- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 13, 2004

Myke Sweeney, 33, who is married and has a 7-year-old son, plays basketball with a group of other fathers every week.

Melissa Low, 26, though married, enjoys a girls’ night out every other month or so.

Linda Lowery, 62, who is married and has children and a grandchild, has gotten together with a group of girlfriends for a dinner and opera almost every month for the past 18 years.

What do these three people have in common? They all say some time away from the family spent with friends helps them be a better parent and spouse.

“You want to retain your individuality even if you’re married, and in the end, I think having friends enhances your relationship with your spouse,” says Mrs. Low, who has been married for about two years. “You have more to talk about. It keeps it interesting.”

Relationship researchers and psychologists agree that making time for friendships after tying the knot is important for the well-being of both the individual and the marriage.

“If my husband had no other friends than me, I would be very worried,” says Kathleen Brehony, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. “That’s putting a lot of pressure on me to be everything. All emotional and psychological needs are going to be met by me?”

Ms. Brehony is the author of “Living a Connected Life.”

A couple who doesn’t maintain friends outside the marriage can also become isolated and lonely, and their topics of conversation can start reflecting that isolation by dealing only with their microcosm of daily chores, children and personal finances, says Jan Yager, author of “Friendshifts: The Power of Friendship and How it Shapes Our Lives.”

“Friends can help the couple be more worldly and less isolated,” Ms. Yager says. “They can help a couple feel they are part of a community beyond the family.”

Another risk in letting friendships atrophy after getting married is that there is never a guarantee the marriage is going to last, Ms. Brehony says.

“There’s a danger whenever you put all your eggs in one basket,” she says. “Life happens — people get divorced, one spouse gets sick, dies.”

Friendships not only help promote a sound marriage, they are also good for overall, individual health, Ms. Yager says.

“Research has shown that if you have a friend you can confide in, it can extend your life,” she says.

Ms. Brehony agrees.

“A healthy person wants connections that are just like a healthy diet. They include variety,” she says.

Types of friendships

What kind of variety is up to each individual, Ms. Brehony says.

“Different people have different levels of satisfaction about how many friends they want and need,” she says. “There are also different levels of friendship.”

Mr. Sweeney, for example, says he doesn’t really have time for anything but the once-a-week basketball.

“That way I get both the exercise and the camaraderie,” he says while taking a break from playing at Gallaudet University in Northeast.

As many as 13 fathers have shown up even if it’s during game three of the World Series.

The fact that these dads feel a sense of camaraderie around an activity, in this case basketball, instead of chatting over a cup of coffee the way women might do, is pretty typical as far as the traditional role of gender and friendships, Ms. Yager says.

“Men share through activities — soccer, basketball, golf — and they build trust over time,” she says. “They eventually sit down and talk, but it’s an outgrowth of the shared experience.”

But both Ms. Brehony and Ms. Yager say these gender differences are becoming less and less obvious. It is becoming more common that men talk more readily and openly about feelings, they say.

The women’s opera group also meets around an activity, the opera. On a recent evening it was “Il Trovatore,” at the Kennedy Center.

But, the group of five women, although, most recently they were three, meet for dinner first. What would opera be without chatting? says Leslie Anderson, one of the “founders” of the group.

“We have our wine and we talk, talk, talk,” says Ms. Anderson, 56, who lives in Capitol Hill. “We usually don’t get to our seats until just before the curtain goes up.”

By contrast, the basketball dads barely talk at all during the two hours of play and intermittent rest.

During the “Il Trovatore” night, Ms. Anderson, in a black, lacey dress and a tiara-like hair clip, talked about her new boyfriend and their recent romantic getaway, while Mrs. Lowery, who lives in Alexandria, spoke about her 1-year old granddaughter’s latest tricks.

The two women have taken very different paths in life, but have made the effort to stay close for almost two decades anyway.

“I appreciate my married friends taking the time,” Ms. Anderson says. “I’ve lost married friends in the past because they got too busy.”

Mrs. Low, who lives in Alexandria, says her girls’ nights out also include both single and married friends and her husband Seth Low has no problems with that.

In fact, Ms. Yager recommends that married people with children not only socialize with other married friends and couples with children, but reach out to those single friends.

“[Other parents] are not likely to be able to be spontaneous and go to the movies at the drop of a hat the way single friends can,” she says. “Try to have friends in a range of situations and ages.”

But how about women having men friends and vice versa? Can that be threatening to the marriage?

Ms. Yager says platonic friendships complicate matters.

“You really have to be careful,” she says. “Each couple has to work it out. It tends to be less sensitive and less controversial if the other spouse is brought into the friendship. It should be a very open connection.”

Finding the time

While most people acknowledge the importance of friendships, many say they just don’t have time, especially once they’re married and have children, Ms. Brehony says.

That’s a bad excuse, she says.

“Americans watch about four hours of television a day, and it’s the only leisure activity that leads to less interaction,” Ms. Brehony says.

“We have to identify what our priorities are. We all say that family and friends are the most important, but we need to ask ourselves, ‘Where are we putting our efforts and energy?’”

Another obstacle when maintaining friendships is a sense that everything has to be perfect — the house has to be sparkling clean and everyone on their best behavior — before inviting a friend over, Ms. Yager says.

“But the most important thing is to keep each other in the loop,” she says.

It doesn’t have to be time-consuming or complicated. An e-mail or short phone call go a long way at maintaining a friendship, Ms. Yager says.

In the interest of time, it’s efficient to arrange to meet a friend during a physical activity (the way Mr. Sweeney does with basketball). That way, two goals are met at the same time — exercise and friendship, she says.

Ms. Yager’s message to everyone, whether single or married, is that it takes a little bit of work and self-awareness to be and have good friends.

“Having friendships is not an extra in life, something you get to when you have time and everything else is taken care of,” she says. “You have to make time for it. It’s essential to your health.”

More info:

Books -

• “Living a Connected Life: Creating a Maintaining Relationships That Last,” by Kathleen A. Brehony, Henry Holt & Co. Inc., 2003. This book discusses the importance of creating and maintaining deep friendships to avoid feeling isolated. It also presents ideas on how to improve webs of support and social connections.

• “Beyond One: Growing a Family and Getting a Life,” by Jennifer Bingham Hull, Avalon Publishing Group, 2004. This book, taking parenting beyond basic child care, gives advice on how to meet the demands of a growing family while still setting aside time for marriage and friendships.

• “Friendshifts: The Power of Friendship and How It Shapes Our Lives,” by Jan Yager, Hannacroix Creek Books Inc., 1999. Friendships are important, and the roles of friendships change as lives change. This book gives tips on how to develop and maintain lasting friendships throughout life’s twists and turns.

• “Learn to Balance Your Life: A Practical Guide to Having It All,” by Michael Hinz and Jessica Hinz, Chronicle Books, 2003. This book provides a practical guide to balancing work, family and friends. The book also contains time-management exercises.

• “Girlfriends Talk about Men: Sex, Money, Power,” by Tamara Traeder and Carmen Renee Berry. Council Oak Books, 2003. This book highlights the importance of having girlfriends to turn to when your boyfriend drives you crazy or your marriage dissolves. Girlfriends can provide helpful feedback on issues ranging from how to survive infidelity to ways to divide up household duties.

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