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The Social Balancing Act

When partners differ on the fullness of their social calendar.

In an earlier post, “Time Together and Time Apart," we discussed the importance of maintaining friendships, as a member of a couple but also as individuals. Friendships we maintain as couples strengthen our identification as a couple by connecting us with others who share our lifestyle. Our individual, non-couple friends provide emotional support, form the basis for our personal identities, and reduce our dependence on our partner, and so we feel more in control of our lives. Just as important is spending time doing things with each other, without other couples or friends. Partners who do things together become more closely connected and come to enjoy each other’s company. The best relationships strike a balance between time spent with each other without others, with friends and family without our partner, and as couples with our “couple” friends.

Couples may have different social needs

One aspect of this balancing act has to do with how much time should be dedicated to friends and family, vs. alone as a couple, and with each other’s network.

The need to socialize is a highly subjective thing. Each of us has a social activity ideal, that is, an amount of social interaction we need to feel connected and emotionally comfortable. Some prefer to spend a good deal of time with other people, while some prefer less social involvement and more solitude.

Marriages work better when partners are matched on how often they want to be just a couple versus out and about attending social events or visit friends and family but can face difficulties when they don’t see eye to eye in this regard.

Men and women often have different ideas as to how much socializing is enough. In many marriages, wives prefer to see their friends and family more often than their husbands. Women tend to have closer social ties and put in more time and effort to maintain their relationships. Most men, on the other hand, don’t work as hard at their friendships. It’s not that all men are socially detached; surely there are some who are more social than their wives, but that’s not the rule.

Part of the reason might have to do with how men regard their relationships. They tend to focus more on tangible and practical benefits. For example, they might have friends who can get them a great price on appliances, let them know about job opportunities, can recommend a good mechanic or handyman, and the like. Men generally have more people they can go to for practical help than do women. Unfortunately, their relationships also tend to be more superficial and lack the emotional investment usually found in women’s relationships. Relatively few men confide in their friends or even make plans to get together. Instead, they typically look to their wives to help them with their social lives. It’s because wives keep their husbands socially connected that marriage is more beneficial, and being single can be more damaging, to men than to women.

The story of Deb and Rich

Here’s an example of a couple we know who have very different views about socializing, and how that put stress on a marriage: Deb placed a lot of value on her relationships, and liked to visit with friends and families fairly often. Rich, a bit of a loner, preferred to stay home more or just do things alone with Deb. Rich actually liked their friends and enjoyed their social events, but felt it was more important that he and Deb spend time together.

Deb would get angry with Rich because she felt he didn’t understand her social needs. Rich would get upset because he believed Deb was much less interested in him than her friends. It got to the point where being alone or with other people was not satisfying to either one. Deb was uncomfortable when they were socializing because she knew Rich didn’t want to be there. Rich felt stressed when they stayed home because he knew Deb would rather go out. Both believed that the other didn’t really understand or care about what they wanted.

Obviously, part of the solution required negotiation, but it wasn’t just their behaviors they had to change. They had to adjust how they thought about each other’s socializing preferences. They had to learn that both had important and legitimate social needs, and the needs of each have to be respected and satisfied. That meant that Deb had to acknowledge that, when they stayed home, it wasn’t about punishing her or denying her social needs, and Rich had to accept that going out was not a denial of his needs. Instead, they had to focus on the idea that doing what their partner wanted was a way to support each other. But to truly meet their partner’s needs, both would have to accept what they decided to do on a particular evening. Being angry or unhappy about staying home or going out would mean they hadn’t solved their problem.

Finding a mutually agreeable solution

When partners differ on their social needs, they must find a mutually agreeable solution if they’re going to avoid problems. Couples have to decide how often and which social gatherings they will attend so that both feel their needs are met, and adopt the right attitude. What we mean is negotiated solutions are only that when they’re made in spirit, that is, with total acceptance of the final decision by both partners. If we behave badly at a social gathering we don’t want to attend, that’s not a negotiated solution. Our partner won’t feel comfortable and he or she may regret having attended at all and will resent us for making them feel that way. Similarly, a partner who wants a lot of social involvement cannot become angry or resentful when they’re asked to skip an occasional activity that their partner doesn’t want to attend.

As another form of negotiated solution, couples might decide to attend some events without their partner. This can be a good solution if partners are so far apart in their socializing preferences that choosing to go to some events and not others just won’t make either one happy. However, we should point out that, even if this approach is acceptable to both partners, it may not be the best way to go. We might get too comfortable going alone to events. If it becomes a habit, we’ve basically adopted the lifestyle of a single person—we might come to see ourselves less as a member of a couple, and we might come to feel less connected and committed to our relationship.​

More from Rob Pascale and Lou Primavera Ph.D.
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