How many close friends do you confide in? Half of Americans have just one person with whom they discuss important matters. For many married people, that person is their partner. In recent decades, the number of people we truly connect with and count on has dwindled. The problem is that one person—even your “soul-mate”—can’t be expected to meet all your needs.
In a Times of London article titled “How to Stay Married,” correspondent Stephanie Coontz argues that a strong network of friends is the best way to keep a marriage strong. She says that it is only in modern times have we expected so much from the marital relationship and so little from everyone else. This article was a reminder to me to rekindle some of my friendships, not just for my own benefit, but as a possible benefit to my marriage. Just because I consider my husband my best friend doesn’t mean he wants to go purse shopping with me or discuss hair styles. (I’ve asked my poor hubby to do both. He declined.)
Common advice tells couples not to let other relationships interfere with time together with our spouse. We are urged to “deepen” and “strengthen” our bonds. “But trying to be everything to one another is part of the problem, not part of the solution, to the tensions of modern marriage,” says Coontz.
She explains that until the middle of the 19th century, the word “love” was more often used to describe feelings for friends and neighbors than for spouses. Both women and men often had extremely strong bonds with friends and family members. It was during the postwar “Golden Age of Marriage,” when spouses began to expect their partner to meet more of their needs, Coontz says. However, she says housewives soon found “they could not find complete fulfillment in domesticity” while men also felt diminished in their less social roles.
In the modern era, we often see “happily ever after” as living in marital bliss and perfect harmony while meeting one another’s emotional and physical needs. Perhaps we are expecting a little too much from each other?
In addition, we are likely neglecting other relationships. Modern married couples are less likely to visit, call or offer support to their parents and siblings than are single individuals, according to a U.S. study from 1992 to 2004. When our children are young, we may spend time with other young families. However, with the exception of that time period married, people are less likely to socialize with friends and neighbors. This isolation can be unhealthy to the couple, and it also doesn’t allow us to reach out and help our neighbors when they need us.
Women and men today often have careers and hobbies, so why are we so weak at having multiple strong relationships? Coontz explains that “our speeded-up global economy has made balance harder and harder to attain, leading us to seek ever more meaning and satisfaction in love and marriage.” Sadly, that makes sense to me. We’re so busy rushing around seeking accomplishment that “obtain a great marriage” becomes yet something else on our to-do list.
I was relieved that Coontz does not recommend we try to lower our expectations of intimacy and friendship within marriage. Instead, she suggests we raise our expectations of other relationships and invest in those relationships. “The happiest couples are those who have interests, confidants and support networks extending beyond the twosome,” she says.
Stephanie Coontz is the author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. She is also the director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families.
How much do you rely on your spouse for friendship, problem solving and socialization? How strong are your relationships with friends, coworkers, neighbors and family members?