We all have that one friend who is in a terrible relationship with a person whom you simply cannot stand. You know what I mean, the on-again off-again relationship…the one where your friend/family member is WAY too good for the person that they’re dating. The kind of relationship where the couple constantly argues, makes up, then starts another argument as they’re in the middle of making up. As a friend or family member it’s exhausting to watch someone go through that cycle. But even more exhausting is the fact that you have to deal with a person (your friend’s partner) you don’t like! And no matter how many “talks” you have with your friend it feels like they just won’t listen to your advice. Well it might feel that way, but according to the research your disapproval is actually making the relationship worse…which is great if you’re rooting for a breakup.
Most people are familiar with the story of Romeo and Juliet: Two lovers torn asunder by their feuding houses. In their case, the disapproval of their friends and family members lead to the couple taking their own lives…talk about a rough breakup. But even if the two had not died that night, their relationship would have been a complete disaster. Research shows that relationships that receive disapproval from the couples’ social networks (friends, family, peers, etc.) are not only less satisfied than those who receive approval1, they are also more likely to break up.2 This is, in part, because when we don’t communicate with our partners’ social networks (and when they don’t communicate with ours) we tend not to like them as much.3 This can alter the way that we view our partner, as we often judge people by the company they keep.
Approval and support (or lack thereof) is one thing, but the influence that social networks have on a relationship goes much deeper than that. When network members don’t approve of a relationship they will actually purposely interfere with that relationship’s development.4 And before you say that your love is “million dollar strong” and that nobody could get between you and your partner, consider that over one third of couples that split mention that social network members contributed in some way to the breakup.5 So odds are that the Capulets and Montagues would have dramatically interfered with and, ultimately, aided in the separation of Romeo and Juliet.
So what can be done to stop our friends and family from tearing our relationships apart? One of the most important things that you can do is make sure that you and your partner get to know each other’s social circles – and make sure that it happens in a positive way. Ongoing research has documented that people can experience uncertainty specifically about their own (and their partners’) social networks. In turn, those uncertainties can cause people to question the nature and purpose of their relationship. Typically, the more you get to know your partner’s network (and the more they get to know yours), the better off you are.
Another thing you can do is to make sure that you are not neglecting your friends or your partner. The ability to juggle partner time and network time is a reoccurring theme in a lot of the relationship research. Those who feel that they cannot appropriately split their time up usually experience less relational success.5 Most people can recall that friend or family member who becomes so preoccupied with their partner that all other relationships fall to the wayside. Having an appropriate balance between all of the close relationships in one’s life is the key to a healthy romantic partnership. Or you could play it out like Romeo and Juliet did…I’m sure it’ll turn out better for you.
1Parks, M. R., Stan, C. M., & Eggert, L. L. (1983). Romanic involvement and social network involvement. Social Psychology Quarterly, 46, 116-131. DOI:
2Agnew, C. R., Loving, T. L., & Drigotas, S. M. (2001). Substituting the forest for trees: Social networks and the prediction of romantic relationship state and fate. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 1042-1057. DOI:
3Eggert, L. L., & Parks, M. R. (1987). Communication network involvement in adolescents’ friendship and romantic relationships. In M. L. McLaughlin (Ed.), Communication yearbook (Vol. 10, pp. 283-322). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
4Sprecher, S. (2011). The influence of social networks on romantic relationships: Through the lens of the social network. Personal Relationships, 18, 630-644. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01330.x
5Felmlee, D. H. (2001). No couple is an island: A social network perspective on dyadic stability. Social Forces, 79(4), 1259-1287.
James’ primary area of research is the study of uncertainty and how it influences close relationships. So, what behaviors make us the most uncertain about our relationships? And, more importantly, how do those uncertainties affect our relationships? James also studies friends with benefits relationships in great detail, and how they differ from/overlap with more traditional close relationships.