Family Matters

Why Hanging Out with Couple-Friends Enhances Romance

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Want to spice up your romantic relationship? No need to spend money on long-stem roses or expensive dinners. Instead, spend time — not just with each other but with some really good friends. Recent research in the journal Personal Relationships shows that dating couples who hang out with couple-friends wind up feeling closer to each other.

Like a lot of research, this study — entitled “When Harry and Sally met Dick and Jane: Experimentally creating closeness between couples” — arose from the personal experiences of the researcher.

Richard Slatcher, an assistant professor of psychology at Wayne State University who specializes in social and health psychology, has been married for almost 15 years. He and his wife have made close friends as a couple, and they felt that those friendships have enhanced their own union. Slatcher, who’s studied romantic relationships for a few years, wondered whether their experience would hold true for others. He decided to test it out. (More on Lovers Can’t Agree on Whether They Agreed to Embrace Monogamy)

“The reality is relationships are dynamic and are impacted by lots of outside forces, including those people we’re friends with as couples,” he says.

A few studies from the 1980s had found that couples with a larger percentage of shared friends – either couples or individuals – are happier in their relationships and have a greater chance of staying together than couples with a large percentage of individual friends. But Slatcher said it was impossible to tell whether it’s just that people who are happier in their relationships end up finding couple-friends because that’s what happy couples do or whether couple-friends actually convey some sort of intrinsic benefit for couples.

Intent on divining the difference, Slatcher zeroed in on 60 dating duos who had been together two years on average and divided them into two groups — those assigned small-talk conversation starters (the last time you walked around for an hour, where did you go and what did you see) and those who received more profound topics to discuss. For example: whom, living or dead, would you like to invite to dinner? What’s the worst best experience of your life? If you had a year to live, what would you do?

The couples were randomly paired off and ordered to get to know each other for 45 minutes using the assigned questions. Couples in the “meaningful questions” group quickly bonded and ended up creating real friendships. Three months later, a third of those couples wound up hanging out with each other in the real world. Yet none of the “small-talk” group kept in touch. The takeaway? Talking about meaningful things and personal experiences instead of irrelevant blather is the glue of friendship. (More on Time.comWhat Your Brain Looks Like After 20 Years of Marriage)

Yet Slatcher was able to determine that not only did friendships blossom from chatting about stuff that matters, but couples indicated feeling more positive about their own relationships after befriending a new couple.

“They actually felt better about their own relationship,” says Slatcher. “They reported feeling excited, enthusiastic, happy and closer to their partner.”

What’s the connection? Perhaps double-dating requires each half of a couple to get dressed up — physically and emotionally. “Especially after you’ve been with your partner for a long time, some people think being yourself means not treating your partner as well as you would treat other people,” says Slatcher. “Sometimes when people are alone with their partner they don’t treat them as well as they should.” (More on Time.comShould the ‘Love Hormone’ Oxytocin Be Used in Couples Therapy?)

No research required to determine that taking your sweetie for granted can’t be good for coupledom — regardless of how many friends you’ve notched.