A study of heterosexual married couples in Switzerland explored the association between a person’s friendship networks and the quality of their marriage. The results suggest that having friends who are not in contact with one’s spouse and who do not know each other tends to negatively affect marital quality for women, but not for men. The study was published in Personal relationships.
The factors that affect the quality of a marriage go far beyond the simple relationship of the partners in the marriage with each other. Relationships between marital partners are usually embedded in various social structures that influence how the partners interact with each other. Networks of friends represent such a structure.
However, although the role of friendship networks in the psychological dynamics of couples in love is well known, most studies have focused on relationships with relatives, highlighting the social support that kinship relationships provide, but also on the influences having harmful effects on the married couple.
When considering the friendship networks of romantic couples, these contacts can be such that the romantic partners see their friends together or separately. View friends as a couple (common contacts) can strengthen the relationship with friends, but also strengthen the social identity of the couple thus strengthening their relationship.
Another factor to consider is “transitivity of friendship,which is the extent to which friends within the network know each other. Researchers expect networks of friends who know each other (high friend transitivity) to have beneficial effects on the quality of the relationship within the couple, because these networks can more easily coordinate the provision of support to partners if necessary (friends who know each other can communicate easily).
A factor to consider is also friendship overlap that is, whether the network friends are mutual friends of both romantic partners or are exclusively friends of one member of the romantic couple. Previous studies have reported that “this partisan support in marital conflict is more likely to occur in the presence of low overlap among spouses’ friends, and critics are more often found among spouses’ estranged contacts.” On the other hand, shared friends are more likely to act as mediators and encourage couple members to compromise.
To investigate the association between the properties of friendship networks and marital quality, study author Julia Sauter and her colleagues analyzed survey data on social stratification, cohesion and conflict in contemporary families, a national survey representative of heterosexual couples in Switzerland.
The current study used data collected in 2011 and 2017, “which asked both partners separately about their personal networks, marital quality, and the extent to which they spent time together in the company of friends.” The researchers analyzed the responses of 634 couples in which both partners answered the questionnaires in 2017, 534 couples who first took part in this survey in 1998 and have remained together since, and 100 couples from a new group who joined the study in 2011. Participants’ ages ranged from 20 to 88 years old.
Marriage quality ratings included four indicators – marital quality (“In general, how do you evaluate your relationship (in terms of your understanding of the other, your intimate life, your mode of communication…)?”), marital instability (“Many couples, after encountering difficulties, have contemplated separation. Have you also experienced such moments and considered separation?”), communication problems and coordination problems (both calculated from a list of difficulties that couples had to indicate if they encountered them).
Friendship networks were assessed on the frequency with which they had joint contact with friends, the level of overlapping friendships, and the transitivity of friendships.
Women say they are more often dissatisfied with their marital relationship (56% of women and 48% of men), report more communication and coordination problems than men (49% of women against 40% of men) and more often consider divorce than men (35% of women against 21% of men).
When friendship structures were taken into account, having distinct, low-transitivity friendship networks negatively affected marriage quality for women. No effects were found on men. When couple life stages were taken into account, women with preschool children reported higher levels of communication problems than women at the empty nest stage of life (when children grew up and left to live alone). In contrast, males who had post-school-aged children reported fewer coordination problems than males in the empty-nest stage.
The study makes an important contribution to the scientific understanding of the association between marriage quality and friendship networks. However, it also has limitations to consider. Notably, the measures used did not allow the researchers to detect whether the partners mentioned the same friends. For this reason, they were unable to establish a joint measure of friendship network structure for the couple as a unit. In addition, all participants come from one country (Switzerland) and the results of studies on other cultures may not give the same results.
The study, “The Impact of Friendship Structures on Marital Quality of Heterosexual Couples,” was authored by Julia Sauter, Olga Ganjour, Rita Gouveia, and Eric D. Widmer.