By Megan Lundgren, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
After the bride and groom have spoken their wedding vows, declaring that they will love, comfort, honor and keep one another in sickness and in health, the Officient will often address the congregation:
“Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in marriage?”
“We will!” the congregation responds.
Could this be the most significant moment of the wedding day?
As it turns out, supportive communities are essential in sustaining a healthy marriage.
Establishing communities of support around marriage has significant impacts on the ability for the marriage to sustain itself. In September 2014, a striking research paper by economists Andrew M. Francis and Hugo M. Mialon revealed that there is a significant correlation between wedding size and risk of divorce. Francis and Mialon’s study indicated that couples who elope are twelve and a half times more likely to divorce than couples who have a large wedding with over two hundred people in attendance (A Diamond is Forever and Other Fairytales, 2014).
Lest you assume that the couples in the study with large weddings simply enjoyed ample financial resources which benefited their marital satisfaction, consider this: Francis and Mialon’s study also determined that the more money couples spend on their wedding, the more likely they are to later divorce. “Having a large group of family and friends who support the marriage is critically important to long-term marital stability,” writes Randy Olson, research analyst.
In 2013, a longitudinal study on divorce trends by James Fowler reflected similar findings, indicating that couples with more friends in their social networks were less likely to divorce than those who only had a few friendships (Breaking Up is Hard To Do, Unless Everyone Else is Doing It Too, 2013). Fowler reflected, “A strong, supportive friendship network protects a couple’s marriage by making it easier for individuals to weather inevitable marital stresses.”
Although large support networks clearly appear to be a factor in decreasing risks for divorce, the demographics of social networks are also apparently relevant. Fowler’s study made waves because the findings also revealed that divorce may have an element of social contagion. The researchers found that the divorce of a friend or close relative increased the likelihood that a couple would get divorced by 147 percent. When individuals learn about their peers’ experiences of divorce, those individuals are more likely to identify the potential benefits of divorce for themselves.
What does this mean? Married couples may need communities that support their relationship in order to be sustained: “Marriages endure within the context of communities of healthy relationships and within the context of social networks that encourage and support such unions,” says Fowler.
Is it possible that attending to your friends’ marriages could benefit your relationship as well? According to Fowler’s research, most definitely.
The problem is, many American married couples are isolating themselves. In her 2012 bestselling book on marriage research entitled For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed, Tara Parker-Pope writes, “Throughout history, family, friends, neighbors and coworkers have been important sources of social, personal, and financial support to married couples. But today, many people view their husband or wife as the primary person they turn to for support.” Parker-Pope’s reflections are supported by research by Sociologist Naomi Gerstel and Natalia Sarkisian who have found that married couples are less involved with their families and peers than singletons: married couples are less likely to visit or call their relatives, and are less likely to socialize with neighbors or assist friends in need (Marriage: the Good, the Bad, and the Greedy, 2007).
Interestingly, this trend of social isolation is not reflected in same-sex relationships. In her analysis of relationship research, Parker-Pope identifies same-sex couples as having a strong peer support network and are more involved in their communities (possibly to compensate for a lack of acceptance or support from family members). “In many heterosexual relationships, the husband and wife take an insular view, focusing most on each other and their children – often to the detriment of their relationships with extended family and friends. This ends up putting an enormous amount of pressure on husbands and wives to be ‘everything’ to their partner,” writes Parker-Pope.
So far, research has taught us that having a large network of supportive peers may benefit the longevity of marriage relationships. We have also learned that heterosexual couples are becoming increasingly insular and thus are less likely to seek involvement in their communities. Let’s now explore the particular reasons why a supportive peer community may be essential to the health of a marital relationship.
1. Friends help couples gain perspective on their marriage.
“When you’re inside a marriage, it’s easy to focus on the points of friction and the minutiae of daily life,” noted Katherine Rosman in her 2011 article for the Wall Street Journal titled, Why Friends Help Strengthen A Marriage. Friends may provide relief from marital stress and opportunities to reflect on the relationship’s overall health, value, or meaningfulness.
2. Friends help couples see “the good” in their spouse.
“When a friend says to me, ‘I saw Joe and your daughter at the park and she has him wrapped around her finger,’ my focus is drawn past dirty socks left on the floor and onto the fact that I married a terrific guy who is loved by many,” says Rosman. Friends may remind us of the strengths, assets, skills, and virtues that spouses bring to a marriage.
3. Friends give couples examples of inspiring relationships.
Many couples do not have the resource of an intact and healthy marriage modeled by their parents. Even couples who do aspire to the marriage of their parents may find themselves at a loss for how to sustain a marriage in the ever-changing culture and demands of the modern day. Friends may provide couples with a personal and relatable model for a healthy marriage.
4. Friends place couples in social contexts that facilitate bonding.
Weddings, karaoke parties, dinners out on the town: whether social engagements with peers are fun, fancy, or adventurous, they tend to break up mundane routines and foster memory-making. Couples may be energized by the encouragement of friends to live life fully together.
5. Friends provide couples with additional supports so that they are not solely reliant on their spouse.“When I first got married I had a vision of a union of two people who realized that they needed nothing in the world but each other. As I’ve grown older, I see more nuance…I have a career, kids, a home, siblings and all the attendant dramas. I can’t rely on Joe to be my sole counsel for all that, just as I cannot be his,” concludes Rosman. Friends may take the pressure off of couples to fulfill one another’s every need.
The tendency of American heterosexual couples today to focus their attention inward may seem romantic at first blush. However, research reveals a different narrative: it takes a village to keep a marriage happy. When couples begin therapy at my therapy private practice, one of my first questions is often, “Who else supports your relationship?” It is imperative that couples find confidants who are committed to upholding their marriage, for worse or for better.
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Looking forward to connecting with you and your loved one soon!
Francis, A., & Mialon, H. (2014, September 15). ‘A Diamond is Forever’ and Other Fairy Tales: The Relationship between Wedding Expenses and Marriage Duration. Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2501480
Olson, R. (2014, October 10). What makes for a stable marriage? Retrieved from What makes for a stable marriage? (Randal S Olson) http://www.randalolson.com/2014/10/10/what-makes-for-a-stable-marriage/
Parker-Pope, T. (2011). For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed. New York City: Plume.
Gerstel, N., & Sarkisian, N. (2006, January 1). Marriage: The Good, the Bad, and the Greedy.
Rosman, K. (2011, July 3). Why Friends Help Strengthen a Marriage. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304490004576422323560214658
Rogge, R. (2013, December 1). Is skills training necessary for the primary prevention of marital distress and dissolution? A 3-year experimental study of three interventions. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/ccp/81/6/949/