Holing up at home for TV binges is fun, but let’s face it: you and your partner aren’t going to wow each other while sharing a box of Cheez-Its on the couch. On the other hand, when you’re spending time with another couple it’s exciting to see your partner engaging with and entertaining others. But couple friends can be more than a social release. They can also be an important aspect of a marriage, sources of support and camaraderie, and a way to assess the dynamic of your relationship. The right couple, experts say, can actually make your marriage better.
“When people see their partners interacting with other people, it appears to give them new perspective, like ‘Look, other people like him or her, too!’’’ says Kathleen Holtz Deal, Ph.D., MSW, professor emerita in the school of social work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and co-author of Two Plus Two: Couples and Their Couple. “When socializing, people are happy, which can make them more appealing. You see things that make you more appreciative of your partner than in the day-to-day of home life where you don’t have those opportunities.”
Couple friends can also serve as a barometer for your own relationship. In researching her book, Deal and co-author Geoffrey Greif, Ph.D, spoke to more than 400 men and women. They found that subjects said they could learn from other couples as models for behaviors they both liked and disliked. According to Deal, hanging out with other couples often sparked reflection and discussion among couples about their own relationships, Examples include comments such as “Let’s never do that,” and “Wow, did you notice that when they started to disagree about something, they handled it this way?”
The authors of another study published in 2014 found that the creation of couple friendships may also be a way to reignite feelings of passionate love in romantic relationships that tend to fade over time, says lead author Keith Welker Ph.D., a social psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
Passionate love, Welker notes, doesn’t just refer to sexual desire. “It also means constantly thinking about the other person and just being really excited about them,” he says.
In their second study, Welker and his team saw that the responsiveness of people’s partners had a significant impact on the effects of interacting with other couples.
“Another factor might be that it means something to see your partner behave in a caring way toward you in front of other people,” he says.
Welker and his colleagues asked approximately 150 couples to interact with each other through getting-to-know-you exercises. The couples who were directed to discuss personal things with other couples, like the last time they cried or their most embarrassing memories, felt more passionate love toward their partners than couples who engaged in mundane small talk.
“We found that the kind of interaction really mattered,” Welker says. “The couples paired with other couples to do boring tasks together didn’t report an increase in passionate love or relationships satisfaction. It was the emotional topics that did create a really quality interaction.”
Welker says the effect they noted appears to echo the results of a well-known 1974 relationship study. When attractive female researchers approached male subjects on high suspension bridges, the subjects reported a stronger attraction to the researchers than did male subjects walking on less exciting and anxiety-provoking bridges. Welker says his research, like the bridge study, likely reflects a “misattribution of arousal,” a concept from self-expansion theory that describes how people sometimes get confused about what exactly is exciting them. It explains why people in relationships can seem to transfer the feeling of arousal or excitement from spending time with another couple onto their partner.
These studies might in part be a response to the drop in couples’ sociability, which took a nosedive between 1975 and 2003, according to Alexandra Solomon, Ph.D., Northwestern University professor and author of Loving Bravely. Today, married American couples tend to be much less involved with friends and relatives than unmarried people. According to Deal, new, young parents can be particularly lonely.
“They have a lot to navigate through during this stage in their lives, yet they also tend to have the least amount of time,” she says.
One of the biggest roadblocks for parents in making and maintaining friendships with other couples tends to be time, Greif agrees.
“We do have some friends that are also couples, but as parents of a toddler, it’s difficult to do couple gatherings because that requires a babysitter,” says Stacey Bell, a research scientist in Raleigh, North Carolina, and mother of a 2-year-old. “More often, he goes out with his friends while I stay home with our daughter or vice versa.”
Couple friends lend a certain level of security and accountability and don’t provoke anxiety like single friends might, she continues.
“We have couples over to play games and sit out and drink on our porch, or for cookouts,” Bell says. “But single friends want to go the bar and stay out late, which can lead to some insecurity if your partner is out until the wee morning hours, getting hammered while his or her friends are flirting all night.”
Generally, kids also just take up more brain space and attention than they used to, says Solomon, who remembers regularly being dragged along on her parents’ weekend activities when she was a kid.
“Today, however, our weekends are really kid-focused,” she says. “What tends to fill those hours more often now are family time, especially for privileged families taking kids to music lessons, games, and other activities on weekends. So there’s less time for couples to spend together as well as less time to be with other couples.”
In addition, Solomon says, we expect far more from our intimate partners in terms of relational and psychological needs than ever before. Gender roles are more fluid now, so couples get to set the rules for their relationship. This is a positive in many ways, but it also might mean that one partner might put a foot down when it comes to hanging out with a couple he or she isn’t crazy about. In past generations, for example, a husband or wife might have felt more comfortable insisting on a reciprocal dinner invitation.
“There’s more space for everyone to say what they want, but if everyone’s wants and needs are on the table, the pool of who we can socialize with can be very small,” Solomon says. “Everything social is up for grabs now, and everyone is too tired to go out.”
So since couple friends can be especially challenging for parents, is it really that big a deal if you and your wife don’t have any?
“Couple friends can’t make a bad relationship good, but they can make a good relationship better,” Solomon says.
The type of couples who have the most to gain from friendships with other couples are “emotion sharing” types who, per Greif, are able to foster deep, satisfying connections. But not every couple is into that. Some people would rather just have fun and take a break from their complicated lives. Greif says there’s nothing wrong with that, so don’t stress if there’s no ride-or-die couple in your life.
“To get the benefit of couple friends, there needs to be high self-discloser interaction, not just hanging out with two warm bodies who happen to be in relationships with each other,” Welker says. “Boring double dates don’t seem to have a great effect on relationship satisfaction.”
In other words, making sure that you and your wife don’t feel isolated or unsupported is more important than hanging out with other couples, which is only meaningful if they’re part of a strong social network, not just people you can pass the time with.
“It can be especially beneficial for young couples with families to travel through time and space with other people who see you, who become witness and keepers of your stories and care about what happens to you,” Solomon says. “That’s such a key piece of wellness.”