The Most Important Person in Your Relationship May Not Be Your Partner

Updated: Feb. 25, 2021

It's not news that a strong social network is essential to being the healthiest version of ourselves. Now there's new evidence that friendships can help improve our romantic relationships, too.

coupleStock Asso/shutterstockWhile there are some things you should never tell your friends about your spouse, it turns out that friends and family can really help support you in a romantic relationship. A recent study out of the University of Texas at Austin found that a reliable and strong social network can not only save your relationships, but even your health.

The research, which studied newlyweds and their cortisol levels, discovered that “spouses who reported being more satisfied with the availability of friends and family, whom they knew they could connect with during times of marital conflict, experienced conflict as less physiologically stressful.” In the study, the researchers looked at cortisol levels, which is known as the stress hormone and measures physiological stress, and compared those levels to the ebb and flow of marital conflicts. (By the way, these are the signs that stress is actually making you sick.) The researchers found a strong relationship between stress hormones of people who had strong relationships outside of a marriage and lower risk factors for health problems such as weight gain, insomnia, depression, and even heart disease.

“We found that having a satisfying social network buffers spouses from the harmful physiological effects of everyday marital conflicts,” said Lisa Neff, an associate professor and author of the study, in the findings. “Maintaining a few good friends is important to weathering the storms of your marriage.” (All the more reason to grab a buddy and laugh at these funny quotes about friendship.)

It is not healthy or even reasonable to expect one person to fulfill all of our needs. “No matter how compatible and/or in love a couple may be, human beings have an innate need for different types relationships,” says Tammi Baliszewski, PhD, psycologist and host of “Journey to Center” on Empower Radio. If a couple only has one another as a support system, this can lead to undue stress and pressure in the relationship and likely create a co-dependent dynamic (also referred to as “relationship addiction”).

Relationships act as a type of mirror, and having different relationships not only helps us see ourselves from different perspective; it also lends support in a variety of ways. “To have a best girlfriend that we can talk about our emotions and to help us process our hurt feelings, can support us in seeing ourselves more objectively and help us be more stable in our primary romantic partnership,” says Dr. Baliszewski. It works for both genders, too. “A man can greatly benefit from having guy friends that can talk about common interests such as sports or work,” she says.

For both men and women, different types of connections and relating can bring about joy, inspiration, laughter, and clarity. These friendships “feed us” and help “fill us up” mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, so we are not in a state of deficit or need in our committed relationship. “In a healthy relationship, there is common ground, but with clear boundaries,” says Dr. Baliszewski. “Then there are areas that do not overlap. This is where we benefit from connecting with other people to fulfill these other needs, aspects of ourselves, and areas of interest.”

In fulfilling partnerships, we are not co-dependent, dependent, or even entirely independent. “We are interdependent: There is a giving and receiving and a flow,” says Dr. Baliszewski. “By cultivating and participating in other friendships and relationships, we can know ourselves more deeply, enjoy our lives more fully, then come back to our primary partnership with a greater sense of self-awareness, personal satisfaction, and authentic appreciation for ourselves, our partner, and our partnership.” Having good friends isn’t the only secret to a happy marriage. Here’s another one—and it has nothing to do with sex or communication.