Relationship Stress at a High? Try Spending Time With Friends

Esther Perel and Mary Alice Miller

“Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?” - Mating in Captivity

Our expectations of our partners have never been so high. We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide—security, children, property, and respectability—but now we also want our partner to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us. We want to “marry our best friend,” our confidant on all matters, someone to whom we should be able to tell everything. And, for that matter, they should not only be a stellar co-parent, they should also be a savvy co-decorator, a skilled sous chef, a financial whiz, a motivated jogging partner, and a devilishly funny gossip—depending on what we need that day. 

Where did we get this idea that one person is supposed to provide every facet of emotional connection available to man? It didn’t start when we went into lockdown in 2020 (though that certainly intensified the contemporary over-reliance on our primary relationships). For decades now, the self-imposed isolation that can come with modern love has begun as soon as we think we’ve found “the one.” Who among us isn’t a little guilty of having deprioritized our friendships shortly after feeling a mutual click with someone we’ve just met? The desire to lay in bed all day with a new love can make it feel like the world outside has disappeared. But when we open the door, we have to ask, did the world disappear or did we? 

Diversifying Our Relationship Portfolio

Ambrose Pierce said love is a temporary insanity cured by marriage. Anyone who’s been married can confirm that it comes with its own insanity. For instance, it’s insane to think that our partner can provide for us the same level of support and connection that once we got from our networks of friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, teammates, (and even the occasional nemesis). We spend our young lives building an entire relational infrastructure. Some friends come and go, but the latter tends to accelerate once we partner up. There’s a lot of major lessons partnered folk can learn from our single friends. One of the biggest? We don’t need to be in a relationship to have relationships. We’ve had them the whole time.

We have to remember this especially when our primary relationship is experiencing high stress. One of the best things we can do for ourselves and our partners is take some of the pressure off. Remind ourselves we don’t live or love in a vacuum. Sure, it helps to diversify our expectations of our partner, but if we really want to make a meaningful and long lasting improvement, we have to diversify our relationship portfolio, as social psychologist Elaine Cheung has explained. Expanding our intimate connections does not automatically mean we’re siphoning the emotional energy out of our primary relationship. Let’s do a little assessment:

  • Do you bring all of your challenges to your partner, or do you seek out advice from the person in your life who has the most knowledge or experience with the problem?
  • Do you have a tendency to reach out to friends with only the things you feel you can’t talk to your partner about? If so, why? 
  • Who in your life knows the most about decorating? Cooking? Breast-feeding? Grieving after the loss of a parent? 
  • What are the skills, traditions, or wisdom that you would like a friend to come to you for—have you offered?

Spending Time with Friends is a Balancing Act

Eli Finkel, author of The All-or-Nothing Marriage, has said that “on average, people who have a specialized social network—seeking out Tim to celebrate our achievements, Donna to cheer up our sadness, Kyoko to soothe our anxiety—tend to feel more fulfilled in their life than people who look to one person to do it all. They also tend to be happier in their romantic relationship over time.” As is usually the case, it’s not a one-size fits all model. “This winnowing of our intimate social network will be fine for some people,” says Finkel. “If we’re lucky enough to have a spouse who is compatible with us across a vast range—fun to celebrate with, supportive when we’re sad, understanding when we’re ashamed—then we can remain fulfilled despite having few ‘other significant others’ (OSOs) in our life. But that’s a high-risk strategy, as most spouses are more compatible in some ways than in others—and, of course, our spouse can’t be available under all circumstances. If our spouse is on a work deadline or sick with the flu, the effects on us are especially rough if we’ve jettisoned most of our OSOs.” 

Given our focus here on the importance of outside friendships for the health of our primary relationships, it’s important to be clear that healthy friendships are never one-sided utilitarian relationships. We all know a friend or two who only calls when they need something…and if we don’t, we have to ask ourselves if we’re that friend to someone else. Ask yourself: 

  • When you’re in a romantic relationship, do you tend to only reach out when you’re  fighting with your partner? 
  • When you’re not in a romantic relationship, do you put added pressure on that same friend to fulfill boyfriend or girlfriend duties so that you don’t have to be alone?
  • Have you ever lost a friend and don’t know why? 
  • Have you ever lost a friend and know exactly why but don’t know how to fix it? 

New Friends Are Great—But So Are Old Ones

When we enter different stages of life, it is sometimes the case that our friendships weaken. Often it’s because of kids or moving away or simply growing apart. Sometimes it’s because we’ve had a big fight or have been harboring resentment that we just don’t know how to address. But that doesn’t mean that friends don’t come back together or that new friends cannot be made. Just like in our primary relationships, our friendships go through phases. And now, with social networks, it’s not uncommon for friends—who fell off after highschool, college, or when one person left their shared workplace or moved away—to rediscover each other decades later. Some friendships pick up where we left off and some begin anew. Having a break in a friendship is sometimes the most important aspect of actually creating growth later on. It can allow us to reintroduce ourselves as the people and friends we’d like to be. We know that, in romantic relationships, desire needs mystery (having friends outside of our partnership to share some aspects of our lives with helps on that front). Is it possible that the platonic version of that is “absence makes the heart grow fonder?” For the many of us who have lost important friendships, sometimes reconnecting can start by simply asking that question. “I’ve really missed you and I’d love to catch up and see where life has taken us. Would you like to spend some time together?”

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