings Mean?

Potter seemed troubled by her findings. She described emotional support as a “risk” factor for divorce and suggested that “social ties may sometimes challenge marital relationships or facilitate divorce.” She speculated that supportive friends or relatives could increase divorce “by triggering high reliance and obligations outside of the dyad, resulting in insufficient support and resources for the marital relationship.” That’s a competition hypothesis—having all those nice, supportive friends and relatives means you are not attending enough to your spouse.

She did, though, propose an alternative explanation, which I see as more consistent with the positive role that emotionally supportive friends and relatives can play in all of our lives: “Individuals who feel they can count on emotional support from family and friends may be more comfortable ending marriages when they wish to do so, whereas individuals without this support may feel ill-equipped to divorce.”

One limitation of the study is that the divorce data were from a while ago—that information was collected between 1992 and 1994. My guess is that the role of emotionally supportive friends has increased since then, as friends have become more significant in so many ways in so many of our lives. At the same time, rates of marriage have declined. Increasingly, people seem to be realizing that they do not need to be married to have emotionally supportive relationships.

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