Social Work Faculty Study Friendships Among Couples
Geoffrey Greif, DSW, MSW, professor at the School of Social Work, and Kathleen Holtz Deal, PhD, MSW, associate professor at the School, have collaborated on a book that addresses a long-overlooked aspect of life as a couple—that maintaining sound friendships with other couples can benefit a marriage or a relationship between unmarried partners.
Two Plus Two: Couples and Their Couple Friendships, published in January by Routledge, also concludes that when couples agree on how they spend time alone and with others, they are more likely to have a happy relationship. The findings are based on interviews with 123 couples with both partners present, 122 individuals who were alone when questioned about their relationships, and 58 divorced individuals.
Greif, the author of articles and books on family issues, previously studied men and their interactions with each other for his 2009 book Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships. He says a look at friendships among adult couples seemed a logical next step.
From the outset of the project more than three years ago, he says, the authors and their student assistants found very little written about the topic.
“We looked extensively regarding adult long-term relationships across the life span,” Grief says.
Deal, who has been married 43 years, says she and her husband have established and kept friendships with a group of five other couples for more than three decades. They have shared social events and vacations.
“We can talk about anything we want to. We have shared sad times, and good times,” she says, calling the group of friends, who met each other at church, “a huge influence on my life.”
Greif says that he and his wife of 36 years “feel very comfortable” in their friendships with other couples, and that work on the book has given him the “language to think about how couple friendships are begun and how they are maintained.” Readers can use the book as a blueprint, he says.
Greif and Deal say that in healthy friendships among couples, members of one pair might observe in another couple successful qualities and behaviors, such as methods of negotiating. The research also found that the topics of couples’ money and sex lives are taboo even among friends.
Couples at many stages of life were interviewed for the book, which is organized accordingly with chapters such as “Couples in the First Years of Marriage/Partnership,” “The Middle Years: Couples Raising Families and Balancing Friendships,” and “Older Couples and Their Couple Friendships.” The oldest people interviewed are now in their 80s and 90s.
To identify and interview subjects for the study, the authors drew upon the work of 58 master's students at the School of Social Work who were involved in an advanced research course. One student—Marissa Sussman, a 2012 MSW candidate—conducted six interviews, focusing afterward on how couples’ friendships play a role throughout their lives.
“I used the data from my own interviews as well as the findings from my classmates,” Sussman says. “The research was then supported by professional journals that touched on the topic.”
Sussman says she values the experience for the insights she gained and for the “opportunity to step away from books, and into the real world of research.”
“We were given the freedom to explore responses from the people we interviewed, and this helped me recognize my ability to think on my feet,” she says. “This skill is essential in my success as I become a clinician.”