Divorce Season: What Happens When Friends Split

By Lela Nargi

The post-collegiate years stream steadily by, punctuated by the usual milestones. We find the job that morphs into a career, shack up with the love of our life, adopt a dog, get some kids. Our friends mostly hit these milestones at the same general moments we do, lending a sense of rightness to the proceedings: the notion that we’re all in it together, that life as we are experiencing it makes sense, has a trajectory we can follow.

Then, the first divorce hits.

Friends and acquaintances of the un-wedding are shocked. Not because we’re naïve—pretty much every married American can pull the one-out-of-two-marriages-ends-in-divorce statistic out of his or her pocket (although the divorce rate for first marriages is a slightly less bleak 40 percent). Not because we necessarily believed that this was the marriage that would last for the ages. Not because we don’t recognize that marriage is fraught with perils—especially once the children come. But because as we’ve been blithely carrying on with our just-right lives, we’ve also become enmeshed in the lives of our friends. One couple’s divorce has disturbing implications for all those who surround them.

“That couple, that family, has had a place in the narrative of your life, and with their divorce, someone rewrote that chapter without your permission,” says Alice Kaltman, founder of family coaching center Family Matters NY, to explain the sense of surprise and upset friends of the divorcing often experience. “Even though people don’t want to admit it, it’s threatening to the stability of your own marriage. You wonder, could that ever happen to me?”

When friends split, we become suddenly alert to the possibility of spousal secrets yet to be discovered, or tune in to “normal” dissatisfactions with family life that now seem more significant than we were once willing to admit. But in addition to the fear divorce can strike in our hearts, we also contend with the havoc friends’ breakups play on matters more mundane. Says Kaltman, “Now we can’t all go to the beach together next summer, and you can’t pick up my kid after soccer every week. It shakes up the day-to-day life of friends and community in both practical and personal ways.”

And for most of us, there are more divorces on the horizon—a neighbor refers to the marital breakups that begin to accumulate when you hit your mid-40s as “Divorce Season.” Along with them come tales of infidelities and assorted cruelties that we’re not sure what to make of: are they truly as horrendous as they sound? Why didn’t we know of them sooner? How could our friends have lived like this for so long? More often than not, as the incredulity mounts over this new and awful tide, we may find ourselves standing firmly in one parental camp or the other.

But family therapist Elisabeth J. LaMotte, LICSW, of the DC Counseling Center, offers some words of caution: “When friends choose sides, this often relates to insecurities and vulnerabilities in their own marriage. Or it could be that the current divorce is bringing back memories related to when their own parents divorced years ago. These heightened emotions can lead to unnecessary drama that unfortunately overlooks that the best way to help a family going through divorce is to be there for all parties.”

Says Azmaira Maker, PhD, a family therapist in San Diego, “Divorcing parents are looking for allegiance, validation, loyalty, and a sense of ‘I’m right and my partner is wrong.’ That’s when friends get pulled in.” And it can be oh-so-easy for us to take sides: with the wife who tells tales of the husband who’s had a string of affairs; or the husband with stories of the wife who’s withheld intimacy for the better part of a decade; or the friend of either sex whose relationship we value the most or have held the longest.

Beth Clark*, a writer in Los Angeles who has experienced the split of a number of friends, recalls, “One couple divorced and got back together again, then split up again after what I heard was gross infidelity. I was getting whiplash on that one and trying to keep an open mind, because they were old friends. But mostly [I tend] to give my support to the inured party.” For Shelly Casey*, a web content manager in New York, when long-standing friends divorced after many years, “It was assumed I’d stay with her, because she was one of my oldest and closest friends.” Not to have chosen sides “would have alienated and hurt her when she was most vulnerable. She needed me as an ally.”

But, warns Kaltman, “It is not a good idea to take sides. Even though that’s what everyone wants to do. We want to believe there’s a right and wrong, a good and bad, instead of understanding that the place this couple was existing in even before the divorce was a murky grey area.”

The side-taking comes with all sorts of variables, though. Says Gabrielle Green*, a painter whose marriage of 17 years began to unravel after she, her husband, and their young son moved to upstate New York from Brooklyn, “For a long time, I didn’t want people to choose sides, because I thought maybe my spouse needed a support system rather than having people tell him what to do. I thought that would save my marriage.” But as the marriage continued to devolve and finally came to an end, friends chose sides, anyway. Even if they didn’t state it outright, Green discovered that some of her friendships became exclusive to her, and certain people dropped out of her life altogether.

Unlike Green, plenty of divorcing men and women actually insist that friends shut out a former spouse—and oftentimes, we friends are happy to comply. But this can inflict solitude on both parents when they could equally benefit from compassion. And the solitude has even more significant repercussions for the true innocent victims of these goings-on: their children.

Says LaMotte, “Children of all ages can be exceptionally sensitive and aware of the dynamics between their parents, and also the dynamics in their greater community. When a parent pressures friends to take sides, this can backfire on a myriad of levels. When one party expresses betrayal if friends do not shun their ex, they will likely alienate several friends, thus isolating themselves and their children.”

Friends who take sides are “putting their own kids in a tug-of-war, too,” elaborates Maker. “The children hear negative things from their parents and then, what happens when your 7-year-old says to the child of the divorcing couple, ‘We can’t be friends with you and your mom anymore’? That leaves this kid without playdates when she could really use some company. It’s usurping her well-being.”

But most difficult of all might be the situations in which divorcing parents badmouth their exes within earshot of their kids. Andi Blake*, who worked for years as a family law attorney and mediator in California, witnessed this phenomenon over and over. “I watched parents do terrible damage to their families by talking negatively about the other spouse in front of their children.” The most challenging instance of this: “When my very close friend mocked her ex in front of her pre-teen. I saw how she had driven a wedge between the child and the father.” She felt compelled to comment on the friend’s behavior, although she’s not confident it ultimately came to what she considers the ideal result: the ability of her friend to “vent anger to safe sources, trustworthy friends and relatives, so the kids don’t hear it.”

Of course, there will always be instances where neutrality is impossible. “Cases of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse are exceptionally complicated,” says LaMotte. But even in the “best-case” scenarios, she says, “Divorce is traumatic and emotional, and the impulse to wish for side-taking is at once understandable and emotionally immature.” As friends who are witness to—and even participants in—the divorces of people we care about, we can take a sliver of solace in the knowledge that we’re giving truly valuable support if we can lend a sympathetic, non-judgmental ear to both parties; offer concrete help in the form of childcare or a home-cooked meal; and above all, avoid the pressure to take sides, no matter how virtuous it may feel.

*All friends-of-the-divorcing interviewed for this article asked to be identified by pseudonyms.

Photograph by Sunset Girl, via Unsplash.