“I don’t really hang out with people anymore.”
Most people I meet who are in distressed relationships say they have few friends outside their marriage or partnership. Especially the men.
They say things like . . .
I’ve lost touch with old acquaintances.
I’m too busy to hang out with people in my current sphere.
Work is no place to form a social life.
I have nothing in common with the neighbors.
My mate should be my best (and perhaps only) friend.
This last idea comes from old religious teachings about marriage – which places unbalanced emphasis on staying out of trouble. But people who hold this idea tend to be lonely. And many of them say their partner or spouse is the only person they ever talk to.
Why? Because a few solid friendships can make the difference between feeling satisfied with life and feeling isolated and purposeless. Here’s what friendships (outside our love relationships) can do for us.
1. Friends relate: they help us feel as though we are not alone in the world. They let us know there is someone out there who gets us. This kind of validation protects us against depression and other types of illness.
2. Friends grant us us perspective. They broaden our view of the world. They give us markers for comparison as we move through the lifespan.
3. Friends give feedback on our dilemmas. We get advice, ideas, gut impressions, reality checks, and even constructive criticism of our behavior.
4. Friends hold us accountable to our life goals, our spiritual practices, our priorities. They ask about our sobriety, our job search, our fitness goals, etc.
5. Friends relieve some of the burden of empathy from our mate. When we get compassionate understanding from a peer, we don’t require as much of it from our partner. This frees up our primary love relationship to do other kinds of work we need it to do.
6. Friends stimulate new ideas. They make us more creative and supply energy to our work and play.
Friends keep us connected to the wider world. They supply updates on the community and our larger social circle. They link us to other people. Friends create friends.
7. Friends give us different problems to focus on. They have their own issues and worries – and if we listen to theirs, we get relief from our own burdens for a while. Listening and helping feeds a part of us that needs to give to be fulfilled.
8. Friends encourage down time. Even if we’re talking about work, the act of engaging with friends is recreational, relaxing, and restorative. Friends make us laugh, and laughter relaxes us like few other things can.
9. Friends do annoying things that make us appreciate the person(s) we live with.
Murray Bowen, considered the father of family systems theory, said that a two-person relationship is like a two-legged stool. It’s inherently unstable. That’s why having a baby or focusing on an aging parent can help stabilize a teetering marriage, at least temporarily. I believe we pull in third parties (friends, work) to help us deal with the intensity of our love relationships and to distribute the load of anxiety they always bring. We all do this – and it’s absolutely necessary for the growth of our close relationships.
Bottom Line: No marriage or committed partnership can meet all our needs, no matter how sustaining or rapturous . . . We need outsiders.