There’s a study from several years ago that’s stayed in my head since I read it: Women and men lose two friends on average when they get into a relationship. I’ll hazard a guess why: The newly coupled-up person suddenly starts bringing their partner along to every social event. Friends-only dinners and cinema trips quickly become a thing of the past — sound familiar? I’ll be the first to admit that I slowly detach from these friends. But to be clear, there’s a big difference between this and a partner coming along every once in a while to meet everyone.
It can be frustrating to feel as though you can’t see your friend without their partner in tow. Joy, 28, from London, who wants to keep her surname private so as not to offend friends, has experienced this in her social groups. “I don’t want seeing my pals to feel like a chore or as if we’re not scratching past the surface,” she says. “Often there’s gossip to be had but people can’t bitch about their partners if they’re present! If I’m friends with both partners, that’s different, but when someone is new I’m quite conscious of making an effort to ensure they feel involved, so the conversation can only go so far,” she says. “Say I have some personal news to discuss or intend on being vulnerable, or am just really excited about spending quality time with them, having their partner there changes things,” Joy adds. Not to mention the rudeness of bringing along someone who wasn’t invited, as she has also experienced.
There are Reddit threads and online forums dedicated to people asking the question of whether it’s okay to “ditch” friends for a partner. And others full of people complaining about friends who disappear when they get into a relationship. It’s clear that dating does have an impact on the friendships we built first especially when we’re inexperienced daters, as these threads are often dominated by students. However, sometimes we don’t grow out of these bad habits towards our friends.
Joy says, when these kinds of issues happen consistently, she’d “struggle with a friend who couldn’t ever tear themselves away from a partner.” She explains: “It’s not out of a lack of respect for the relationship but more feeling like they’ve lost their individuality just because they’re now in a pair. It’s made me consider before just how frequently I wanted to keep seeing someone, if I knew it was going to be with their partner every single time.” So far, she’s never confronted anyone for this behavior.
Caroline Plumer, psychologist and founder of CPPC London, says codependency might be to blame. “If someone feels they can’t — or don’t want to — do anything without their partner, the likelihood is there is an unhealthy level of codependency and/or enmeshment,” Plumer explains. “It’s natural and healthy to want to spend time with your partner, but it’s also necessary to have our own interests and friendships outside of the relationship. All too often people ‘lose’ themselves in a relationship and struggle to know where they end and their partner begins. This might look like having all the same friends and interests, as well as not having space from each other. But relationships need some separateness.”
We aren’t talking about controlling and abusive relationships, but codependency might still reveal a problem. As friends, a degree of empathy is needed. “Codependency tends to come from an unmet need, an emotional deficit of some sort,” Plumer says. “It can be worth trying to understand what the story your friend is telling themselves about the idea of going out without their partner. This can be tricky, because if you ask, you are likely to hear ‘I love them’ or ‘I love spending time with them.’ They themselves may not even recognize that what they’re doing is unhealthy or why they’re doing it. It’s worth trying to understand your friend’s perspective, but you’re also entitled to set a boundary if you don’t want their partner present at every meet up. If they can’t respect this, it might be worth reassessing how and when you spend time with them.”
I don’t want seeing my pals to feel like a chore or as if we’re not scratching past the surface.
Of course, it’s a red flag if a new partner doesn’t want to meet your friends. There is a balancing act to be achieved here, as Sam Barker, 29, from London, knows all too well, having experienced being the new partner invited to his girlfriend’s social scene. “As one of the said partners who gets brought along, sometimes I don’t want to be there,” he says with honesty. “I’m just trying to be a good partner and meet the friends because it’s important they like me — it’s like meeting the parents. But when men try to meet the friends, they interpret it as us intruding when it’s actually us being invited into an important part of our partner’s life. Now that I’ve been with my partner for eight years, I actually feel very close to the people who were forced to associate with me.”
Eight years on, Barker and his partner now try to make mixing friendship groups a “sporadic thing” and understand the need for emotional intimacy within certain social setups, “reminding” each other to “maintain friendships outside of the relationship”. Things have come full circle, as he has now become “the person who doesn’t want to meet friends’ partners, who I’m expected to connect with on the basis we’re both men.”
Another caveat is within gender differences. Jane*, from New York, who identifies as lesbian and wants to remain anonymous, finds that as her partner is a woman, she’s often more welcome into social plans than partners who are men. “With my queer friends, the lines are often blurred and there is less of a gender dichotomy so partners joining doesn’t feel like a big deal. With my straighter groups of friends, I find that we are all a little more intentional about hanging out without partners, but my wife is almost always invited as well because she’s a woman. I don’t mind this, but I do have to set that boundary sometimes and have a friends-only hang.” When it comes to interacting with her friends’ partners, she feels depending on the person, the environment can completely change. “If the partner in question likes to dominate conversations or has different political views, I can find myself dampening down my personality or watching my words more closely, which can be exhausting,” she says. With one particular friend, she now sees her “a little less”, partly because she’s not a fan of their partner, who often is brought along unless a friends-only meet is specifically discussed.
Calling this recurring offence “damaging” to friendships, psychotherapist Lucy Beresford says often the new person is accommodated in these circumstances over everyone else. “This person may have nothing in common with the friendship group, which can be a great thing in bringing new energy, but it can also create tension and make people feel like they can’t behave authentically. Because we often show slightly different versions of ourselves in different relationships, we might find our friend being more distant or too loud which the rest of the gang find hard to adjust to,” she says. “The conversation needs to be clear — that the new partner is welcome, but not to all the gatherings, especially if they are the only non-friendship group member to attend. Balance is necessary in all relationships.”
Jane tries to be intentional about seeing friends by herself, even though she could “do literally anything” with her wife. This is especially true with the friends she made before meeting her partner. “When I’m initiating a hang that I want to be just friends, I try to be super clear from the jump. I need my quality friend time as much as I need my wife and couple friend time. A few of my friends have partners that I don’t love, and that's where it gets dicey.”
*Name has been changed to protect their identity.