Linda Price, Ph.D., LMFT View Entire Blog

Can our Best Friend Relationship Cause Harm to Our Primary Relationship?

Friends are important, aren't they? They are there through our good times and bad things and they offer us a needed "sounding board" with our deepest fears and insecurities. I think my friends are the best, and I know my life would be missing something terribly important without them around me.

But -- what happens when our good female friend or male buddy friend becomes our source of deep, personal emotional support? When our child receives a good report, who is called first -- our friend or our wife, husband or partner? When there is a fear or insecurity that riddles us with self-doubt, who do we confide in for support and comfort -- our best friend or our loving partner? When work is overwhelming or exciting and our family is out of control or actually doing very well, who do we turn to for sharing and receiving advice and wisdom -- again, our best friend or our loving partner? When our wife/husband or girlfriend/boyfriend is causing us a lot of embarrassment or humiliation and we begin to lose self-respect for our partner, who do we talk to about our problems? If your best girlfriend or your male buddy has become your ally, then you may be "turning away" from your relationship rather than "turning toward" the relationship for your "soft place to fall".

I see far too many couples who have replaced their primary relationship with their "best friend" as the person they rely on most when joy or conflict arises in their lives. The wedge this creates in the primary relationship is subtle at first, but as time goes by, the wedge becomes huge and the problems in the relationship become more and more hostile and damaging. One person blames the other for not "listening" and the other person repeats "you don't talk to me, you just tell me". One door closes to an open, cherishing relationship, and another door opens to a relationship that uses trashing the other person as a way to interact. It is all so very sad.

There are a number of reasons this type of unhealthy and stagnant relationship begins to develop. John Gottman, who is a renowned psychologist, states the stages to this type of interaction evolve out of four types of styles of communication. They are called the "Four Horsemen" and they are: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling. Let me explain each a little for you:

Criticism -- There are always complaints in a relationship. These only address the specific action at which your partner failed. A criticism is more global — it adds on some negative words about your mate’s character or personality. "Please take out the trash" turns into "You can't do anything around the house, you just don't care".

Contempt - Sarcasm and cynicism are types of contempt. So are name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. In whatever form, contempt — the worst of the four horsemen — is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust.

Defensiveness - When conversations become so negative, critical, and attacking, it should come as no surprise that you will defend yourself. Although this is understandable, research shows that this approach rarely has the desired effect. The attacking partner does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner.

Stonewalling -- In marriages and relationships where discussions begin harshly, criticism and contempt lead to defensiveness, which leads to more contempt and more defensiveness, and eventually, and understandably, one partner tunes out.

If you believe your relationship has entered into this type of interaction, and you're turning to your best friend more and more for emotional support, then I would encourage you to seek some professional help. The relationship can change, the interaction between the two of you can become more satisfying and nurturing. I've witnessed it happen.

Take care and may God bless you all.
Linda M. Price, Ph.D.