Maybe you just argued with your boyfriend or maybe your girlfriend sent you a confusing text… what do you do? Do you message a buddy for some feedback? Do you call your friend to walk through the situation?
Whether you’re married, dating, or just hooking up with someone, chances are you’ve encountered moments when you want to talk about your relationship….and not with your partner.
You’ve been there. Conflicts, tension, and drama might require the advice of a trusted friend; ambiguous conversations (“she texted “depends but maybe” about the party, what does that mean?”) or unexpected behaviors (“um, that was totally weird, right?”) might demand support to help their deciphering. And sometimes we just want to tell our friends about the sweet things our partners might have done.
In all of these cases, we’re reaching beyond the invisible boundaries of our romantic relationship to a third-party, a friend. Friends are not passive observers of relationships. Indeed, accumulating research underscores the idea that friends and family have real influence over the course of a relationship (Sprecher, 2011).
So, if we want our friends to like our partners, why do we talk to our friends about negative stuff in our relationships? We’re not talking about abuse or violence here, which you should absolutely disclose to a caring friend. We’re talking about mild everyday drama. Why don’t we keep the not-so-great happenings in our relationships to ourselves?
Vallade and colleagues (2016) tackled this question with a qualitative investigation focused on why people talk to their friends about negative events that occur in their relationships. To obtain their data, they conducted five focus groups composed of a total of 36 undergraduates, the majority of whom were Caucasian, heterosexual women. They then synthesized responses into the themes listed below.
So, why do we talk to our friends about our relationships?
- For emotional support. This is no surprise: people talk to their friends about negative relationship events in order to feel better – maybe about the overall situation and their relationship, or maybe just about themselves (Vallade et al., 2016). We reach out when we need social support, to build our self-esteem, or when we just want to vent and complain. Friends can tell us not to worry and that it’s ok; they can make us laugh, boost our mood, and remind us of the good they see in us.
- To help us manage uncertainty. It’s not easy when you’re in a confusing relationship space and don’t know what to do. Maybe you’re not sure what your partner’s ambiguous text meant, or maybe you have bigger relationship questions: Is he just hooking up with me or is this going somewhere? Is she cheating or just stressed at work? Friends are consulted to help people navigate uncertain relationship issues (Vallade et al., 2016), especially those around negative events: friends can give advice, help discern who was in the wrong, or in other ways validate our interpretation of what might have happened.
- To give us clarity. A weird fight, an anxious week… sometimes it’s not always clear what happens in our relationships, when we’re invested emotionally and see it only through our own eyes. We turn to friends for added perspective, with the goal of gaining clarity (Vallade et al., 2016). Friends can help us talk through a problem or situation, and can look at events from a different view than us; this can be important as we try to figure out how to handle a confusing relationship event.
- For fun. Gossiping can be titillating; complaining and talking about your partner can be fun. For some people, divulging relationship events to friends – and then hearing their friends’ own stories – is an entertaining and rewarding interaction (Vallade et al., 2016), done for the pleasure it gives to a conversation or the intimacy it might build in the friendship.
Relationships don’t operate in a vacuum, but we do have some control over the information we share with friends. Regular group-chats that dissect a conversation you had with your romantic partner might feel helpful in the moment, but keep in mind that friends are forming impressions as a function of all information they learn about your relationship partner. We can help a partner we love by honoring the privacy of certain relationship events, highlighting strengths, and not emphasizing their annoying quirks to our entire friend group. That said, if anything is occurring in your relationship that makes you feel unsafe or controlled, reaching out to a trusted friend is critically important. Find a trusted friend to give you the support that you need.