It is hard enough for two people to maintain a relationship over an extended period but when four or more people are involved it may even be more difficult. Some would argue that one couple may serve as a buffer between two partners of a second couple who do not like each other’s company or even find each other boring, but this tends to be a temporary fix—a distraction from larger more serious relational problem. A couple in such need is usually uncomfortable spending time alone together; they always seem to triangulate (Bowen, 1978) at least one couple on a consistent basis. The foursome often vacations together and may even honeymoon together. If for any reason these surrogate couples disappear, the triangulating couple may divorce. It as if they were being held together by “spit and glue.”
There are other couples, however, who enjoy very intimate one-on-one relationships and have a proper mix of alone and social time. These couples somehow manage to maintain long-term relationships with other couples, demonstrating an ability to play well and to tolerate a mix of different personalities. These couples do the work to maintain these relationships and are often the envy of other couples. But it is far from easy. One client described it like having a second career. “It takes a lot of time,” he said. “I credit my wife for pulling this off, but I am almost fearful of be-friending any more couples. I just do not have the time.” In this spirit, I am offering the following 4 ways to maintain a solid relationship with another couple:
1. Work Hard: My former client was right: to maintain a close relationship with another couple you must work at it. This would entail frequent contact either physically or by telephone or text. Obviously COVID-19 has made getting together more difficult but people who know how to maintain closeness with another couple call and text frequently.
It is also important to remember significant events such as birthdays. And whatever you do, do not miss a wedding or funeral unless you are physically incapacitated. These events go a long way towards showing support for your friends, creating good will, and leading to reciprocity (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark, 1973).
2. Be There in a Crisis: All of us experience a crisis now and then—it is the nature of life. Being there for a couple when they are in a crisis is particularly appreciated, but this can be tricky. For example, if the crisis pits one partner against the other and it tempts you to take sides—do not. It is usually best to be as objective as possible. Even if one partner is complaining about the other and you agree, keep it to yourself and serve as a sounding board; and whatever you do for one partner, do for the other.
If the couple are experiencing something that is joining not splitting them, like the illness of a child or a financial problem, do what you can to be helpful. One couple presented a quandary: Their best friends were having severe financial problems and they wanted to contribute. But they could not afford what their friends needed. With some guidance they decided to explain their situation and offer what they could as a gift rather than a loan. Their friends were very touched by this gesture. Demonstrating empathy, avoiding fixed triangulation, and maintaining appropriate boundaries are key during a crisis.
3. Maintain Mutual Interests: I am not suggesting that you go out of your way to indulge in something that you intensely dislike, but just as you would in your intimate relationship, keep an open mind and be flexible. If your friends will participate in activities that you and your partner enjoy, reciprocate. Whatever you do share a love for, will be even more solidifying. A male client told me that he and his wife were big concert goers. However, they did not share music tastes with their friends across the board. To remedy this discrepancy both couples decided to take turns choosing concerts to attend. This way they learned from each other and kept the relationship close. Those concerts they both liked were especially memorable and bonded them as couples.
Some couples make the potentially fatal mistake of only participating in things that they “love” to do. You know, the old: “Life is short” defense that can be used to support a rigid narcissism. This stance may leave the door open for your friends to find others to be with. While it is preferable to have several couples to do certain things with, you can carry this perspective too far and alienate those closest to you. While it is always best to be-friend couples you already share many interests with, there will always be areas that do not match up and will merit compromise and gentle negotiation.
4. Tolerate Difference: I have saved perhaps the most important tenet for last. It is often difficult to find two couples that matchup. When this happens, it is usually worth the effort to maintain the friendship. You will find everyone, even those you deeply love, annoying from time to time and this goes for your friends as well. If you can make exceptions—within reason—for your family, then you should be able to do the same for your friends. There will always be a friend who: tells bad jokes, demonstrates a little too much aggression, is overly ambitious, is ostentatious to a fault, and is even relatively obnoxious. Consider that you may demonstrate some of the same behaviors that they must tolerate in you and your partner.
I do not mean for you to maintain a relationship with your friends if they steal from you, for example, but you will need to assess every attack or insult from an intellectual and objective perspective. This is hard to do because the closer you are the more hurt you might be if you feel betrayed. But even those closes to you are human and make mistakes. If they show the appropriate remorse you might want to consider giving them another chance to prove their friendship.
If your partner begins to get turned off before you do this could cause a serious problem in your relationship. In this case you will have to negotiate with your partner and set a new level of distance with your friends. If this cannot be done, however, you might have to terminate your relationship with the other couple to avoid serious relationship trouble on the home front. Only do so if you understand your partner’s true motivations for severing the relationship. The couple’s idiosyncratic behaviors may be triggering something in your partner that can be resolved. Fitzgerald wrote, “Reserving judgements is a matter of infinite hope.”