From Sun Magazine: Friends can have benefits for marriage, Maryland researchers find

From Sun Magazine: Friends can have benefits for marriage, Maryland researchers find
Drs. Geoffrey L. Greif and Kathleen Holtz Deal, both of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, have written a book called "Two Plus Two Couples and Their Couple Friendships." (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

What if Ricky Ricardo didn't love Lucy?

Unthinkable as that might be, new research by two professors from the University of Maryland School of Social Work suggests that the secret to a long and happy marriage might live nearby, like the Ricardos' landlords, Fred and Ethel Mertz.

According to "Two Plus Two: Couples and Their Couples Friendships" by Geoffrey Greif and Kathleen Holtz Deal, a close-knit foursome can strengthen both sets of marriages. The authors say their book, which was recently released by Routledge press, is the first scholarly account of shared friendships that are specifically between couples.

Both Greif and Deal are involved in long-term marriages (he for 36 years, she for 43). Both say that their four-way friendships have bolstered their commitments to their own spouses.

"There are two couples with whom my husband, Dave, and I are particularly simpatico," Deal says.

"These people have been a huge influence on my life. I see them more frequently than I do my siblings. We've vacationed together. We can talk about anything we want to. We've been through sad times and good times."

For their research, the two professors interviewed 426 people between 2008 and 2010, including 123 couples, though they stop short of claiming that their findings are representative of couples in the U.S.

For instance, only heterosexual couples are included in "Two Plus Two." The authors say there are important differences between same-sex and opposite-sex friendships and they couldn't cover both topics in the same book.

Greif and Deal also acknowledge that the couples in the study weren't selected randomly, which could bias the study's results.

For instance, interviews were restricted to stable, happy couples. In addition, most interview subjects lived on the East Coast, and the sample size didn't include as many Latinos as Greif and Deal would have wished.

As a result, "Two by Two" reaches relatively few cast-in-concrete conclusions. Rather, it paints an intimate portrait of how real-life couples tackle various issues in their paired friendships. The authors think their book draws a useful portrait of how couples friendships tend to function in marriages that work.

The book chronicles the quandary faced by Stacey Ishman, 42, and Jim McCarthy, 49, of Baltimore County. (Identities in the book were changed to protect the anonymity of the research subjects. So, in "Two Plus Two" Ishman, a pediatric surgeon, and McCarthy, who works in sales and is a stay-at-home dad, are called "Tracy" and "John.")

The two have been married for nearly a decade and are frustrated by their current inability to form more intimate couple friendships. They want to meet more duos like themselves, couples who married late and have young children roughly the age of their own two boys: 6-year-old Ben and 2-year-old David.

"We'd love to have a group of really smart, nice couple friends who have the same perspective we do," Ishman says.

"But they aren't easy to find. People our age usually have kids who are older, and they're talking about issues relating to college and high school. We're still dealing with 2-year-old tantrums."

Most academic research currently being done in the U.S. homes in on dysfunction, says Greif, who has written several previous books and writes a blog for Psychology Today magazine. In contrast, he and Deal assigned themselves the task of ferreting out the factors that result in success.

"We were interested in a strength-based perspective," Greif says. "We wanted to focus on people who are doing things right. Maybe we can learn something from them."

Ishman and McCarthy say that socializing with other couples brings out the best parts of their partners' personalities. After an outing with a compatible duo, husband and wife perceive one another in a rosier light.

"Jim has a very dry wit that I love," Ishman says. "He's fun, and people enjoy spending time with him."

For his part, McCarthy never fails to be impressed by his wife's combination of a high-powered intellect with a gift for putting others at ease.

"When people find out that Tracy is a surgeon, they're always surprised," he says. "She's not pretentious. That's the last thing she is. She's very gracious and welcoming."

The authors say that this example demonstrates how couples friendships differ from similarly strong connections between individuals.

"Individual friendships can be more self-centered experiences," the authors write.

"Although they hold enormous value, they are different than what happens when one couple shares an experience with another couple. In the sharing, the partners in a couple experience not only the other couple, but also each other."

Deal and Greif divided their couples into three categories: "seekers," like Ishman and McCarthy, who are eager to establish new couple relationships; "keepers" who nurture their existing couples friendships but aren't looking to form new quartets; and "nesters," introverts who are content to remain mostly within their home circle.

The authors say it's not unusual for a seeker to be wed to a keeper or even a nester, and vice-versa. When that happens, complicated negotiations can ensue.

For instance, McCarthy identifies himself as a nester, while Ishman, who works between 60 and 70 hours a week, is a seeker. But McCarthy has more time and opportunities than his wife to initiate new friendships.

"People come up and introduce themselves when I'm walking in the neighborhood with Ben and David ," he says."So, I'm usually the one who gets to know the family first and sets up a date for us all to get together."

But even when couples do get acquainted, they may have different expectations about how to spend their time together.

Greif and Deal say that couples friendships tend to be characterized primarily by either "fun-sharing" or "emotion-sharing."

About two-thirds of their research subjects prefer the former pattern of interaction. For these couples, group get-togethers are a chance to play cards or golf or to attend a concert.

The remaining third also enjoy group outings, but they will also bounce problems off their mutual friends.

The authors point out that even those who prefer a fun-sharing style with other couples will have individual friends with whom they engage in regular heart-to-hearts. And among even the most tightly knit foursomes, some topics are easier to discuss than others.

"We live in a society where people can be very close with another couple, but they still don't talk about sex and money," Greif says. "These topics are off the table, and continue to be taboo with even your best friends."

But as "Two By Two" makes clear, different couples declare different conversational areas off-limits.

For example, Ishman and McCarthy met when both were living in Chicago. Both brought long-standing friendships with couples into their marriage. Ishman vividly recalls a beach vacation that involved four or five pairs of her and her husband's mutual friends, and which included a no-holds-barred discussion about family planning and sex.

In addition, as a physician who counsels residents as they are embarking on job searches, she's also comfortable conversing about money.

But Ishman draws the line at discussing family relationships with friends. If she were ever to have a serious disagreement with her parents, for example, she doubts she'd talk about it in a couple setting.

"To me, that's more personal," she says. "I don't think I would talk about that with very many people."

Greif and Deal were surprised that very few of their research subjects reported that sexual tension either interfered with or enhanced their couple friendships. That finding held true whether the couples were interviewed with their spouses present, or individually.

The scientists speculate that to keep social relations running smoothly, couples might intentionally or unconsciously tamp down feelings of attraction when they're with their BCFs, their best couple friends.

"Obviously, some people aren't going to give you the full story," Greif says. "A certain level of sexual attraction is normal. We were expecting to get more reports of that than we got."

It seems that a solid couples friendship functions as a kind of GPS that shows alternate routes around potential roadblocks. One of the book's key findings is that healthy couples model positive behaviors without even realizing it, and their friends emulate them.

For instance, when Ishman and McCarthy were newlyweds and childless, they became close to a couple who lived in Milwaukee with their four children.

"I loved to watch them parent," Ishman says.

"She was a principal at an elementary school, and in disciplinary situations, they would talk with their children about good and bad choices. They'd say that life was about making choices, and bad choices felt bad. It made so much sense, and it's something we've used with our own kids. When we got together with them, Jim and I were always taking mental notes."

To read more

"Two Plus Two: Couples and Their Couple Friendships," by Geoffrey L Greif and Kathleen Holt Deal, Routledge Publishing, 231 pages, $21.95