As I hit my late 40’s two things started to occur with great regularity. First, my busiest social activity became attending the funerals of friends’ parents. While sad events, for sure, they were also a wonderful opportunity to connect with those, “long-time friends that you just never seem to see much anymore”, you know…the college gang that still gets together once a year…maybe (in a good year)…but hey, a funeral makes such a gathering possible. Even out-of-towners come to town for a good funeral.
The second thing that started to happen was divorce.
But unlike funerals, divorces are NOT a good bonding opportunity for long-time friends, just let me tell you. As the now unhappy couple splits…everything in their life is unhappily split, including friendships. And much like the question, “who gets the dog?” in a divorce, another big question is which friends “go” with which spouse…who gets custody of the divorcing couple’s friends?
There is one simple answer and two much more complicated ones.
The simple answer is that pre-marital friends stick with whoever they knew prior to the marriage. So the college friend of the wife supports her; the long-time golfing buddy or frat brother supports the husband. Simple and straight-forward, in most cases.
So as I look around my (pre-marital) friendships, I can clearly see in my mind who should, technically, stay with me (versus my spouse) as a friend should I ever get divorced. Go through your own rolodex of “back in the day” friendships and mentally tag those that are “yours” versus those that are your spouse’s…simple, right?
A more complicated issue is when the husband and wife have common pre-marital friends. I am living through such a case right now with recently divorced friends (both of which I have known for some 35+ years), and I can tell you that trying to be Switzerland is not easy. While you may think you are trying to do what is best for everyone by trying to be friends – or at least friendly – with both ex-spouses in the ended marriage, in the end you may cause emotional stress and discomfort for everyone – including yourself – and potentially even lose friendships along the way.
When a man and woman are friends with a group of people for some time, and end up marrying, how do the friends get sorted out if there should later be a divorce?
You might say that you love them both. Or put another way, maybe you just don’t hate either of them. You might say you can’t choose one over the other. You might think keeping ties with both will be easier on the ex-couple’s kids in some way. You may actually be in a situation where your spouse is friends with one divorced party and you the other, that’s a fun one to manage…You might think that while one is your favored friend (for whatever reason), that you still want the other in your life in some small way (or maybe you just want that person to know you don’t in fact despise them as much as their now ex-spouse does).
The polite answer may foolishly seem like, “why can’t everyone just remain friends?” But my own experience has not shown that can be true unless all parties are willing and able. So the two divorced people must be willing to share a friend, and psychologically/emotionally able… And somehow, the friend in question must be astute enough to know when those two individuals are at that point (of being willing and able)…or to know if it will ever be possible, which it just might not ever be. Oh, and one other criteria for this to work is that others in the divorced couple’s family and circle of friends must also be willing to allow you to remain friends with both…this is sometimes very difficult, perhaps even more so than getting the willingness of the divorced couple!
The problem is that life goes on, and there are activities, parties, and other social instances where it is just tough – or seemingly impossible – to “have it both ways” and be friends with both spouses who have gone through a divorce. You want to have a party…can you invite both without creating WW3? And remember, it only gets trickier when the divorced couple start having new significant others they may bring along for the fun! Who feels comfortable around whom? Can you be friends with both “camps”, traveling between them, without being viewed as a spy for the enemy? Can you have both as Facebook friends? Can you post activities with one and really expect a “like” from the other? Is it fair to them to have to see posts of their ex-spouse, in their new life/relationships, flash before them?
So if people can’t be friends with both of the spouses in the ex-couple, how to decide who gets custody of that given friend?
Or perhaps a more important question, WHO decides? Does the friend decide? Do the ex-spouses decide? Or do all the other friends decide? Think about your own friendship circles, and what they would do if you and your spouse got divorced? Would they rally to support you? Your spouse? How big of fracture in the earth’s crust would your divorce cause in your particular circle of friends?
Some people use gender lines to decide, dividing common friends down male/female lines. The boys go with the husband and the girls with the wife. This might make sense given interests and affiliations. The golfers go with the golfer. Or the sports fan goes with other fan fanatics in the group. I guess I’m being a bit sexist, but in my world I can see how that might work.
But what happens when there are issues relating to the divorce, such as an affair. In an affair, does that mean the divorcing couple’s friends should automatically side with the non-affair spouse? And how do we (really) know who did what to whom (we most likely don’t)? Should we really know every intimate detail of what happened (no, not really)? Do we want to know every intimate detail (no, we probably shouldn’t)? Is everyone in your group of friends talking like THEY know every intimate detail (likely many are!)?
The other complicated issue is common post-marital friends. These are the friends that you made as a couple. The good news is that most married people tend to become friends with another couple through a particular “link”. The link could be kid related, one of the couple connecting with other parents helping out at the school, or perhaps child’s sport, boy scouts, etc. The link could be someone met through a job or even in the neighborhood. I believe that whoever (in the divorcing couple) first linked with a given individual/couple is likely to retain the friendship and allegiance of those post-marital friends! Not always, but more likely. So if you’ve been busy working and not linking to those in your neighborhood, kids’ schools, kids’ sports and the like, you may find yourself without many of those types of friends should you divorce.
Oh, my…it seems quite complicated. And what’s worse than trying to delicately figure out your relationships with a newly divorcing couple themselves… is trying to figure out your relationships with the circle of friends that included said couple! As the “group” becomes fractured, some falling into the “husband’s camp” and some into the “wife’s camp”, it becomes a difficult and painful path to walk among your previously loving gang from back in the day!
So what is a “friend” of a divorcing couple to do?
First, let me say that I am not making light of the pain that someone getting divorced must feel about their ex-spouse, especially when there are children, finances, or maybe even a new significant other in the picture already complicating the divorce. I can imagine that having a friend going out with your ex-spouse, especially with a new significant other of your ex, would be difficult. I am not underestimating that.
But life must go on, and I believe friends should have a choice in the so-called custody battle. I admit I haven’t walked the walk, I have never been divorced. But I have observed dozens of friends around me…and still believe that you, as a friend, should be able to choose how you want to move forward. Doesn’t mean the individuals in the divorcing couple will let you, but you should be able to choose your own path in terms of who you want to continue to care about.
You should choose. Do you want to: Forgive? Forget? Ignore? Leave the country? Plan a hit?
To me, it is up to you to do what feels emotionally right for you. Sure, I’m hoping that also involves some thought and care relating to your divorcing friends’ needs and feelings, but at the end of the day you also need to do a little self-care as well. And your feelings can absolutely change and evolve over time.
There is no easy answer. As with so many things in our life you must feel your way, step on a few landmines and try to do the thing that you yourself can best live with.
My mom used to say, when she saw me struggling with any issue involving relationships, “do what gives you the most peace.” I always thought that wasn’t very helpful…at least, back when I was young.
What the heck did that even mean?
But now, the message resonates much differently with me. Maybe it is an older age thing, becoming comfortable in one’s skin, or learning that people – even those we love – aren’t perfect (and may need to be cut some much-needed slack, either immediately or perhaps down the road). It could be as simple as becoming more appreciative that our time on this earth is incredibly short.
I am not sure; I just know that for me to have peace, that I can’t hold a grudge (at least, long-term!), opinionate on another’s life choices (unless it is one of my children!) or demand change when it comes to relationships in my life (unless it is my husband, of course!).
My husband often says that I try to live in a “rainbow-filled” world, a world full of unicorns and lollipops. Perhaps.
But if I do live in such a world, you will find me holding my head high as I am riding said unicorn, trying to make my way as best that I can through friends’ ups and downs, relationship challenges and splits. And you will always find me trying to be caring and understanding (maybe even to those that others may feel don’t deserve it), while trying to achieve a sense of peace in my world.
And if there is a rainbow in the distance, I will likely be heading in that direction, with or without a lollipop. I just hope I am not alone!