What do you do when your family and/or friends do not approve of your spouse? As it turns out, there are a number of strategies to help with this, but the most important is just doing a good job of taking care of your marriage, regardless of what others think.

It’s a tough situation to be in: you’re fully committed to your marriage and love your wife to bits, but her parent don’t think you’re good enough for her. Or your husband’s friends make it quite clear that they don’t like that you spend so much time together. Marriages don’t exist in a social vacuum: this kind of social disapproval is bound to have some kind of effect.

Social Disapproval and Marriage

When you’re faced with disapproving friends and family, does it draw you closer together as a couple or pull you apart? Popular culture often talks about a “Romeo and Juliet Effect” where family disapproval intensifies love. This is based on a famous study by Driscoll et al[i] in 1972, who found that feelings of love increase as levels of perceived interference from parents increase.

However, almost every subsequent study into this has found the opposite effect: interference or disapproval from family and friends has negative effects on relationships including lowering relationship satisfaction, reduced relationship stability, reduced commitment, lower feelings of love, higher levels of criticism and less positive appraisals of your spouse[ii][iii].

I was a little surprised by this research, to be honest. It has been my anecdotal observation—this is more watching dating relationships—that when parents disapprove it tends to bind the couple together more strongly. They not only have their newfound love but they also have a common enemy.

Then again, these studies are looking at long term relationships and when I think about that context, I lean more towards the reality that if you have a lot of negative info about your spouse coming from friends and family, that can easily shape your perception of your marriage.

If there’s an upside to this, it is that approval from your social network has positive effects such as improved perceptions of your spouse, greater feelings of love, and greater stability for the relationship. Overall, the positive effects of approval from the social circle are stronger and more consistently found than negative effects of disapproval[iv].

I do think there is a warning here for all of us: just to be careful about how we approach other struggling marriages. I think this research shows that when couples are struggling they really need our support, not our criticism. It is easy to stand outside the marriage and point out all the problems to the person you’re close to, but are you really helping the couple? You could do a lot more for their marriage by being there for them and showing that you believe in and support their marriage, rather than helping them pick it apart.

Why Does Approval Matter?

You might be wondering why these effects appear. Why should other people’s opinions matter?

Well, every opinion you hear from your friends and family has the potential to, in some way, influence your own thinking. Approval from your social circle helps create a stronger identity for you as a couple: when other people see you as a well-suited couple and approve of this role, this helps you form a joint sense of self and identity. Approval from others also reduces uncertainty about the relationship, while disapproval increases uncertainty. This uncertainty about whether you should really be together alters your perceptions of the relationship and your behavior changes accordingly[v].

Imagine this: you have a disagreement with your spouse about something minor. It would be fairly natural to want to discuss this with a close friend, or a family member. If that person already has a negative opinion of your spouse then that’s going to affect how they respond to your concerns, and the advice they give to you about it. Whether or not you choose to heed their advice, their opinion is now in your head. The more often you hear such opinions the harder it will be to ignore them.

Which Is More Influential: Parents or Social Circle?

A study from 2012[vi] found that for most couples disapproval from the social circle was more detrimental to the relationship than parental disapproval, in that it significantly influenced how much participants reported liking their partners.

However, parental disapproval was a strong predictor of relationship quality when the study participants were more reliant on their parent’s resources, such as their financial provision or their opinions.

So for younger couples who are still in some ways reliant on their parents, or couples who have very close relationships with their parents, the approval or disapproval from parents is more influential.

It’s All About Perception

Once again we come back to perception.

The research shows that perception of approval is more important than actual levels of approval in determining relationship wellbeing and stability[vii].

This suggests that disapproving friends/family aren’t directly responsible for impacting your marriage- it’s the doubts and negative opinions they create in your own mind that do the damage.

That reinforces my earlier warning: be supportive if your sibling or child is struggling in their marriage. I know you might want to get your mama bear on if you see something you don’t like in the marriage, but try to be a voice of support and care rather than criticism.

Coping with Disapproval from Friends and Family

Once again we’ve created a bonus worksheet for our much appreciated supporters. If you want help learning how to most effectively cope with the disapproval that is coming your way, you’ll definitely want to grab this worksheet. It will show you how to minimize the effect negative opinions have on your own perception of things, and give you some useful ways to think about how you come across to others. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.

What To Do When Family/Friends Disapprove

So we’ve seen how the opinions of those around you can impact your marriage. Now let’s look at what you can do in this situation.

Reduce the Impact Through Commitment

Commitment is very important in any marriage, but becomes even more so in this situation. A study in 2008[viii] found that commitment to your spouse mediates the link between social disapproval and reduced relationship stability. So remaining very committed to your spouse and building on your intimacy and bond can reduce the impact of disapproving friends/family. This isn’t quite the same as the Romeo and Juliet effect where disapproval improves your relationship, but a strong bond and enduring love for each other can survive regardless of this social disapproval.

Watch What You Say

Disclosure influences others’ opinions.

Obviously, disclosures about your spouse to your parents or social circle can affect their opinions of the spouse (and your perceptions of their opinion). A study in 2014[ix] found that increased overall level of disclosure and increased positive disclosure (revealing good things about your spouse) have a positive impact on parent’s perceptions of your relationship (perceived and actual opinions), while increases in both positive and negative disclosures has a positive impact for friends.

Overall, then, telling your friends and family more about your spouse is a good thing: hopefully they will start to get a better picture of him/her and come to see them the way you do. Sharing both the good and bad aspects of your relationship with your friends is good, but with parents you might need to be a bit more selective. Parents are perhaps a so much more invested in wanting to look after you that any mention of your spouse’s negative traits will set them off.

Be Aware of How You Are Seen

Be aware of how you come across as a couple. A couple’s social circle will pick up on cues between the couple that give an indication as to how they are functioning as a couple, for example spotting “red flags” that indicate conflict or picking up on nonverbal cues that indicate tension. These then affect the observer’s opinion of the relationship[x].

I am a little torn on this suggestion, to be honest. I see where the researcher is going and we want to help couples reduce disapproval. At the same time I am always asking folks to be authentic and show up in whatever situation and be real.

At the same time I think that when your marriage needs work and you know it, then that is a situation where you guys as a couple also need all the support from your family and social network you can get. So do not give them reason to become negative voices unnecessarily. Just be aware of how you come across and perhaps even promote disapproval in others at a time when approval would be more beneficial.

Remember too that if negative opinions are already in place, they are going to color how actions are seen. If people already disapprove of your spouse then they may be more likely to interpret things more negatively. Something that seems harmless to you may be interpreted very differently by an observer if they are already questioning the suitability of your spouse. So just be aware of how you might be seen by others who hold different views about your spouse then you do.

Side With Each Other

Here’s something you can do in the moment when there’s conflict arising between your spouse and your family. We touched on this sort of thing in our episodes about successful in-law relationships.

A study from 2010[xi] found that conflict between wives and mothers in law was a leading course of decreased marital satisfaction. But for the husband, taking the wife’s side in the conflict and using problem solving strategies to reduce conflict mediated this link and buffered against problems caused by conflict. In the face of conflict it’s really important to stay united.

Develop Autonomy

Being dependent on your parents or social circle for resources (and by resources I mean anything from financial and practical support to emotional guidance) exacerbates the effect of relationship disapproval. If you’re reliant on your parents for money or on your friends for approval then their opinions are going to have a much bigger impact on your marriage. Working on becoming more independent and less reliant on your parents/friends will make their opinions less of a determining factor in your relationship[xii].

Your desire and motivation to be independent and not to be influenced also plays a part in this: “The desire to be free of the influence of one’s social network… does in fact predict resistance to the disapproving opinions of friends and family.” So simply deciding not to let other people’s opinions sway you can have a positive impact.

Find Other Sources of Support

A nice simple one here. Having at least one other person in your network who does approve of and support your relationship mediates the negative effect of disapproval[xiii]. Even having just one or two friends in your life who are supportive of your marriage can make a huge difference.

Control Your Reaction

Now let’s think about how you react to shows of disapproval from your social circle. A study by Sinclair et al[xiv] identified two types of “reactance” to the threat of disapproval from family or friends:

    1. Defiant reactance: acting contrary to how your social circle would like and showing increased love and affection for your spouse in spite of what they think. Basically acting in the opposite way to how you feel others want you to.
    2. Independent reactance: acting independent of how your social circle want you to. Not letting their opinions influence you at all, rather than overtly acting against their wishes. This is a less confrontational response than defiant reactance.

Independent reactance, but not defiant reactance, buffers couples against the negative impact of social disapproval. In a healthy marriage “reactive responses to network opinions were not about doing the opposite of what one’s parents or friends were advocating, but instead a matter of continuing to love one’s partner regardless of social opinion.[xv]” So acting independently of social disapproval and not letting it influence you is better for your marriage than directly confronting people’s wishes.

If you try to act in defiance of what other people expect or want, you’re still letting their opinions influence you. Simply acting how you want to and holding your course as a married couple is much better in the long run.

Disapproval Impacts Perception

Finally let’s go back to the issue of perception. Disapproval from family and especially from friends can have negative impacts on a relationship. But these issues are mostly caused by your perception of disapproval, which leads to uncertainty about your relationship and may cause you to internalize some of the attitudes about your spouse that others show. Choosing to act independently of this disapproval (rather than fighting against it), while also being proactive about managing conflict, eliminates most of the negative outcomes.

A healthy and well-connected marriage can survive any amount of disapproval. A study in 2012[xvi] found that the link between support/disapproval for your marriage and negative outcomes is “fully mediated” by relationship wellbeing. For happy, well adjusted couples, the strength of the marriage meant that social disapproval wasn’t influencing things at all.

So even if your mother in law thinks your marriage is doomed, at the end of the day, her opinion does not count. What matters is what you guys choose to do with your marriage and how much you are willing to invest and to build up and strengthen your marriage.


References:

[i] Driscoll, Davis, and Lipetz, “Parental Interference and Romantic Love.”

[ii] Sinclair et al., Don’t Tell Me Who I Can’t Love: A Multimethod Investigation of Social Network and Reactance Effects on Romantic Relationships.

[iii] Sprecher and Felmlee, “The Influence of Parents and Friends on the Quality and Stability of Romantic Relationships.”

[iv] Sinclair et al., Don’t Tell Me Who I Can’t Love: A Multimethod Investigation of Social Network and Reactance Effects on Romantic Relationships.

[v] Etcheverry, Le, and Charania, Perceived versus Reported Social Referent Approval and Romantic Relationship Commitment and Persistence.

[vi] Wright and Sinclair, “Pulling the Strings.”

[vii] Etcheverry, Le, and Charania, Perceived versus Reported Social Referent Approval and Romantic Relationship Commitment and Persistence.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Agnew, Social Influences on Romantic Relationships.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Wu et al., “Conflict With Mothers-in-Law and Taiwanese Women’s Marital Satisfaction.”

[xii] Sinclair et al., Don’t Tell Me Who I Can’t Love: A Multimethod Investigation of Social Network and Reactance Effects on Romantic Relationships.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Blair, Perceived Social Support for Relationships as a Predictor of Relationship Well-Being and Mental and Physical Health in Same-Sex and Mixed-Sex Relationships: A Longitudinal Investigation.