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October 23, 2019

Do Relationships Outside Our Marriage Matter?

"We no longer talk much, except about the kids' schedules," Sarah said as she turned to look at her husband during a Safe Haven Marriage Intensive. "We don't go out with our friends, anymore. What can we say?"

"It's obvious we're disconnected," added her husband Frank. "We just don't have anyone else in our lives anymore," Sarah shared with tears.

My heart sank. I knew that when a marriage is filled with resentment, a couple emotionally disconnects; and if repair attempts fail, a couple not only drifts apart from each other, but also their friendships and community. And at a time when they need friends more than ever, they isolate themselves, instead. Loneliness in a marriage is heartbreaking. But a lack of friendships is life threatening.

Often when stressed, depressed or overwhelmed with life, we isolate ourselves, cutting ourselves off from our most powerful life-giving resource: close friends. Research shows over and over again that when we have close, connected relationships in our life, we do better. We are able to manage the stress, struggles, and strains that life brings our way knowing that someone is there to listen, understand and help us get through it.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young and a leading researcher on loneliness, found that an insufficient social connection has a big impact on our emotional and physical well-being. Lonely people have less restful sleep, higher blood pressure, increased cortisol (the stress hormone), increased inflammation and weakened immune systems.

Loneliness is not necessarily all about being alone—you can have a big family, be married, or have lots of friends you go out with. Rather, loneliness depends more on the quality of a person's relationships than on the number of people in their social network.

What's missing for lonely people is not just social contact, but meaningful friendship. This is the connection that comes from sharing about yourself and life with someone who cares for you, and you for them. You connect on a deeper level and are a part of each other's lives. Your relationships are a source of joy and comfort and become a buffer to the stressors in life. And meaningful friendships outside of your marriage are vitally important and life giving.

People need to be involved in real life relationships—that is, eye-to-eye conversations, in the flesh, with other human beings. Elizabeth Redcay, a neuroscientist at University of Maryland, documented distinct differences between peoples' brains when they are involved in actual social interaction, versus "digital" interaction. Being with someone appears to make a vital difference.

Anthropologist Joan Silk observed that female baboons who had a group of 3 other female baboon friends had lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormones), lived longer and had more surviving offspring. We don't need many close friends for our lives to feel blessed. Dr. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, says that out of our typical circle of about 75 to 150 acquaintances, we really only need 3 to 5 close friends.

So I encourage you…

1. Identify your most-trusted friends. If you don't have close friends, find three people with whom you can build a friendship. Call these people up, invite them out, and as you are doing something fun together, try to get to know each other. Spend time together, be open about yourself, and share with each other your thoughts, fears and dreams. Be willing to be seen and known by your friends. Be there for each other.

2. Your friends will be imperfect people, as we all are. Sometimes your friends will act like baboons, so you will all need lots of grace, understanding, and you may find yourself frequently working out hurts or arguments. But sticking by each other will be powerful.

3. Seek out other couples where you can all be real about the ups and downs of marriage. Read a book on marriage together, offer each other support, and encourage each other to grow and love well. In so doing, you will gain outside perspectives that can help you through your own difficult seasons of marriage.

4. If you find yourself frequently talking negatively about your spouse among your friends, consider getting professional marriage counseling. Yes, it is good to have a trusted friend who can listen to your woes. But casually voicing how disappointing your marriage is without taking any real steps toward changing it isn't productive. Rather, seek constructive ways to grow and foster change in your marriage, and ask your friends to support you in it.

Staying isolated in your marriage struggles won't help you find new pathways for growth, change and healing. God has created you to live every day of your life in community with others—with people who care for you and will be there for you. Fostering these kinds of friendships takes time and effort. So, invest now in those relationships!

I don't know you by name or by face, but I pray for you. My hope is for you to find a supportive community where you can feel safe to share your struggles, hurts, and joys. Where reflecting back to you will be kind and understanding friends who can be there for you. And where you can be that kind of friend for someone, too.

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