Divorce: when friends take sides, it just gets messier

When a couple splits up, their mutual friends can have torn loyalties. Don’t force them to take sides, says Celia Dodd

When you’re splitting up, you need all the friends you can get. So it feels particularly cruel when people drop you like a stone. If you’re a woman, the invitations dry up because you’re perceived as a threat, while even friends you’ve known for years side with the partner they knew first.

But there is another reason, according to leading divorce experts. One anonymous expert says “Your break-up means your friends have to look at their own relationship. You are a mirror in which they might see something which resonates with them, which they would rather be in denial about. Friends don’t want any of your bad energy being reflected back at them.”

It’s pretty standard to take sides with the partner who is seen as most hard done by, even though we all know that there are two sides to every story, and there’s no one to blame if a couple simply falls out of love. People often take sides with the best, albeit misguided, intentions: it is seen as a sign of loyalty to end contact, a betrayal if you continue seeing the other half. And of course it all gets more complicated and judgmental if there’s a new lover in the picture.

Lucy and her partner are a case in point. They were close friends with another couple for years. They went on holiday together, their kids got on, and they were devastated when the couple broke up. But looking back, Lucy regrets the way she behaved.

She says, “I was incredibly judgmental, and I refused to have anything to do with the wife, who I felt was in the wrong. It was partly because I assumed that’s how her ex-husband expected me to behave. It was my way of showing solidarity. But looking back, I realise that was not what he wanted at all. And as a result I lost a really good friend.”

When a couple divorces there is a ripple effect on everyone around them, and there are bound to be torn loyalties. Experts believes all sides need to be aware of this and do their best to keep things amicable. Advice for divorcing couples is simple: don’t force your mutual friends to take sides, don’t burden people who know you both with too much information, don’t badmouth your ex to them, and know when to keep your counsel.

Another expert says “You need one person who is just your friend, who isn’t involved with both of you. With him or her you can offload as much as you like. Perhaps see a professional to work on how and why it happened. That’s much better than asking someone to take sides.

“A really good friend will also suggest that you see your ex’s perspective on certain things, rather than just feeding your venom, and will support you in thinking about what comes next.

“Meanwhile mutual friends need to take responsibility too, and make it clear that they’re not going to play piggy-in-the-middle. If they get an invitation from one person they should tell the other and explain that they want to stay friends with both partners. If the response is ‘You’re betraying me’ so be it. As a friend you have to go with your own integrity.”