When a couple gets married, they aren’t just connecting two people—they’re linking two different sets of social ties and networks. This intricate social web is at the heart of Katherine Fiori, Ph.D.’s research.

Cover of 'I Love You, But Not Your Friends'Research reveals links between partners’ early disapproval of friends and likelihood of divorce

When a couple gets married, they aren’t just connecting two people—they’re linking two different sets of social ties and networks. This intricate social web is at the heart of Katherine Fiori, Ph.D.’s research. As chair of Adelphi’s Gordon F. Derner School of Psychology undergraduate program and associate professor of psychology, Dr. Fiori is at the forefront of scholars seeking to untangle the complications of modern relationships. “Although we often hear about possible problems with in-laws, we don’t usually think about how difficult it can be to get along with your partner’s friends,” she said. “Acknowledging the potentially powerful role that friends and the wider social network can play in the marriage is an important—albeit often overlooked—process in maintaining a healthy partnership.”

Dr. Fiori refers to Modern Romance (Penguin), a 2015 book by comedian Aziz Ansari and sociologist Eric Klinenberg, as an example of the contemporary ritual of courtship. “When you think about courtship historically, people used to be introduced to potential partners through their friends and families, or they would meet people who lived in the same building or on the same block,” she said. “In that sense, they often already shared much of their network.” Now, the isolated world of online dating compels couples to introduce two sets of unrelated friends, making the “merging” that much more challenging.

Dr. Fiori tracked a sample of 355 black and white (same-race) couples taken from the Early Years of Marriage Project over a period of 16 years, during which roughly 50 percent of couples got a divorce. She found that among white couples, husbands who disapproved of their wives’ friends at year one were more likely to divorce across 16 years. “These same husbands tended to report that their wives’ friends interfered in the marriage in year two, which was even more highly predictive of divorce,” Dr. Fiori explained. In fact, this “interference variable” doubled the chances of getting a divorce—for both black and white couples.

However, Dr. Fiori did not observe the same effect when women reported disapproval of their husbands’ friends. She reasons that this gender difference was due in part to the fact that husbands tend to rely on their wives for emotional support, whereas wives may continue to seek that same support from close friends. “Husbands might be able to more easily give up friends who their wives do not like and spend more time with her instead, reducing a source of potential marital disagreement.”

How men interpret that variance also plays a significant role in driving couples apart. “Whether or not wives are actually making their marriages worse by complaining to their friends may not be relevant,” Dr. Fiori noted. “It’s the husbands’ perceptions of the wives’ interactions with friends that seem to play an intrusive and potentially detrimental role in the marriage.”

In addition, the race differences uncovered in Dr. Fiori’s study show that reliance on family may play a different role in black and white couples. She believes that black couples are more likely to be “embedded in networks focused on family,” whereas white couples tend to be “embedded in friend- focused networks.” The family focus may actually protect black couples from the negative effects resulting from disapproval of spousal friends.

An eye to the overarching psychosocial context is fundamental to Dr. Fiori’s work. “As a life-span developmental psychologist, I am trained to be mindful of the big picture,” she said. “I consider not only the current contexts in which individuals live, but also the past and the broader cultural and historical factors that shape people’s lives.” By drawing attention to these factors—which couples may not heed as they move through a contemporary courtship— she hopes to encourage people to counteract behavior that may damage their relationships.

Dr. Fiori believes her work can also resonate deeply with Adelphi students and will be presenting her most recent research to them in her Research Methods courses. “My recent study, in particular, highlights some of the nuances of adult relationships, which will likely appeal to my undergraduate students,” she explained. “I plan to present this research to my students as an example of a complex longitudinal study that has simple yet important real-world implications.” Her research will also appear as part of the Relationship Matters podcast series produced by the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

“The biggest takeaway here for married couples is that working on your marriage does not mean just focusing on your relationship with each other,” Dr. Fiori concluded. “It’s also about considering your relationships with your friends and family—those you have in common and your own.”

Katherine Fiori, Ph.D., is interested in the mental and physical health of young, middle-aged and older adults, especially as a function of social relations and social networks. Recently, her research has focused on how partners in romantic relationships negotiate the merging of their social networks and how these “joint social networks” change over time and impact the relationship. Dr. Fiori is the chair of the Undergraduate Psychology Program at the Gordon F. Derner School of Psychology.

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