We love our friends and we want the best for them. But what do we do when our friends are dating losers, jerks, Charlie Sheen, or just someone who is not good enough for them? Do we try to affect the ultimate outcome of the relationship, or do we support them regardless of their poor choices? After all, if people in relationships regularly don rose-colored glasses, don’t we have an obligation to help them see clearly?
In a recent paper in the journal Personal Relationships,1 Professor Sue Sprecher asked more than 500 college students to describe a time they either approved or disapproved of a friend’s relationship. Participants were asked to think about how they felt about the relationship, the effect they thought the relationship was having on their friend, how compatible the pair was, and how much they believed the partnership would be fulfilling in the long run. They were also asked how much they engaged in certain behaviors to communicate their approval or disapproval of the relationship to their friend. Interestingly, not only did participants report feelings of approval and disapproval towards their friends’ relationships, but these feelings were not left idle: people reported engaging in behaviors that corresponded with their feelings. Specifically, those who felt negatively about the relationship were more likely to engage in disapproval behaviors (e.g., communicating their disapproval, telling the friend that he or she could find a better relationship, trying to keep the two from spending time together, etc.). Meanwhile, those who felt positively about their friend’s romance were more likely to engage in approval behaviors (e.g., inquiring about the significant other and the relationship, praising the developing relationship, expressing liking of the significant other, etc.). Additionally, the more participants tried to influence the relationship, the more they felt like their actions had an effect on the relationship, and two-thirds of friends believed their behavior affected the ultimate outcome of the relationship!
If we sense that our friend’s relationship is not a good fit, at what point are we most likely to show it? According to this study, we have stronger negative reactions to our friends’ relationships when they are becoming serious or are seriously dating compared to earlier (casually dating) or later (engaged or married) in their relationships. This may be because we know casual dates come and go, but as our friends’ investments increase, we feel a stronger need to subtly guide their future by intervening before it’s too late.
The research also showed that men and women attempt to intervene at different levels. Women tried to positively influence their friends’ relationships more than men by doing things like showing approval for the relationship and being interested in hearing about the relationship. Supporting other findings where women more accurately predict the outcome of others’ relationships, these results suggest that women are also particularly successful at facilitating relationships when they approve of them.
So, if your best friend is dating a jerk, what should you do? If you and your friend are close, be honest, but let him or her know you support them no matter what decision they make. Good friends know there is a fine line between being constructive yet also respectful and supportive.
1Sprecher, S. (2011). The influence of social networks on romantic relationships: Through the lens of the social network. Personal Relationships, 18, 630-644.
Lindsey Rodriguez, M.A. – Science of Relationships articles
Lindsey’s interests include the development of a comprehensive, dyadic perspective for examining how problematic alcohol use and interpersonal relationship processes interact to influence various physical, emotional, and relational outcomes for individuals and their relationship partners.