Just like many couples, Tom and Judith have three sets of friends—his, hers, and theirs. A few years ago, they had to face whether one of Tom's friends was also a friend of their marriage.
Tom and his friend Jack had taken a camping trip together every summer since they graduated from college. After the last trip, Judith was searching for her sunglasses when she discovered a beer can under the front seat of their car. Tom, whose father was an alcoholic and who had a one-time drinking problem himself, had promised Judith when they'd married seven years earlier that he would never drink again. She thought he'd kept his word until she discovered the can.
When Judith confronted Tom with her discovery, he first denied, then finally admitted, he'd been drinking with Jack. When Judith pressed, he confessed that it wasn't the first time he'd gone back on his promise—and every time it was when he was with Jack.
For Judith, this was a crisis. Before they married, she'd experienced Tom's verbal abuse when he drank too much. She had no intention of being the victim again, and was determined to protect any children they might have from such abuse. So when he proposed, she set down the condition: "I love you, but I can't marry you unless you promise me you'll never drink again. I won't let you talk to me like you did after that last party. And I'll never let you talk to our children that way or have them see you drunk."
"You can trust me," Tom had promised. "I'll never touch the stuff. I won't sacrifice our relationship for a few beers." But he did drink again. And more than once. He broke his promise. How could she now trust Tom to keep his word? How did she know he wasn't deceiving her in other matters? Did he value his friendship with Jack more than his marriage?
When Judith told him that her trust in him was shattered and that she didn't know if she could stay with him, Tom protested: "But I never verbally abuse you or the kids. And you've never seen me drunk." "No," Judith retorted angrily, "but I have noticed how withdrawn you seem when you come back from your outings with Jack. Now I know why. You feel guilty because you've broken your promise."
Nothing Tom said could alleviate Judith's distress. More promises were not enough; he had to do something to heal his marriage and restore Judith's trust in him. This was when he came to the difficult decision that Jack was no friend to his marriage. Jack knew of Tom's tendency to drink excessively and of Tom's promise to Judith. But when the two of them were alone, he badgered Tom to drink with him.
So Tom told Jack that if they were to remain friends they had to have new ground rules: Jack would no longer urge Tom to drink with him, and they would no longer go places together without their wives. Jack was angry and broke off contact with Tom. Tom lost a close friend. But he saved his marriage.
A foe in disguise?
Most couples never raise the question of how their friends affect their marriage. They assume, and often rightly so, that friends are a positive factor in both their personal and marital lives. Yet many couples' marriages are marred or threatened by so-called friends. The friend may not even be aware of the damage he or she is causing. Jack probably didn't consciously set out to sabotage Tom's marriage. He just wanted to keep on having the same "fun" times he'd always had with Tom.
Jack illustrates one way in which a friend is a foe to your marriage: when he influences you to do something that detracts from, or even disrupts, marital intimacy. Fortunately, Tom and Judith also had Ken and Diane, friends who helped them through the difficult time in their marriage. Ken and Diane spent hours listening to Tom and Judith, helping them understand what was at stake. When Judith wondered whether she could ever fully trust Tom again, they reminded her that he loved her enough to give up a long-term friendship to save their marriage. "They were the glue that held us together when we were about to fall apart," Judith says. "They helped me realize you don't just chuck a good marriage because you hit a rough spot."
There are a number of other ways in which friends can be detrimental to your marriage. One is when a friend, whether same-sex or opposite, becomes your main confidant. That kind of sharing is what builds true and deep intimacy. Thus, when you confide your concerns and fears, your hopes and dreams, your struggles and temptations with a friend to the exclusion of your spouse, you forge your strongest bonds of intimacy with the friend.
Another way in which friends can hurt your marriage is by consuming too much of your discretionary time. Couple time—the time you spend together, connecting with each other and nurturing your relationship—is at a premium for most of us. Friends who expect or demand so much of your time that they deprive you of couple time are foes to your marriage. This is what Emily discovered when she realized her friend Maggie was phoning her every evening during the time she and Hank had reserved for after-dinner coffee and to talk about their day. Emily felt responsible for Maggie; she knew that Maggie was having a difficult time at work. But their conversations limited, if not obliterated, the couple time Emily and Hank needed for themselves.
Emily's solution was to explain the problem to Maggie and propose that they phone each other from work on their lunch break.
In contrast to Maggie, Sarah, who'd been Emily's best friend since first grade, unfailingly supported Emily and Hank's efforts to enrich and strengthen their marriage, such as the time they signed up for a marriage-enrichment weekend at their church. Later, Sarah asked Emily to go with her to a concert given by a group that they both had wanted to hear for years. Emily offered to cancel the marriage-enrichment weekend, but Sarah refused. "I'll find someone else. Your marriage is way more important than the concert."
Finally, a friend who's a critic of marriage generally, or of your spouse in particular, can hurt your marriage. One of Jack's responses to Tom's problem in his marriage: "What Judith doesn't know won't hurt her. She's too uptight, anyway. You need to get away from that now and then. That's how I handle my wife." Avoid such friends like the plague.
Choose instead friends who help you feel better about yourself and make you a better mate. In the early years of her 11-year marriage, Melissa, whose parents divorced when she was eight, had little confidence in her ability to be a good wife. Her self-doubts tarnished the quality of her intimacy with her husband, John. It was only after she became good friends with Susan that Melissa began to change. Susan kept pointing out the ways in which Melissa was a "great catch" for any man, and the many ways she was a good wife. Susan helped Melissa feel good about her marriage. As Melissa's self-doubts receded, her marriage grew richer.
Every marriage needs cheerleaders—friends who are high on marriage and on you as a couple. Unlike Jack, who thought that Judith and Tom's marriage was boring, Susan, who's still unmarried, lets Melissa and John know that she wants a relationship someday that's as great as theirs. She's pro-marriage and pro-Melissa and John—a combination that intensifies their appreciation for their union.
Asking tough questions
Hopefully, you have marriage-enhancing friends like Susan. If so, cherish them; if not, cultivate them. A good place to begin is to ask the following questions about current or potential friends:
- Do they enjoy the kind of activities and conversation that strengthen marriage?
- Do they make you feel better about your spouse?
- Do they respect and support your need for couple time?
- Do they celebrate marriage as a rich human experience?
A "no" to any of these questions is a red flag. Take care. Such "friends" could be the foes of your marriage.
Finding "marriage-friendly" allies
Where do you find friends who will enhance your marriage?
Both individual and couple friendships can be found in a great variety of places: in church groups and classes; at marriage-enrichment weekends; at work, when you find a colleague who talks positively about his or her spouse and the joys of marriage; at local clubs where couples come together, such as book groups and square-dance gatherings; at social events; at school gatherings such as the PTA; at Little League games where parents come to watch their children; and in the neighborhood where others live who are marriage and family oriented.
Keep in mind that you aren't the only ones looking for new friends. Although people often seem busy and well-connected, many will relish the opportunity for a new friendship.
You may have to initiate the friendship by inviting a couple to dinner or to a church event. You may have to endure a few efforts that fall flat for various reasons. But be persistent. Sooner or later your efforts will pay off with new, marriage-enhancing friends who will both enrich you personally and strengthen your bond with each other.
Jeanette and Robert Lauer are authors of numerous marriage books, including The Play Solution (Contemporary Books) and
Love Never Ends: Growing Together in Marriage and Faith
(Upper Room Books). They've been married 52 years.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.