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Ask Dr. Loving: When Should I Tell My Friends What I Think About Their Relationships?

Is there any research that shows how or when to express your feelings (positive or negative) about a friend’s relationship?

Let’s back up and start with a more basic question: Does your opinion matter? Absolutely. Knowing what others think about our romances is a critical piece of information if those relationships are going to survive1. Individuals in romantic relationships are happier with their relationships when they think others like the romance and the partner.2,3 Our relationships also last longer when family and friends are supportive of our romantic lives.4 In contrast, when people break up with a partner, they often say their friends and family were behind the decision to sever the romantic tie.4

So when do you share your opinion? Wait. Here it comes…"it depends." If, by all accounts, your friend is happy in the relationship, then there’s really not a bad time to express your positive feelings --- people like to feel confirmed and validated.5 By this logic, the same goes for any negative feelings you might have --- if your friend is unhappy, then validate away.

Clearly, the more difficult scenario is when you are not fond of your friend’s relationship but your friend is all-a-smitten. People don’t like to be told they are wrong, so picking the right time to tell someone they are making a huge (or small) mistake is critical if that opinion is going to be effective. (I’m going to assume you aren’t interested in talking a friend out of a breakup.) Your best bet in this case is to bite your tongue until your friend might be most open to hearing about what a bad decision he or she is making. When will that happen?  When your friend is approaching a major relationship transition. According to uncertainty reduction theory6, people seek information when they are uncertain, and they are most uncertain when just starting a relationship and deciding whether to get more (or less) serious.7,8 What this means is that you need to get your opinion in very early in the relationship (before your friend dons the proverbial rose-colored glasses) or wait until your friend is deciding whether or not to up the ante (e.g., become exclusive, move in with a partner, etc.).

How will you know if your friend is approaching a relationship transition window of opportunity? Listen to her or him. People disclose a great deal about their romances, and use friends and family as “sounding boards” --- somebody with whom they can bounce off thoughts and observations.2 Basically, when your friend starts asking questions about the relationship, or otherwise seems to be thinking through how things are going -– pounce!

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1Lewis, R. A. (1973). Social reaction and the formation of dyads: An interactionist approach to mate selection. Sociometry, 36, 409-418.

2Parks, M. R., & Adelman, M. B. (1983). Communication networks and the development of romantic relationships: An expansion of uncertainty reduction theory. Human Communication Research, 10, 55-79.

3Parks, M. R., Stan, C. M., & Eggert, L. L. (1983). Romantic involvement and social network involvement. Social Psychology Quarterly, 46, 116-131.

4Sprecher, S., & Felmlee, D. (2000). Romantic partners' perceptions of social network attributes with the passage of time and relationship transitions. Personal Relationships, 7, 325-340.

5Swann, W. B., Jr., & Read, S. J. (1981). Self-verification processes: How we sustain our self-conceptions.Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 17, 351-372.

6Knobloch, L. K., & Solomon, D. H. (2002). Information seeking beyond initial interaction: Negotiating relational uncertainty within close relationships. Human Communication Research, 28, 243-257.

7Johnson, M. P., & Leslie, L. (1982). Couple involvement and network structure: A test of the dyadic withdrawal hypothesis. Social Psychology Quarterly, 45, 34-43.

8Julien, D., Tremblay, N., Belanger, I., Dube, M., Begin, J., & Bouthillier, D. (2000). Interaction structure of husbands' and wives' disclosure of marital conflict to their respective best friend. Journal of Family Psychology, 14, 286-303.

Dr. Tim Loving Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving's research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role of friends and family during these transitions. He is an Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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