Back in the’90s, the Spice Girls dropped some serious wisdom on us with their hit "Wannabe." Beyond being a catchy lyric, the lines, "If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends. Make it last forever, friendship never ends," actually speak volumes about the importance of considering the people who occupied your partner’s time before you stepped into the picture.
It’s a topic that Kate Fiori, an associate professor of psychology at Adelphi University in New York, is particularly interested in—she studies changes in social relationships and social networks across important life transitions. Earlier this year, Fiori and her team of fellow researchers published a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships about the links between partners’ disapproval of friends and divorce.
“Very little work has considered the effects of merging friend networks on the marital relationship,” she tells Brides. “Interestingly, there is quite a bit of research about the effects of friends' and families' opinions of the partner on marital stability; that is, if your family and friends do not like your partner, your relationship is less likely to succeed, especially if it's in its early stages. However, what was not clear from the research was what happens if your partner doesn't like your friends?”
To investigate, Fiori and her team used a sample of 355 black and white couples from a study that had followed them for 16 years; about half had divorced by the last year. Included in the survey were questions about the positive and negative aspects of couples’ friendship, including: “About how many good friends could you, as a couple, call on for advice or help if you ever needed it?” and “Does your (wife/husband) have friends that you would rather (she/he) not spend time with?” They analyzed their findings through the contexts of gender and race.
Although one of the benefits of marriage is supposed to be widening your network of friends, the study’s authors found that only works when your partner actually likes your friends, and you actually like their friends. According to the study’s results, when a husband disapproved of his wife’s friends in their first year of marriage, they were more likely to get divorced over the study period—but that was only for white couples. The authors suggested that may be because black couples “are more likely to be embedded in family-focused networks than are white couples, who are more likely to be embedded in friend-focused networks.”
The study offers a number of reasons for why a person’s friends might have something to do with the stability of a marriage. For example, the authors write, “not liking one’s spouse’s friends could introduce uncertainty into the marriage, leaving an individual to wonder how he or she could be married to someone with those friends.”
Fiori says the biggest takeaway from their research is that working on a marriage does not mean just focusing on one another. “It's also about considering your relationships with your friends and family (those you have in common and your own). Although we often hear about potential problems that can come up with in-laws, we don't usually think about how difficult it can be to get along with your partner's friends.”
She suggests soon-to-be-married couples “get to know who your spouse knows. These people may be part of your life forever—avoiding the issues early on won't make these people go away.” And for folks already married and casting a disapproving look to your partner’s best friend? “It might be useful to acknowledge the things that these friends may do for you,” Fiorri says. (Such as getting your partner out of the house so you can binge-watch that favorite show he/she hates.)
“Acknowledging the potentially powerful role that friends and the wider social network can play in the marriage may be an important (albeit often overlooked) process in maintaining a healthy partnership,” she says.