For a NAPERVILLE MAGAZINE article I was extensively quoted on the importance of friendship both in and out of the marriage. While not written by me and rather long, I think it makes a good blog on the importance of friendships at all levels. Enjoy!
by Jessica Royer Ocken
You picked your partner for everything he or she has to offer: his laugh, her personality, all the things you like to do together, your similar goals and priorities in life. In short, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. “Friendship, in my opinion, forms the basis for any loving relationship,” notes Sheldon Isenberg, a Naperville couples therapist and founder (along with his wife, Raye) of Isenberg and Associates. So, when you’ve found the one who completes you, it’s natural to feel you’ve hit the companionship jackpot.
However, even though your spouse is the yin to your yang, the pals he’s packing may leave something to be desired. “Sometimes there’s an issue where couples haven’t been able to establish connections with other couples,” says Isenberg. “It’s a ‘these are your friends’ kind of thing. ‘You like him, but I don’t enjoy her. I don’t connect with these people. I’m trying, they’re your friends, but we don’t connect,’” he explains. “You marry each other, not necessarily the group you’re with.” And even if you like your amour’s amigos well enough, as years pass and life’s demands multiply, these relationships may lose out to an advancing career, the needs of young children or, well, where is it that the time goes?
Nevertheless, no matter how magnificently matched the partners may be, a dearth of outside friendships can eventually cause strain on a couple’s couplehood. “The majority of the time, the literature shows that when you don’t have a good social support system, the relational system you have will break down,” says David Cichocki, visiting assistant professor in the Department of Communication at University of Kentucky-Lexington and long-time relationship researcher.
This is no slam on the quality of your relationship, it’s just an aspect of togetherness. “I tell my students that after you’ve seen someone naked a thousand times, you have to talk to them,” he says. “And after you talk to them for three, four, five, seven years, you have to find something else to say.” Cichocki notes that it takes between seven and 10 years to really know someone. So for a full decade, your partner may have further facets of him or herself left to reveal. But your goal shouldn’t be to run this well dry. “Friendships can help people to grow,” he says. “You get new views and interests and become a more well-rounded person, staying active and interested in life. That’s how a marriage evolves.”
Cichocki relates a concept known as “dialectical tension – autonomy and connectedness. One can’t exist without the other,” he explains. Not only is your “connectedness,” or friendship with your partner, worth nurturing and expanding, so is your life as an individual. We learn things and expand our experiences by having friends, explains Isenberg. They may teach us to knit or water ski, but they can also show us how to forgive or survive a crisis. And as we grow, we bring new ideas and, heck, new topics of conversation, back to our core relationship.
Sure, there are times when friendships may seem a little superfluous, or like an indulgence you can’t afford. But these experts rank friendship as one of life’s essentials, no matter how busy you may be. “If you limit the growth of the individuals by just having you two, eventually you may run out of things to talk about, get dissatisfied with your lives, and look at your partner and say, ‘it’s your fault,’” Cichocki says. “You’ll fight over the toothpaste cap or ‘why don’t you ever cook?’…We’re better parents and better people by having experiences, continuing to be in the process of growth,” he continues. “And that’s better attained by interacting.”
Trusted friends at the ready may prove particularly invaluable if your relationship with your partner encounters a snag. “You have to have some other way of interacting with people, particularly if you get into a stuck place with your spouse, which everyone does,” says Isenberg. “It can be terribly isolating.” Although there aren’t many couples who schedule a session specifically to discuss the state of their friendships, “when people are lonely or depressed or feeling stuck with each other, I always ask what their social life is like,” Isenberg says. “Do they belong to any organizations? Do they go to church? What do they do for fun? There are a lot of sad couples out there who aren’t doing much except working.”
“Sometimes we need to encourage people to find people like themselves,” Isenberg continues. “Sometimes [people] get lost in their roles and forget outside life. Maybe a mom is too isolated at home. “What do you do besides work and go home?” I ask them. “What did you used to do? Why don’t you now?’ Then we start talking about getting lost in the shuffle of time commitments. No time for socializing sets you up for depression,” he explains. “People have been celebrating holidays from the time we were just in animal skins. It’s a common human experience…[and it's] absolutely necessary to a sense of community. It’s different than with family, it’s with likeminded people. I consider that essential for a healthy life.”
OK, so developing yourself and building a support system via friendships is key, but what about friendships that enrich your lives as a couple directly, not just indirectly? This is the holy grail of friendship – a chance to interact with others and your spouse all at once. “How do you find two people you both like in the same couple?” Cichocki asks. This most precious sort of friendship can be difficult to track down. Many Naperville couples cite achieving the ideal foursome as an elusive prize: “It’s not that common that both guys and women all click equally as well,” says Kathy Berger. “Usually it’s I really like her and [my husband] Ted’s like ‘Eeeeehhhh’ or vice versa.” Berger’s neighbor Andrea LeRoy agrees. “We haven’t found that magic couple where I’m good friends with the woman and [my husband, Dennis,] really likes the guy,” she says. “His friends are nice enough, and we like them and get together, but that’s not the same as me choosing that person as my friend.”
Despite the challenge, it’s worth searching because when this fantastically compatible couple is finally revealed, the sky may open and heavenly voices sing. Just what is so fabulous? “You know you’re not alone,” Cichocki explains. “[You think,] we must be a good couple, because we’ve met these other people who are a good couple…After a while people start looking at you as a unit, not just an individual, so on a relational level, when you’re friends with other couples, that’s [the kind of validation] you get.” The process of finding these paired companions may be aided by exploring interests you and your spouse have in common. Chances are others are interested too. “We founded a synagogue when we were in our 30s,” Isenberg recalls. “We still have some of those friends. We were likeminded…that binds people together.”
Finally, despite all the benefits friendships can bring to your partnership, it’s not a contest to gather the most friends, or a call to make the quest for an active social life a burden that leaves room for nothing else. Instead, friendships are a journey that involves connecting and disconnecting at the right time. “Some friends seem to stand the test of time. They will be there, you will bury each other,” Isenberg says. “And other friends are not that way. It’s not that they’re fair weather (although there are those), but some friends are there for a period of time, and it’s not unusual to see some friends move on.”
And when they do, you’ve got your one and only, still standing by.