By Dr. Richard Nicastro
You exist within a web of relationships. For instance, if your friend is going through tough times, you may find yourself feeling an emotional heaviness throughout the day, thinking and worrying about your friend. As this colors your mood, your partner may start to notice that lately you’ve been preoccupied and down. Since emotions are contagious, this will impact your partner in some way and her/his interactions with others may now be different as a result of what your friend shared with you.
How is this relevant to your marriage or relationship?
Your relationship exists within a larger social context, and your friends, coworkers, family, and even the society in which you live can directly or indirectly impact your relationship. Think of your relationship as one link on a never-ending chain of connectedness.
This was evident with two couples I recently coached:
A brief story of relationship isolation:
Tad and Wanda have lived together for a little over a year and during a recent coaching session, Wanda complained that “all of our friends seem to be getting divorced or breaking up. It’s depressing and makes me think there’s something wrong with me for trying to make my relationship work. When I try to talk to my friends about a fight I had with Tad, they just tell me to ‘find someone better-suited to you,’ or ‘relationships are overrated anyway.’ The whole ‘there are lots of fish in the sea’ mindset isn’t helpful when I’m trying to make my relationship work now.”
Tad and Wanda lack the couple-to-couple support that is vital for a sustainable, long-term relationship. They both struggle with feeling like the “oddball couple” in a sea of failed relationships (and they don’t have any single friends who are pro-relationship) and both acknowledged that this was starting to negatively impact their union.
A brief story of marital support:
Molly and Jeff have been together for eleven years. Both are retired and have been active participants in their local community and volunteer for numerous causes. This involvement has offered them opportunities to develop friendships and socialize with other couples.
Molly joked that their friends “saved our marriage on at least two occasions” because of the support they offered Molly. She shared, “If Jeff and I are going through a difficult time, for whatever reason, I don’t feel alone. I have at least two other women I can talk to who have been through difficult times but they’re still happily married. I know I’m not alone in my struggles and that makes a world of difference. And I have a few single friends who are supportive of my relationship and committed relationships in general, even though they’re not in one now. All that encouragement among my friends really helps whenever I start to worry that the challenges of a romantic relationship might be too much for me.”
The need for relationship support
Couples love to hear about other couples who have successful relationships. Have you ever noticed how people in relationships are happy to learn that a famous couple is in it for the long haul? Many couples feel validated to discover that their favorite movie star or musician has resisted the temptations that come with fame and are committed to one person. Notice your reaction the next time you hear that people you know and/or admire are splitting up.
Couples root for other couples and there is an unspoken, cosmic connection, a sense that we’re in this together. If your neighbors and friends can make their relationships work, you end up feeling more hopeful that you can make your own work.
Seek Out Relationship Support
Relationship support comes in many forms and the first step is to look in your own backyard. Make a list of all the individuals and couples you know and admire: family, friends, teachers, community leaders, local organizations or church members.
You might be surprised to learn that there are people in your life that have been married or together for a long time (and feel lucky to be with the same person). These couples can be an emotional resource for you and your partner. Would you consider asking them about their relationship, especially what has worked for them? Are you willing to seek their support when you (or your partner) need advice or guidance?
We all need relationship mentors and couples who have successfully navigated the complicated interpersonal terrain that comes with committed relationships. This doesn’t mean you should overlook friends not currently in relationships as potential sources of support. Often single friends who understand and celebrate you and your relationship can be a safe place to go to when you need a different perspective or just need to vent.
Don’t overlook the vast relationship wisdom that surrounds you.
Many couples like spending time with other couples. If most of your friends seem to be in dire relationship straits or your friends’ values regarding commitment differ from your own, you need to expand your social network and seek out couples you and your partner can socialize with, couples dedicated to making their own relationships work. The goal of expanding your couples-support-system doesn’t mean you have to abandon your current friends because they aren’t in a relationship or their relationship is in trouble and it means that you enrich your circle of friends to include those that believe in the benefit of a long-term, committed relationship and will help support you in yours.
It might seem like a paradox that you can be with someone you deeply love, yet still feel isolated. Often couples assume feeling isolated means there is something wrong with their relationship and while this can be an indication that there are problems that need to be addressed, it can also be an indication that your relationship is surrounded by negativity and a lack of support.
No matter how strong your relationship might seem, you and your partner do not exist in a vacuum. When you establish the goal of building a support network for your relationship, you have taken an important step in buffering the damaging effects of relationship-isolation.