Meeting "the friends"—that rite of passage in every new relationship when you test out your love on the other people you watch Netflix with. It's also a trial run for meeting "the family," as the latter is a clear sign that the relationship has gone from casual to super, duper serious (even The Bachelor saves family dates for last).
But what if I told you that your friends' opinion of your significant other actually has a greater impact on your relationship satisfaction than your family's opinion? A new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found just that, at least in certain circumstances..
Researchers from Pace University and Hunter College of the City University of New York wanted to explore how judgements from friends, family, and society would affect the success of a relationship. And so they interviewed a total of 480 participants in same-sex (99 participants), interracial (288 participants), or same-sex and interracial romantic relationships (93 participants) about their relationship satisfaction—and any stigma they faced from the people around them.
The researchers looked specifically at these types of relationships because, despite growing tolerance, they are still more likely to be stigmatized compared to other relationships.
The toll of stigma
Participants began by answering a detailed survey about their personalities, attachment styles, and relationship options, which acted as controls. Then they completed a 25-item questionnaire to assess relationship stigma from the public, family, and friends. For instance, using a scale of one (not true) to seven (very true), they would respond to the following statement: "My family is not accepting of this relationship."
Other examples included, "People are rude to you/give you an attitude,” “Family members do not acknowledge your relationship and refer to your partner as your ‘friend,’ and "Friends make comments about your partner and relationship that offend you."
In order to measure relationship happiness, participants answered questions about relationship quality, relationship investment, intimate partner aggression, sexual communication, sexual satisfaction, egalitarianism in the relationship, and dyadic coping (i.e. do the partners cope with stress together?).
It turned out that judgement from friends led to worse relationship outcomes than judgement from either families or society:
"Relationship stigma from friends was correlated with lower relationship satisfaction, commitment, trust, love, and sexual communication, as well as greater intimate partner aggression victimization," write the researchers.
That's not to say other types of stigma didn't have an impact. "Relationship stigma from family was correlated with lower commitment," the authors found, and "relationship stigma from public was correlated with lower commitment and sexual communication."
The researchers did find that some of the negative effects caused by stigma were curbed if the relationship was more egalitarian and if the couples faced the stress together as a team.
Notably, the researchers also found that same-sex couples faced more discrimination from family and the public than interracial couples did—let's hope the Supreme Court's recent ruling in favor of gay marriage starts to lessen that stigma. However, when it came to stigma from friends, there was no group difference between same-sex or interracial couples—they experienced that stigma equally.
The researchers explained that experiencing any type of stigma "can get under the skin of the relationship" and negatively affect the "relational functioning" of the couple—but stigma from friends certainly proved to be the deadliest.
"The findings suggest the source of relationship stigma matters, with stigma from friends having more adverse associations with relationship outcomes than stigma from family and public … when this stigmatization does occur, it may be the most harmful," write the researchers.
We care what our friends think
So while couples tend to stress over meeting the family—it's a sign of commitment, after all—they should potentially be more concerned about meeting the friends.
Which makes sense. Numerous studies have shown that our individual behavior can be greatly affected by our peer groups. From our study habits to delinquent behavior, our friends influence us. So if our friends question who we love, we, too, might start to question who we love.
Of course, in some cases, our friends' opinions can help us weed out relationships or people who might not be good for us (i.e., when Carrie fell in love with The Russian, ugh). However, if your friends are judging your relationships based on sexuality or race, perhaps your relationship can help you weed out your friends.
In the words of Save the Last Dance:
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.