Communication is a big part of all relationships. I’m sure no matter how much we agree with that statement that we’re all about tired of hearing it. Let me take this one on from a different angle however. Lets talk about how your relationship is communicated with your social networks both real and imagined.
In general, people are social creatures. Being social serves several important functions in helping us make decisions in our lives and our romantic relationships are no different. People take for granted how much influence comes from our social circles however. Many of us like to assume we’re a little above being influenced so trivially. We aren’t above it, and it isn’t trivial.
I hope you never have to see this in person, but given the divorce rates not only in the United States but around the globe I have a feeling you will or have. Someone in your circle of friends gets divorced, then as if dominoes were being knocked over, more of them split. It can feel like your world is coming apart as your entire social network self-destructs, begging you and your spouse to pick sides, trying to turn each of you against old friends. Divorced friends may even try to convince you that you should leave your partner too and it’s not unheard of that the newly lonely divorcee, disenfranchised with the ‘sanctity’ of marriage, may try to poach yours. More than mere coincidence or happenstance, this domino effect is part of a social phenomenon called social contagion. There’s a fascinating new piece of research on divorce as a social contagion that Pew Research has been kind enough to summarize.
In short, all sorts of behaviors spread through social circles by proximity, both positive and negative. Yes, your siblings really do mimic you and have their own kids after you do—or perhaps you were the copy cat. Even obesity seems to spread socially. The effect is huge. Close friends of a divorcee are 75% more likely to divorce themselves and being a friend of a friend comes with a 33% increase in the likelihood of divorce. With first-time marriages already flirting with a 50% divorce rate you are looking at dire numbers indeed if your inner circle goes south. The suspected reasons are many and I suggest reading the Pew article linked above if you are curious.
It’s important to regularly take stock of your social situation and be aware of it. My own father was affected by toxic co-workers and a good dose of stress led to him levying an outrageous charge of lesbian infidelity against my mother. Their marriage survived that, but it’s an example of how our social circles can get us to do crazy and irrational things. So make sure that you are surrounding yourself with good people, and those relationships do not go bad. Don’t let your friends do things that inject unwanted negativity into your relationship. Good friends will stop negative behaviors when asked. Make sure you aren’t prompting this from them, friends like to echo the sentiments of their friends and if you are complaining about your partner you may be signaling them to echo those complaints and validate them. Don’t invite people you hardly know to your social media. Regularly cull negative or absent influences from social media too. Strive to be a positive influence, since that’s also contagious, you could be helping keep your friendships healthy by stopping them from going negative. You can follow my example and get rid of your personal social media all together, it’s good for you. For those of us that can’t abandon social media, for instance your social media accounts are part of your work as well, keep in mind that these social circles affect you just much as real relationships do and curate them accordingly.
I find that my close relationships outside of my marriage are not outside my marriage at all. All marriages hit stress points and everyone gets stressed. It can damage your relationship to constantly be complaining about your job or some other source of negativity in your life. Many times it’s beneficial for the both of you not to know absolutely everything that goes on in your day to day grinds. You can direct these energies at your close friends, especially at those who share similar frustrations. In my case, it’s better to direct my frustrations inside of the IT world to my IT buddies rather than at my spouse. Not only would I be directing negativity at her that she can hardly process, but a lot of what I’d complain to her about wouldn’t even make sense due to all the vague jargon and specialized language. She’d be doubly frustrated that she could hardly make sense of what I was saying, much less empathize with it and perhaps tell me I was being whiny or affirm my feelings and say ‘yeah that really does suck’ the way my colleagues can. That doesn’t even cover when the source of the frustration is our spouse themselves.
When our spouse is the source of our frustration a positive and supportive network of friends can be there to call us out when we’re wrong, help us to resolve things when we have legitimate grievances, and help us to just vent and dispose of the small frustrations that come with marriage and child rearing. They can respond with positive stories about their relationship and how they got through similar troubles, show us that these things really aren’t so bad, or point out that other stresses may be making mountains out of molehills. We can similarly be these positive reflectors for our close friends and together in that network, curating these friendships and investing in them, we can distribute the load and diminish negativity. Having a more open dialogue with your friends about your relationship and about relationships in general will help them perform this task and vice versa. If you’re a more private person or couple this can still work but you have to take extra care to reach out when you need to. Your friends likely know your privacy preferences and are less likely to speak up when they observe something troubling or even when they’re prompted for feedback.
Friends can help us with more tangible annoyances in our relationships. Trusted friends can help give us nights away from the kids. It doesn’t matter how good you are at slipping some romance in on the sly, knowing for a fact that you have a few hours or even a whole evening to yourself is freeing. You can take your time, you can be loud, you can make romantic plans that the chaos of kids would likely derail. You can break out the fancy china and candles, you can pay enough attention to home cook a meal. You can steal away to your favorite restaurant or go to that bar you haven’t been able to venture to in ages. Duck into that adult store you can never visit anymore. Heck, go see your other friends. Repay these favors in kind when your friends have children too. Sleepovers and child-swaps can take 2 couples that can’t get time to themselves and let them breathe again. Let me tell you from experience that between two adults there’s not much difference between watching 2 kids and watching 5, but the difference between watching even 1 child and zero children is a world of difference. Alternate weekends, come up with a plan, you can give yourself and your friends alone time you’d not get at all otherwise.
Sometimes conversations with our friends can be awkward. We can take steps to create environments where more open conversations are easier. Having a game night or other regular social gathering between friends can help us create an environment where we regularly and comfortably express things we might not say on the street. Emily and I love using Cards Against Humanity for this purpose, as it breaks the ice in ways that frequently lead to questions about sensitive topics in a comfortable environment. Whatever you do, make sure it fits you and your friendships. Notice that social media friends don’t help when we need to meet someone in person. The lack of physical availability can hinder our social media relationships and the steps we take to keep them healthy—one of the reasons I encourage avoiding them. Use social media to keep in touch with the people you actually know. A social media friend thousands of miles away isn’t going to help you with that emergency eviction or having both your cars break down at the same time.
We can also get closer to our friends by supporting each other during ‘barn raising moments’. Friends can team up and share expertise which strengthens bonds through inter-dependency. Share your housekeeping skills, your automotive skills, your technology talents, the list goes on. Inconvenience yourself for your friends and watch for reciprocation; let your friends know that’s part of the deal. As you deepen bonds with friends you can get more comfortable saying no to each other, and saying how you actually feel. Your friendships will be based on more than just being nice to each other and will survive disagreements. Pay attention to friends’ bids for help and answer them as much as is reasonable—just keep an eye on whether that’s getting one sided.
A strong network of friends is important for getting into a good relationship too. Introductions through friends is still the number one way couples meet as of the last HCMST (How Couples Meet and Stay Together) survey. While online couplings are catching up, the study also shows that people with a wide network of friends benefit the least from online interaction. New results are due soon and I’m really curious how those trends will continue. Take a look.
We’ve all seen the stereotype, a person gets married and all their time for friends goes away. If this is you, cut it out. If your partner is doing this to you, it’s a sign you may not be the best match. Cutting people off from their support networks is one of the first stages of relationship abuse. Make sure you aren’t doing this to yourself as well, you could be inadvertently creating negative feelings towards your SO in your social circles, and that’s not something that typically goes well.
If you end up the victim of relationship abuse a strong network of friends can help you escape(Good friends will rarely let you get into that situation in the first place, but things happen). Never let your SO demand you cut yourself off from your support networks—that’s a red flag. Make sure you maintain friendships that are more than superficial. Do not be ashamed to ask for help and tell the situation like it is, it may save your life. Good close friendships are safe harbors in even the worst storms.
So don’t think of a close circle of friends as something that has to fall by the wayside when you start getting serious in a relationship, instead recognize that a close circle of friends is your best chance of beating the odds and staying in a long committed relationship together. Keep your friendships healthy, keep your marriage healthy.
Have a comment or a question? Is there a topic you’d like discussed? Let me know through my contact page.