Study: Husband’s disapproval of his wife’s friends predicts divorce among White couples

New longitudinal research has found that a husband’s disapproval of his wife’s friends increases the chances of divorce — but only for White couples. The study was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

“In my work studying the intersection of social networks and marriage, I often read that one of the health benefits of marriage is thought to be the joining of two social networks, because individuals then have access to more social ties and social support — sometimes known as ‘marital capital,'” said study author Katherine L. Fiori of Adelphi University.

“However, this positive spin seems to ignore the difficulties that can emerge when combining two separate sets of family and friends. Such difficulty has been well-documented with regard to the challenges of connecting to a partner’s family (e.g., acrimonious relationships with in-laws), but very little work has considered the effects of merging friend networks on the marital relationship.”

“Interestingly, there is quite a bit of research about the effects of friends’ and families’ opinions of the partner on marital stability; that is, if your family and friends do not like you partner, your relationship is less likely to succeed, especially if it’s in its early stages. However, what was not clear from the research was what happens if your partner doesn’t like your friends?”

To examine this, Fiori and her colleagues examined data from the Early Years of Marriage Study. The longitudinal study of marriage and divorce has tracked 174 White and 199 Black couples from Michigan since 1986. (The study did not include interracial couples.)

Roughly 36 percent of the White couples and 55 percent of the Black couples had separated or divorced within the first 16 years of marriage.

The researchers found that husbands who expressed disapproval of their wives’ friends at the beginning of the study were more likely to have been divorced 16 years later. This relationship held even after controlling for potentially confounding factors, such as income and marital quality.

“Although having a larger support network can be beneficial, merging two separate sets of family and friends can be a challenging process for couples. The biggest takeaway here for married couples is that working on your marriage does not mean just focusing on your relationship with each other; it’s also about considering your relationships with your friends and family (those you have in common and your own),” Fiori told PsyPost.

“Although we often hear about potential problems that can come up with in-laws, we don’t usually think about how difficult it can be to get along with your partner’s friends. Acknowledging the potentially powerful role that friends and the wider social network can play in the marriage may be an important (albeit often overlooked) process in maintaining a healthy partnership.”

However, a husband’s disapproval of his wife’s friends only predicted divorce among Whites couples. Why was this relationship not found among the Black couples?

“It may be that interactions with family are more relevant for the stability and happiness of Black marriages than for White marriages. In fact, our own work has shown that Black couples are more likely to be embedded in networks focused on family than are White couples, who are more likely to be embedded in friend-focused networks,” Fiori explained.

“We also know that Black Americans even construct extended kin networks with close trusted family and friends (known as ‘fictive kin’) as a way to garner support that may be unavailable from more traditional formal sources. Thus, this focus on the family could protect the marriages of Black husbands and wives from the otherwise negative effects of disapproval of each other’s friends.”

“However, interference from friends (a more ‘proximal’ variable measured at Year 2 rather than Year 1 in our study), was a strong predictor of divorce for both Blacks and Whites – implying that they are not immune from these effects,” Fiori said.

The researchers also found that a wife’s disapproval of her husband’s friends, on the other hand, did not predict divorce for either White or Black couples.

“This is likely the case for a number of reasons. First, we know that wives can more easily take over for men’s friends (e.g., doing activities together) than husbands can for their wives’ friends (e.g., engaging in emotionally intimate conversations). Related to that, husbands tend to rely on wives more for support than wives depend on their husbands — wives typically rely more on close friends,” Fiori said.

“Thus, husbands might be able to more easily give up friends who their wives do not like, and spend more time with her instead, reducing a source of potential marital disagreement. In contrast, wives may be less willing or able to give up their friends, even when her husband doesn’t like those friends.”

“Furthermore, wives are much more likely than husbands to discuss their marital problems with their friends, which, over time, may make any existing marital concerns worse and could actually increase the likelihood of divorce. Whether or not wives are actually making their marriages worse by complaining to their friends may not be relevant, since it’s the husbands’ perceptions of the wives’ interactions with friends that seem to play an intrusive and potentially detrimental role in the marriage,” Fiori explained.

“Alternatively, since we know that friends not liking a partner can lead to marital dissolution, it could be that the feelings between husbands and wives’ friends are mutual — that is, the husband doesn’t like his wife’s friends simply because they don’t like him — and what’s driving the eventual divorce is actually the friends’ opinions, not the husbands.”

“Unfortunately we did not have information from the friends themselves, so we weren’t able to tease out that possibility in the present study,” Fiori said.

“We also didn’t know the gender of the wives’ friends — the husband’s disapproval could of course be linked to feelings of jealousy, particularly of opposite-sex friends, but we also know from some recent work that husbands may be jealous of their wives’ same-sex friends as well. Most likely the husband had in mind a mix of male and female friends when considering his wife’s friends.”

Future research could further explore what types of friendships cause problems in marriages, Fiori said.

“This issue may become even more salient given recent historical changes in the way that courtship operates, as outlined in Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg’s book ‘Modern Romance,'” Fiori added.

“That is, when you think about courtship historically, people used to be introduced to potential partners through their friends and families, or they would meet people who lived in the same building or on the same block — in that sense, they often already shared much of their network. With the rise of online dating, people are frequently introducing two entirely distinct group of friends – making this ‘merging’ that much more challenging,” she said.

“So what might be some tips for people caught in this situation? Acknowledging the things that these friends and family may do for you — e.g., maybe you don’t really like all the time your wife spends with her friends and/or family, but think about what kind of support they may provide — can you reframe it and think about how those individuals are benefiting your wife and/or helping you as a couple?”

The study, “‘I Love You, Not Your Friends’: Links between partners’ early disapproval of friends and divorce across 16 years“, was authored by Katherine L. Fiori, Amy J. Rauer, Kira S. Birditt, Christina M. Marini, Justin Jager, Edna Brown, and Terri L. Orbuch.