Finding the Lost Friendship within Your Partnership

Poodle friends against a pink background

Couples researcher John Gottman reports that after many years of studying marriages, he can tell within five minutes of observing a couple while they argue whether the relationship will end in divorce (Gottman and Silver 1999). A key predictor, he says, is the presence of contempt. Perhaps this is because when contempt enters, the ability to recognize the basic value of our partner is compromised.

Friendship vs. Contempt

Friendship is the opposite of contempt. Contempt is about scorn, whereas friendship is about recognizing another’s inherent, fundamental value. It’s about liking our partner, in spite of his or her quirks. The bond of friendship is not only essential to a loving and vital relationship but also its greatest reward.

Think about your best friend, aside from your partner. What feels particularly good about that relationship? Probably, it’s the comforting sense of being liked, of being valued simply for who you are, or perhaps despite all that you are. Good friendships give us a sense of ease, a sense that we are okay, even with all our warts and foibles.

A friendship is therefore defined by how each person regards the other, which is demonstrated by how they treat one another. True friendship involves an agreement to treat one another with the respect and courtesy due someone of value.

Ask yourself whether you treat your partner as you would a friend. For instance, if a friend were in the habit of forgetting to go to the dry cleaners, would you be compelled to point this out? You might notice it or have thoughts and judgments about it, but you’d probably choose not to say anything out of respect for the relationship, or because you didn’t to want make your friend unnecessarily unhappy.

Being friends doesn’t grant us an open invitation to offer our thoughts and opinions about each other’s behavior. Why would this be different in an intimate relationship? It’s interesting how easily we lose sight of the possibility for genuine friendship with our partner. Sadly, we lose sight of how to be a friend in what’s actually our most important and intimate relationship.

Noticing Judgment in Partnerships

This issue of judgment is worth exploring more fully. Let’s say, for example, that your friend Jill can be a little testy when stressed. Do you notice a bit more willingness to say to yourself, “Well, that’s just the way Jill is” and to move on, rather than fixating on how Jill needs to change, as you might with your spouse?

Many people find that they have less judgment in their relationships with friends than they do with a partner. Although it may be difficult to get away from expectations and judgments with a partner, the result is a lesser degree of friendship in that relationship. Think about the elements of friendship that are most important to you. Perhaps one element is a sense of being understood. How do you demonstrate being understanding of your partner? Perhaps it’s being supportive. In what ways do you actively support your partner?

Our friend Beth told us that what she loved most about her close friends was their ability to celebrate her successes with her. She said, “When they’re almost happier than I am that something is going well for me, I know that that’s true friendship.” She also said, “A true friend, however, also joins me when things aren’t going well.” Do you actively share in your partner’s joys as well as his or her sorrows?

So, think about the ways in which your actions are or are not in the service of friendship. We have so many golden opportunities to respond with a gentle laugh of understanding instead of censure. We have the chance to say, “I understand,” rather than to correct. We have the opportunity to support and encourage. If you consider your relationship with your partner a valuable friendship, consider how you can nurture it and make it stronger. Look for an opportunity today. Take it and see what happens next!

Practicing Friendship with Your Partner

As you engage with your partner, try to catch yourself in a given moment and ask if you’d be doing something differently if this were a friend instead of your partner. Would you have said what you just said in a different way? Would you have made the request you just made? Would you have responded differently to something your partner said or did? Now see if you can stop yourself in the moment before you act, and adjust your behavior to fit how you would be with a friend. Try to do this at least once per day for the next week.

This passage was excerpted from the book The Mindful Couple by Robyn Walser, PhD, and Darrah Westrup, PhD.

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