Why our partners matter most to us

Our most important relationships are not with blood relatives but with partners (especially if you’re a man) and friends (especially if you’re a woman)

In a stressful and fast-changing world, who do we rely on? The Family Values survey, conducted by Ipsos MRBI on behalf of The Irish Times, shows that our partners are the most significant people in our lives.

For people in relationships, partners are the people we spend most time with outside of work, the people we are most likely to share a problem with, and the people we say have, except for our parents, had most influence on our lives.

Friends are generally the next most important people in our lives. Nineteen per cent of us spend most of our time with a friend, and 18 per cent of us are most likely to share a problem with a friend.

For those not in a relationship, friends are more important than any family member. Thirty-nine per cent of single people name a friend as the person they spend most time with, and more than a third of single people say they are most likely to share a problem with a friend.

When these figures are broken down by gender, however, we begin to see that, within relationships, men rely more on women than women do on men.

That is the “grand statement” that Brendan Madden, a relationships expert and psychotherapist, believes the research is making. “Men need to reach out to each other, and women who are already good at reaching out need to pass their skills on to the men in their lives.”

Emotional support

The Family Values survey shows that married men and men who live with their partners seek social and emotional support from their spouses or partners more than women do.

“Men and women are very different in who they spend time with, share problems with and who influences who,” says Madden. “Women continue to prioritise friends and other family members, while men seem to be more focused on the primary relationship. Over time men become less inclined to share problems with others outside the relationship, and women become more inclined to share problems with others. This reflects the dynamics we see in family therapy, where men are more reluctant.”

Women spend less time with their spouses or partners than men do. Fifty-seven per cent of men turn first to their partners with problems; just 43 per cent of women do. Women have a wider emotional support network, spending 42 per cent of their time with friends and female family members. (Twenty-one per cent of women name friends as the people they spend most time with outside work; 21 per cent name daughters, mothers or sisters).

Mothers are seven times more likely to turn to their daughters than they are to their sons. What does this mean for those sons?

Trish Murphy, a psychotherapist, says, “This is probably unfair to their sons, as there is no doubt that sons are as capable of understanding and supporting mothers as are daughters. However, there is probably a left-over heritage of men being the strong, silent types and women the caring ones.”

Men are less likely than women to share a problem with a friend (15 per cent versus 21 per cent). And just 11 per cent of men share problems with mothers and sisters, compared with 21 per cent of women.

“It’s significant that mothers are seven times more likely to share problems with their daughters than with their sons,” says Madden. The statistics also “show that fathers don’t share their problems with anybody,” he says. “Men are also very reluctant to share problems with their sisters, which speaks to a wider issue of the emotional challenges facing young men. One message from the survey is that mothers need to make time to share their own problems with their sons, not just their daughters.”

To teach young men communication skills around emotional problem-solving, parents must model this behaviour with their children, especially their sons, instead of the sharing of problems remaining a female preserve.

As men, more than women, rely on their partners for support, what does this mean for men who don’t have partners to share with? And for lone fathers?

Trish Murphy says, “This has an enormous effect on men, as lone men are deprived of emotional connection. The extreme example of this is where a man has experienced a broken relationship and feels suicidal afterwards and tells no one.

“Men have the full range of emotions, and their difficulty is that they are socialised into expressing only a certain range of these, such as joy at the team winning or anger or impatience at a slow car. However, some emotions, such as hurt and vulnerability, can be channelled into anger or irritation.”

It’s good news that younger men are more likely to share problems, according to the research. Murphy thinks this is a benefit of platonic female friendships formed in mixed schools and colleges. Yet when men become involved in a long-term relationship they lose their separate group of friends. “Men often let go of their involvement in sport, music, hiking, etc, so that they lose their own support networks,” Murphy says.

Fathers do not share their problems with their sons, and sons do not share problems with their fathers. And although three-quarters of people believe that relationships between fathers and children are better than in the past, sons and daughters are not turning to their fathers for support. “I think that the new male role model is still tentative and delicate. Possibly it will take another generation for fathers to have the same emotional support responsibilities and rights as women,” Murphy says.

Challenging shifts

Another finding is that the older men and women are, the more likely they are to turn to their spouses or partners for support – and this includes women. Madden says that this “reflects challenging shifts during various life stages. People shift their focus in a relationship depending on the role that is most significant in their life. At first the relationship with the spouse is most important; that shifts when the children arrive, and it shifts back when children have left the nest.”

For men the statistic that they rely far more on the women in their lives than women do on them is very difficult. “Men tend to try to sort out their problems alone – often with disastrous results. By discussing we learn from other people’s experience, and this can save us a lot of suffering,” Murphy says.

These statistics can teach us to improve mutual support in relationships, says Karen Kiernan, chief executive of One Family, a charity that supports one-parent families.

“If, with young children, you learn to listen and support them to find their own answers, whether you agree or not, then as adults they will still come to you and share what is happening for them. The parents who have very close relationships with their children are those who listen best and keep the wagging finger in their pocket.”