Whenever a couple seeks marriage/relationship help, I take an inventory of their relationships (the people they choose to spend time with—like friends—and the people they might be stuck with for periods of time—like coworkers).
Why the emphasis on outside relationships when a couple’s marriage is in trouble?
You exist within a web of relationships—and these relationships can impact your marriage.
An example of interconnectedness:
Imagine a good friend is going through tough times and after spending some time together you find yourself feeling an emotional heaviness throughout the day, thinking and worrying about your friend. As your friend’s experience colors your mood, your spouse might start to notice that lately you’ve been preoccupied and down.
Since emotions are contagious, your feelings spill over and your partner might begin to experience some of your emotional heaviness or if s/he is uncertain about what is troubling you, s/he might become anxious, worrying that your reaction is an indication that you’re unhappy and that something is wrong with the marriage. If left unchecked, your reaction can now impact your interactions with others, since they’ll sense that you seem troubled and not fully present.
How is this relevant to your marriage or relationship?
Since your relationship exists within a larger social context, your friends, coworkers, family, and even the society in which you live can directly or indirectly impact your experience of your marriage.
Think of your relationship as one link on a never-ending interlocking chain of connectedness.
Marriage Help: We all need 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—there is an unspoken, cosmic connection, a sense that we’re in this together. If Brad and Angelina can make their marriage work, and your neighbors and friends can make their relationships work, you end up feeling more hopeful that you can make your own work.
Relationship Help: Seek Out Relationship Support
Marital/relationship support comes in many forms and the first step is to look in your own backyard. Very often I counsel couples to make a list of all the individuals and couples they 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, despite the challenges that come with long-term relationships). Can these couples be an emotional resource for you and your spouse/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—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.
You Might be Surrounded by Vast Relationship Wisdom
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—seek out couples you and your spouse/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 married or their relationship is in trouble—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—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 marriage/relationship might seem, you and your partner do not exist in a vacuum—what surrounds you will impact you. 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.
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro