If you are old enough to remember your Grandma watching the “I Love Lucy Show,” you know that Lucy and Dezi did nothing without their best friends, Ethel and Fred. If you watched “Sex and the City”, you know that Carrie couldn’t live without her best friends, but she and Big had no couple friends. And if you have been watching, “The Americans” then you understand why Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are avoiding couple friendships–they are Soviet Spies.

How Important Are Couple Friendships To You?

Drawing upon interviews with 123 couples, 122 individual partners, and 58 divorced individuals, Drs. Geoffrey Greif and Elizabeth Holmes, authors of Two Plus Two: Couples and their Couple Relationships, report that couples seem to fall into three different categories: Keepers, Seekers and Nesters. Where do you fit?

Keepers

  • Keepers are the largest group – These are couples who have made friends with other couples over the years. Their couple friends may have started out as individual friends of one or the other and eventually became two plus two.
  • For Keepers, friends are important but not vital to their life. At certain times in their married life, often during the child rearing years, their nuclear family may actually take precedent over their couple friends.
  • They are nonetheless, happy with their existing friends and satisfied to keep what they have. They don’t see a need for the continually meeting and making new friends.

Seekers

  • Seekers are different. They value their friends and seek to meet more.
  • Seekers are comfortable with each other, but like the presence of other couples for social, intellectual and emotional stimulation. Both want to make friends and enjoy the company of others.
  • Seekers rarely come home from a vacation without new friends and are the friendly people on the line behind you or at the table in the restaurant next to you.

Nesters

  • Nesters are not that interested in couple friendships.
  • They prefer the companionship of each other to involvement with others. Often they have separate friends and one or two couple friends.
  • Their wish for alone time may be at times misread as judgment or rejection of others.

 Impact of Friendship Style on Couple’s Own Relationship

 From the research findings of Drs. Geoffrey Grief and Elizabeth Holmes, there is no indication that being in one of these groups guarantees a better relationship with your partner than being in another.

From my clinical work with couples over many years, I would agree and suggest that it is the state of the couple’s primary relationship that makes the tendency to keep old friends, seek new friends or prefer less friends something that works in a couple’s relationship.

I also agree with Grief and Holmes’ finding that these categories are not unchangeable.

  • Some couples shift to other categories over the years with marriage, children, jobs and retirement changes. They end up making and enjoying couple friends in a way they never thought they would.
  • It is a surprise even for couples themselves to find that as a couple who preferred their privacy to friends (nesters), they have joined and love a retirement community or for a couple who had no need for more friends (keepers) to find themselves making more and more friends as their children play more and more soccer.

The Good, The Bad and the Different of Couple Friendships

 The Positive Potential of Couple Friends

  • Couples often benefit from seeing themselves in the eyes of their friends. Couple friends are in a unique position to affirm a couple’s new connection or validate the love and life they have witnessed their friends share over many years.
  • Couple friends remind each other of the good times shared and the hard times mastered together- a perspective that partners may have difficulty remembering on their own.
  • Hearing other couples speak about family or child care issues is often a learning opportunity for a couple or a point of gratitude for what they don’t have to face.
  • Observing the affection of shared by couple friends for each other often stimulates an increase in emotional connection in a couple themselves.
  • Observing another couple disagree about what happened last summer without killing each other or getting stuck in  eye witness testimony differences is an implicit lesson not to let the small stuff steal a good feeling or a good evening together.
  • Many times couple friends become family to each other’s families or become the second chance family that is always there when needed.

 Sometimes Friends Knowingly or Unwittingly Ask Too Much

  • One misuse of couple friends is the need for them to be an audience to serve as judge and jury to their friends’ marital issues or as a an oasis to avoid being alone.
  • After a few times of going out with friends to have a good time only to find you are being asked to be a referee–the good times become compromised by problems.
  • The couple needing help is not really seeking viable options and the couple trying to help often ends up burdened and in conflict over their friends. At the very least the two plus two couple experience does not enhance anyone’s relationship.

“ Why didn’t you tell him that he was wrong?”

“ He is my best friend-I am not going to tell him that.”

“ So you agree with how he is treating her?”

“ I don’t really know the whole story. It’s not my business.”

“ Of course it is our business…”

In this case to preserve the friendship and not suffer from the emotional spillover, friends may have to share their love and concern with the suggestion that their friends seek help.

Sometimes Partners Are Very Different Regarding Friendships 

What if she is a seeker who is eager to meet and go out with new friends; but he is more of a keeper and prefers they go out with a couple they know?

  • When a couple can appreciate their differences, they get to capitalize on the best of their personalities and socialize in the direction of both preferences.
  • When one or both partner agrees to adjust for an evening for the sake of their partner – it is a gift and an opportunity to expand experiences.
  • I have even heard partners sound proud of and grateful for the differences:

“You know she can make friends in a elevator- I go along – what can I do?”

“ I have to admit that when we are alone-we have a special time.”

Sometimes it doesn’t work…

Sometimes the differences that partners have about friendships necessitate recognizing that you may think your friend is terrific; but when you go out as a couple–your partner and the partner of your friend feel like captives on a bad blind date.

Yes, they can try to make small talk, big talk or not talk while you and your friend go on about kids, politics or sports, but it is clearly not an enjoyable couple friendship for everyone.

The recognition that there often needs to be separate individual friends as well as couple friends is really important. It improves a couple’s relationship, expands their worlds and benefits all of their friendships. Support each other and mix it up.

Friendship isn’t a big thing – it’s a million little things

Listen in to a podcast as Dr. Geoffrey discusses Couples and their Couple Friends on Psych Up Live