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When I peered across the table and saw the look on my husband Robb's face, I knew this would be the last time we would be going out with our dinner partners. She was a new acquaintance I'd made while working on a project in the nearby city of San Antonio; we had great hopes that our husbands would hit it off so that we could see each other more often. We were confident they would be a good fit since they are both staunch environmentalists, but when I heard her husband telling Robb why it was a "mistake" to allow a certain type of grass to grow on our property, I realized I'd misjudged. The man's know-it-all spiel was going down with Robb as well as a mouthful of hot peppers. The man, after all, lived on a half-acre lot in the city, surrounded by cement; my husband had been tending to our 225-acre ranch for more than seven years.
Robb's eyes narrowed listening to the man's lecture, and it was clear, at least to me, that another couple had bitten the dust.
Our trouble finding a couple to go out with is not that we're extremely picky or awful social bores (at least, I don't think so). It's that finding a couple that we both want to spend our precious time with -- and vice versa -- is one of those terribly tricky maneuvers of marriage.
Seeking such a companion couple forces us to endure sometimes bizarre and frustrating rituals that are not much different from dating, only here the chances of failure seem much higher. Just do the math: Four people times four personalities equals countless possibilities for fizzled chemistry. "Good friendships are rare phenomena in any case," says Judith Sills, PhD, a Philadelphia-based psychologist. "Good couple friendships are rare phenomena squared."
It's no wonder then, that misguided attempts at uniting two pairs of people can be downright disastrous. Jennifer Gongaware remembers the ill-fated results of introducing her future husband, Jeff, to two couples she knew in Dallas. "I was hoping Jeff would like my friends and that we could all go out together regularly," says Gongaware, who now lives in Blanco, Texas. Her hopes were thwarted when the husband in one of the other couples began loosening up. "He was telling racist jokes," she says. "I was appalled. I'd never heard him talk like that before. Jeff couldn't contain his outrage. He turned to the guy and said, 'Why don't you cut out the hillbilly crap?'" Gongaware immediately got up from the dinner table and nervously started to refill wine glasses, hoping everyone would get too tipsy to remember what happened. It didn't work. "Jeff never wanted to see them again," says Gongaware, who eventually dropped them as friends as well.
Indeed, in most couple friendships, the key stumbling block is getting the husbands to hit it off. That's not to say it can't be your woman friend who puts the pox on the partnership, or vice versa. Sometimes, the husbands are content enough to go along with each other, but it's her husband who finds you too opinionated or your husband who finds her too loud and giggly. But frequently, since women generally are the social organizers, we lead the efforts to establish friendships with other couples using our women friends as the bridge. "I can pretty much get along with anyone, but my husband is more particular," says Molly Smith* of Cleveland. "I initiate friendships only when I'm very confident my husband will like the other guy." Such vetting doesn't always pay off, however. If the husbands don't take to each other, often the relationship will devolve into a lunch friendship between the women. (That's what happened with my new acquaintance with the preachy grass-expert spouse.)
*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.
"Men have a different standard of friendship," says Jan Yager, PhD, the author of Friendshifts (Hannacroix Creek, 1999) and When Friendship Hurts (Fireside, 2002). "Traditionally, women bond over an emotional connection, while male friendships are based more on activities," says Dr. Yager. "Men tend to let people in only when they are convinced that it won't hurt them personally or professionally."
Your best bet, then, for setting up a new fab foursome may be to see if you connect with, for example, the wife of your husband's business associate or golf partner. There is, however, one caveat: When introducing spouses into an already established relationship, whether between two men or two women, the original friendship can't be too entrenched. "If there's so much history between two people, the others may always feel like outsiders," says Dr. Yager. Molly Smith and her husband are a case in point. "We get together with some of my college friends and their spouses every once in a while, and I would love for us all to be friends, but my husband doesn't like hanging out with them," Smith laments. "He says we talk too much about what we did in college and he feels left out."
When the original friendship is between a man and a woman, other predicaments can surface. "Will the husband like a man who is close to his wife?" says Dr. Sills. What if someone likes the opposite-sex friend too much? "There are sexual undertones to any friendship between a man and a woman," says Dr. Sills. "It's when they become sexual overtones, or when you're dealing with people's insecurities, that you have a problem." Just ask Elizabeth Brown* of Norfolk, Virginia, who had cut ties with a couple after the other wife began hitting on her husband. One time the other woman actually slipped her tongue into her husband's mouth when he leaned forward to extend a polite kiss on the cheek good-bye after a get-together. "He told me about it, but I thought he had to have misconstrued something," says Brown. She decided to give the couple another chance.
The next time they got together -- for dinner at the Browns' home -- Brown's husband noticed the other wife wasn't wearing underwear. He had no choice but to notice this: She was sitting across from him in the living room and, says Brown, "kept crossing and uncrossing her legs, like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct!" Brown's husband told her later when they were alone. "He was dumbfounded. Of course I had no idea. I was politely commenting on the hors d'oeuvres while this woman was flashing my husband!" Brown declined the couples' future invitations to get together without explanation. "It was uncomfortable when we saw them around the neighborhood. We just made excuses 'til they stopped asking," she says.
*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.
Considering the frustrations of finding the perfect foursome, not to mention the time wasted in restaurants elbowing a yawning husband who isn't hiding that he'd rather be elsewhere, it's tempting to simply stay snuggled on the sofa and forget the whole thing. But having couple friends is important for a healthy marriage. "It can be very stimulating to a relationship, bringing in new things to talk and think about," says Linda Sapadin, PhD, a psychologist in Valley Stream, New York. Personally, I love the discussions Robb and I have with our couple friends. We have had riveting debates about women in the military and the dumbing down of Hollywood movies, and I get to hear different perspectives, particularly different male perspectives.
Foursome friendships offer a change of pace from the problem-rehashing that gal-pal conversations center on, and they can bring out a different side of you, as well as a better side of your marriage. "If all you talk about with your husband is financial concerns and raising children, then how do you grow as a couple?" says Dr. Yager. "In a four-way conversation between couples, you are forced to talk differently with your spouse and beyond your day-to-day concerns." For instance, your husband may discuss a book he read in a different way than if he were talking to you, or you may be more likely to express a new opinion on an old debate. "This is why even the happiest couples benefit from interacting with other couples. It reinforces that wonderful place that most couples get away from in their mundane day-to-day life."
Of course, finding the set of married friends you and your husband both love spending time with can be like winning the lottery, which is to say, next to impossible. Yet it does happen. Marie Aloisi DeSilva and Lisa Romano of Greenwich, Connecticut, along with their husbands Eugene and Keith, are such a foursome friendship. They eat dinner together several times a week, they travel together, and they are, says DeSilva, just like family. What's their secret? "We share the same value system and ideals," she says, "and we all respect what the others want, like where someone wants to go on vacation and what to do while we're there." It also helps that their personalities complement each other in all their possible combinations, and they all enjoy good restaurants, golf, and new adventures.
Since many couple friendships are centered on activities -- such as movie-going, sports, or bridge -- you can often find couples with similar interests by joining an established group, such as a film society or hiking club. Janyce Dudney of Kingsport, Tennessee, says she and her husband have met some of their best couple friends through a gourmet food group. "All of us like to cook and eat good food and have fun," she says. They started out as only acquaintances but over the course of a decade, theirs has become a close-knit group of several sets of foursome friendships. One of the couples has grown into the Dudneys' dearest couple companions. "At first we just saw them at the gourmet club, but we found out we had so much in common -- our kids were the same age, we had similar interests -- that we started going out just the four of us. Now, we travel together all the time."
Children have also been the bridge to some of the richest couple friendships my husband and I have had. We helped start a Montessori school in our small town, which brought us together with other parents who fit the requirements Robb and I had in mind for couple friends: fun, easy-going, smart non-whiners with no overheated political agendas and no inner need to offer botanical advice. Other people, such as Brown of the Basic Instinct incident, have had success at church functions. "Everyone's on their best behavior at church," she explains, "and you're pretty much assured that people have similar values."
Group settings are not unlike group dating: They ease the pressure on everyone involved. If you meet a couple that you think will be a good match, suggest seeing each other in situations where there will be lots of other people -- such as church socials or a fund-raising dinner at the children's school -- before branching out on solo flights. This allows you or your husband to veto the braggart husband, chatterbox wife, or the pair who are as dull as dust mops, without getting too involved in their lives. By moving cautiously, you can rise to the next step of friendship together -- with a double thumbs-up. That way, says Dr. Yager, "It's not your friends or his friends; they are just friends."
One obvious aspect of couple friendships is that they allow another couple a unique glimpse into your marriage, one that even your closest girlfriends might not have. This can make it tempting to discuss marital issues -- from fights over finances to disagreements about parenting -- with one or both halves of your couple friends and vice versa. But be careful about confiding in the other couple since they also have loyalties to your spouse.
"In a happy, healthy marriage, the primary loyalty must be always to your spouse," says Dr. Yager. "If you confide in the other woman, you may be asking her to keep secrets from her husband, and many women aren't comfortable with that. If you need to talk to a friend, it's better to choose one outside the foursome."
Similarly, if the husband or wife of the other couple wants to confide in you, make sure you establish boundaries before she or he dishes. The best rule of thumb is not to keep things from your husband. The most tactful approach is to preempt secret-telling entirely by making it known casually that you believe there are no secrets between a husband and wife.
Setting such ground rules might have saved Catherine Williams'* and her husband's best couple friendship. "We once had very good couple friends," says Williams, who lives in Boston. "One day, the wife told me in confidence that she was going to live at a hotel for awhile -- with another man. Her husband thought she just needed some time apart. He came to our house every night for weeks, miserable, but swearing they'd work it out. I couldn't stand it any longer and told him about the other man. Big mistake. They got divorced. I've tried to repair my relationship with my friend, but I don't think it will ever recover. She feels I betrayed her, and I think she used me. I will never step in the middle of another marriage again."
*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.