Are Your Close Friendships Harming Your Romantic Relationship?
Imagine it is Friday afternoon, and you are just leaving work for the week. It has been a tough week, and you are ready to relax and enjoy some social connection. Your partner, who you spend most of your free time with, has to attend a work mixer and will not be able to join you tonight. No problem—a couple of your friends are available and happy to help cap off the week with you. You end up having a great time and later learn that your partner made some important work contacts at the mixer.
This sounds ideal, right? As human beings, we all have diverse psychological needs that we seek to fulfill to maximize our well-being, and in this example, everyone’s needs were met. Your need for social connection was met by your friends, and your partner’s need to achieve was met by the happy hour after work. Both of you would probably be feeling pretty good as individuals, but what about as a couple? Is it possible that relying on people other than our romantic partners to fulfill our needs can inadvertently harm our relationship?
To answer that question, Morgan Proulx and I conducted three studies, and the short answer is, yes, need fulfillment from outside of a relationship can have some negative consequences for people’s relationships.
In our first study, involving over 4,000 adults in the U.S., we found that the more support that people reported receiving from people other than their spouses, the less positively they viewed their marriage and the more likely they were to think their relationship would end in the future. Well, sure. That might seem obvious: people who are getting lots of support from outside of their relationship must be people who are unable to get it from within. But, we also found the same effect even when people’s spouses also provided a great deal of support! So, regardless of how much support participants’ partners provided, receiving support from other sources led them to feel less positively about the relationship. We needed to know why.
One possibility we considered was that romantic relationships persist for many positive, uplifting reasons: love, satisfaction, comfort, and so on. But, sometimes they also persist for the much-less-romantic reason that people don’t like what their “options” would be if they didn’t have their relationship. In some cases, relationships persist because people don’t know anyone else they’d rather date, or they don’t think being single would be better. We thought that people whose needs are fulfilled from sources other than their romantic relationship might feel a bit more positively about their other options. If so, this could explain what we were seeing in our first study.
To test this line of thinking, we conducted two more studies. In these, we asked our participants, who were undergraduate students in dating relationships, to think about how much their relationship fulfills their important needs and how much their needs are fulfilled by sources other than their relationship. We also asked them how good their other “options” would be if their relationship didn’t exist. Finally, we asked them how committed they were to their relationship and how much they thought about leaving it.
The results aligned with our thinking: the more people’s needs were met by sources outside of their relationship, the more they felt that their other relationship “options” were strong. And, unfortunately, the more participants felt that they had viable options outside of their relationship, the less committed to the relationship they were and the more they thought about leaving it.
And that’s where our results have left us, but there are some obvious questions we want to pursue next. In our future research we’ll try to clarify whether this effect occurs for everyone or if it’s especially likely for people who are already less satisfied with their relationships. We will also look at whether people have preferences for how much of their need fulfillment they want from their romantic relationships, and whether it matters which needs are met outside of one’s relationship.
Suffice it to say, romantic relationships are complex, and to think about how friendships affect them makes them even more so. Nevertheless, we are working to understand how people satisfy their needs both inside and outside their relationships because we believe it will provide information that will help people have more satisfying, long-lasting romantic relationships.
For Further Reading
Machia, L. V. & Proulx, M. L. (2020). The Diverging Effects of Need Fulfillment Obtained from Within and Outside of a Romantic Relationship. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46, 781-793. doi: 10.1177/0146167219877849.
Finkel, E. J., Hui, C. M., Carswell, K. L., Larson, G. M. (2014). The suffocation of marriage: Climbing mount Maslow without enough oxygen. Psychological Inquiry, 25, 1-41. doi:10.1080/1047840X.2014.863723
Le, B., Dove, N. L., Agnew, C. R., Korn, M. S., Mutso, A. A. (2010). Predicting nonmarital romantic relationship dissolution: A meta-analytic synthesis. Personal Relationships, 17, 377-390. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01285.x
VanderDrift, L. E., Agnew, C. R. (2012). Need fulfillment and stay-leave behavior: On the diagnosticity of personal and relational needs. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29, 228-245. doi:10.1177/0265407511431057
Laura V. Machia is an associate professor of psychology at Syracuse University. She is a social psychologist who studies close relationships and interpersonal processes.