Hubby's Dislike of Wife's Friends Linked to Greater Divorce Risk

Two couples have dinner together.
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Did your husband really like your bridesmaids? The answer could be linked to how long your marriage may last.

Researchers studying marriage and friendships found that among white couples, when husbands disapproved of their wives' friends during the first year of marriage, the couples were more likely to end up divorced than when husbands were fine with their wives' friendships. The results did not hold true for black couples, the only other race surveyed in this study.

However, in both black and white couples, when the husband felt the wife's friends interfered with the relationship, their chance of divorce was nearly doubled.

"Ours was one of the first studies to look at the effect of merging friend networks and how those might affect the marital relationship," said Katherine Fiori, a psychologist at Adelphi University in New York and a co-author of the new research published May 3 in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

Merging friends

A lot of research has looked into how married couples navigate their relationships with in-laws, Fiori told Live Science, but there has been less of a focus on post-marital friendships. The role of merging friends for relationship satisfaction may be increasingly important, Fiori said, because people are now less likely to meet their significant others through friends and more likely to find them online.

"We are now having people who are coming from two very different sets of families and friends who are now trying to merge these networks," Fiori said. [I Don't: 5 Myths About Marriage]

The researchers used data from 355 black and white heterosexual couples who were surveyed through the Early Years of Marriage project, a study that has followed the same couples who married in Detroit since as early as 1986. About 36 percent of the white couples and 55 percent of the black couples divorced within the first 16 years of marriage. (All of the marriages in the study were between people of the same race.)

Predicting divorce

Using that 16-year time frame, Fiori and her colleagues compared couples' likelihood of divorce with the answers that the men and women gave separately to several questions during their first few years of marriage. In year one, each person was asked about how many friends they and their spouse could call on for help and advice. They were also asked, "Does your (wife/husband) have friends that you would rather (she/he) not spend time with?"

In year two of marriage, couples were asked whether their spouses' friends interfered with their married life.

Husbands' perceptions of their spouses' friends turned out to matter the most for whether a couple would divorce. For example, 70 percent of white couples in which the husband was fine with his wife's friends during year one of marriage were still married 16 years later. But among those couples in which the husbands disapproved of the wife's friends, just over 50 percent were still married, according to the study. Women's attitudes toward their husbands' friends didn't matter for the likelihood of divorce.

In black couples, neither spouses' feelings about the husband or wife's friends predicted divorce. If a husband viewed his wife's friends as interfering, though, the chance of divorce almost doubled regardless of race. The findings held true regardless of other factors that can influence divorce rates, including education levels, income, age, whether the study participants' parents were divorced, whether they'd had a child before marriage and their own reports of marital quality in the first year after the wedding. [The Science of Breakups: 7 Facts About Splitsville]

Why friends matter

Traditionally, social psychologists have seen an expanded friend network as a boon of marriage, Fiori said. But at the same time, married couples report spending less time with friends than single people do. Some of that may have to do with the couples turning to each other for their social needs, but friction between spouses and friends may be another issue, Fiori said.

The study can't, on its own, explain why only husbands' opinions matter or why there is a racial difference in how friendships affect couples.

Previous research, however, might provide some clues. Studies have suggested that black couples may rely on family networks for support more than white couples, who turn to friends more frequently, Fiori said.

"It may just not matter as much that they disapprove of each other's friends, because their focus is so much on family," Fiori said of the black couples in the study.

There are many reasons that a husband's opinion on his wife's friends might matter more than vice versa, Fiori said. Wives are known to be more likely to share emotional intimacy with friends than husbands. They talk about their marital problems more with friends, which may exacerbate those problems in some cases. And because men focus more on doing activities with their friends rather than sharing feelings, women may more easily take over for men's friendships. That means men may be more likely than women to simply drop a friend their spouse has a problem with.

But it also may be that men are be more willing to seek a divorce over these issues than women, Fiori said.

Previous studies have also found that when friends disapprove of a relationship, that relationship is more likely to eventually break up than if the social network gives it the nod of approval. Husbands who reported that they disapproved of their wives' friends may have been picking up on the friends' disapproval of them.

"It's kind of like, which came first, the chicken or the egg?" Fiori said.

Couples struggling with dislike of their spouses' friends might try reframing the relationship and considering the benefits their spouse gets from that friendship — and how those benefits might trickle down to the marriage, Fiori said. 

"We often hear about problems that can come up with in-laws," she said. "We don't usually think about how difficult it can be to get along with a partner's friends."

Original article on Live Science.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.