Are Friendships a Threat to Your Marriage? Um. No.

Are Friendships a Threat to Your Marriage? Um. No. May 8, 2017

A few weeks ago, a reader sent me a marriage advice website titled Beating 50 Percent. It is run by Jeremy and Audrey Roloff, an evangelical Christian couple in their mid-20s who have been married for under three years. I would point out that the myth that 50% of marriages end in divorce is just that—a myth—except that that does not appear to be what Jeremy and Audrey are referring to, as per their mission statement:

Our mission in life, and on this blog is to do and be all things that cultivate covenant marriages. We aim to give more than 50% effort into our marriage. To live a life Beating 50 Percent is our mission.

I find this talk of percentages downright confusing. What does “more than 50% effort” mean, exactly? I certainly don’t spend any where near 50% of the cumulative effort I expend on any given day on my marriage. I have work, and kids to take to activities, and dishes to wash, and that’s outside of having my own downtime. But that doesn’t mean I’m not 100% committed to my marriage.

There’s no way Jeremy and Audrey can mean that you should actually expend 50% of your cumulative effort on any given day on your spouse, so they must mean something else. There whole website, though, is filled with vague platitudes like this.

But today, let’s touch on one article in particular: How Opposite Sex Friendships Can Ruin Your Marriage. Actually, though, the article would be more fairly titled “How Friendships Can Ruin Your Marriage” or “How Having Kids Will Definitely Ruin Your Marriage.” Because, as far as I can tell, this is the core idea of the piece:

Think about it this way, say you have a scale of 0 – 100 percent. The maximum effort you can give is 100 percent. You cannot give more than 100 percent effort, it’s not possible!  Your relationships, not just marriage, are constantly fluctuating. They are in a fluid state of giving and taking energy and effort. Every time you give to someone else the percentage on that scale changes in their favor. The more you give to someone else, the less you have for your wife or potential spouse.

Jeremy tells a story of a female friend he had while in a long-distance relationship with Audrey, while they were still dating. He says Audrey asked him to stop being friends with the other girl, but that he didn’t see the issue until he realized that he was splitting his effort between Audrey and his friend, and that if he was going to make it work with Audrey, he had to give her 100% of his effort, not 60%. So he unfriended the other girl.

Consider where this logic leads. It’s clearly not limited to opposite-sex friendships. If you’re a guy, the more effort you expend on hanging out with and supporting your guy friends, the less effort you have for your wife—as Jeremy says, it’s basic math. Same if you’re a woman, hanging out with your girlfriends.

And what about kids? I put a lot of effort into not only caring for my children’s physical needs but also building relationships with them. If I get the the end of a busy day and realize that, say, I haven’t really connected with my younger child, one-on-one that day, I’m apt to grab some books and sit on the couch and read to him for a while. Or I might go into my daughter’s room and sit and talk with her. All of this is effort I am not putting into my relationship with my husband.

Expending 100% of your relationship building effort (what I assume Jeremy must be talking about) on your spouse is a terrible idea. It leaves you with no energy left to build relationship with friends (same-sex or otherwise) or relatives (siblings, etc.). I am going to assume that Jeremy and Audrey intend their advice for couples in non-abusive relationships. However, consider what this sort of advice might communicate to a woman with an abusive, controlling, manipulative husband. Everyone needs a support network—but for an abuse victim to be without a support network can be deadly.

Now, perhaps I am being unfair. Perhaps Jeremy means that his readers should spend 100% of their romantic relationship building effort on  your spouse. In that case I would agree (outside of mutually agreed upon poly relationships), but I would note that that is very definitely not what Jeremy actually wrote in his piece—in the story he outlines of having a female friend while in a long distance relationship with Audrey, he does not say that his relationship with his female friend took up romantic energy, only that it took up some of his “energy and effort” (as any relationship with anyone will).

In fairness to Jeremy, he does not appear to believe that one can be friends with someone of the opposite-sex without that relationship being akin to, well, marriage. “Emotional polygamy is a real thing,” he writes. He explains as follows:

I think we can agree that as married men, we should not go holding hands with other women unless they are our wives. Holding hands is a clear, obvious progression towards an emotional and physical relationship.

But so is continually and constantly hanging out with someone of the opposite-sex…. we allow an emotional relationship to develop. Even though you haven’t physically touched them, and you say you never would, it is still an emotional relationship. Culture tells us to gauge our relationships by their physical status, which I think is extremely naive.

I suspect that a psychologist would have plenty to work with here in analyzing what this means about how Jeremy views women. There is a pattern I’ve noticed, a problem that men like Jeremy have—they seem to be unable to view women as people first, viewing them instead as temptation-people, or as marriage-people, or some such. It’s as though what makes us us—our likes and dislikes, interests and passions—are less important than our being female. And as though our being female means we walk around with flashing red “danger” signs over our  heads. We they’re not. And we don’t.

But there’s another problem that Jeremy never addresses, and with potentially dangerous consequences. Read this bit with abusive relationships in mind:

Lets say the wife becomes friends with someone. And they become really good friends. Inevitably this would cause the husband to feel a little uneasy. (even though it might have been his fault in the first place, and even though it’s a completely innocent relationship) He maybe even asked her to pull back a little bit. If the wife doesn’t pull back, because her actions are seemingly justified with this innocent relationship, then she is making a decision and the husband would feel disrespected, causing a division in their marriage. Now lets just say that the husband wrongfully becomes friends with someone of the opposite-sex, and it’s his wife’s turn to ask him to pull back, and now he won’t… again, he is making a decision. Nothing says, “you are my priority” like putting your spouse before everyone, no matter what. So their relationship continues to digress and have more division, more complication, and more unexpected outcomes.

Yeah. That reads badly, doesn’t it? There’s nothing in Jeremy’s piece about having a controlling or manipulative spouse who might make unreasonable demands. Nope. Nothing about abusive partners working to isolate their spouse, to make them more easy to control. Nothing at all.

This is perhaps to be expected when newly married couples without training in marriage, counseling, or psychology start a business (it’s not just a blog) designed around telling everyone how to do marriage right, but that doesn’t make it any less irresponsible.

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