When you hear that a couple is getting divorced, certain reasons creep into your mind: Infidelity. Financial issues. A lack of mutual respect. Chances are, whether or not the husband dislikes his wife’s friends doesn’t appear on your list. How could something so common and petty lead to something so big? But according to a 2017 study from the University of Michigan, they’d be wrong. When a husband hates his wife’s friends, bad things happen. And if you’re harboring this dislike, the explanation may say more about you and your friends than it does about your wife and hers.
In the University of Michigan study, researchers analyzed 16 years of data for patterns of marital tension that led to divorce. A major correlative factor was the relationship between a husband and his wife’s friends, where increased negativity predicted and increased chance of divorce. It all comes down to, as many things do, a degree of paranoia.
“Women are much more likely to discuss marital problems with their friends,” says Stephanie Roth Goldberg, a New York social worker and clinical therapist. “This leads to getting opinions on their relationship from their friends.” This, of course, is perfectly natural, though when the dislike between a husband and his wife’s friends is mutual, or one suspects it might be mutual, husbands feel threatened by the friends’ influence, and tend to generate a lot of negativity as a result. Says Goldberg: “a man may feel exposed hanging out with his wife’s friends because he is aware that friend may know more about him than he may like.”
All in all, this makes sense. What complicates all this is the eternally thorny issue of male friendships versus female friendships — how they’re different, how they’re similar, and how one affects the other within the context of a marriage.
“Women have these intimate, deep friendships with their friends, their female friends especially. We’re going to share everything and talk,” the Wall Street Journal’s Elizabeth Bernstein noted in response to the Michigan study. “Men are gonna golf, they’re gonna sail, they’re gonna go do things together and they’re never going to talk about it.”
Ultimately, it’s implied, the tensions between a husband and his wife’s friends can arise from jealousy surrounding the wife’s social circle and the accompanying emotional outlets that provides. This is basically noted in the data from the Michigan study, where multilevel models revealed that wives were reporting a lot more martial tension than their husbands, though the husbands displayed a greater increase in reported marital tension over time.
This could be partially attributed, Goldberg says, to a difference in expectation. “It has been my experience working with couples that women often want their husbands to be friends with their friends,” she says. “They feel torn when that doesn’t happen.” Essentially: it can take a long time for men to admit that there might be a problem, which becomes a more sinister problem in and of itself.
“Men tend to have more superficial relationships than women do,” adds Goldberg. “They may play or watch sports with many people they consider friends, but only discuss intimate topics with one or two close friends. Women tend to discuss more intimate topics with more people, whether they consider them close friends or not.”
The inability of many men to discuss their feelings — or to be allowed to discuss their feelings — had a wide range of well-documented consequences, including an increased chance of dying early. However, relationship expert James Anderson is optimistic about what the future holds.
“We’re steadily becoming less homophobic and more accepting of people being whoever they choose to be,” says Anderson. “Along with these changes, the pressure for men to be classically ‘masculine’ also wanes. It’s becoming far more acceptable for men to talk about their feelings. To build those same close bonds with their friends and share more intimate details.”
In fact, our perception of male relationships may be more influenced by its historical precedent than we think. And the data certainly suggests that in the 16 years since the data for the Michigan study was first collected, friendships between men have shifted.
In fact, a recent, small study in Men and Masculinities backs up Anderson’s intuition, significantly complicating our understanding of male friendships. Researchers surveyed 30 heterosexual men who were second-year college students and all respondents reported that it was much easier to work through conflict and express emotion with male friends than with a significant other. They mourn more freely. They discuss sensitive health information. In other words, their bromances can often be more open than their romances.
This sign of the times bodes incredibly well for the next 16 years of collected data on marital tension, given that every participant in the Men and Masculinities study reported behaviors like “sharing secrets, expressing love or sleeping in the same bed [as at least 1 male friend].” Anderson also notes that the study saw students feeling less judged by their close male friends, which, we can only hope, might turn the tide of fraternity one-upmanship that dominates college life for many men and contributes to a walling off.
So the shift has, hopefully, already begun. As with all signs of waning toxic masculinity, this only portends good things for everyone. If difficulties between you and your wife’s friends are causing a rift in your marriage, her friends are most likely not the problem. By investing in your own social circles, you relieve yourself of the envy you might not know you had.