Navigating Friendships After Divorce
Once married couples find other couple friends to brighten up weekends and attend concerts with, it’s tough to let them go. After all, they’ve spent months or years getting to know them, sharing important life stories, meals, and children’s events. It took effort to grow as close. And now . . . what?
When divorce creeps into the picture, often friends do drift away, adding yet another loss to the end of the relationship. Should divorcees consider the pulling away of some couple friends inevitable and be cool about it? Should they storm over to the friend’s home and demand attention? Is it smart for the newly single to desperately work for new, “better” friends? Who has time for that?
With all of the chaos going on during a divorce, these friend questions can be relatively minor. Still, it’s during the divorce, we need our friends the most. Navigating couple friendships after divorce can get tricky. Therapists and researchers have been peering into this issue for decades now. Reviewing their experience will help you decide how to proceed with pals you’d hoped would be life-long.
Consider Letting the Friend Go
First and foremost, understand that losing a friend is not the end of the world. In fact, it happens regularly to all individuals and couples. How many times have you run into someone you lost touch with and ended the conversation with, “We should get coffee someday!” Diverging life experiences, physical moves and job changes interfere with friendships all the time.
In an attempt to quantify just how frequently friendships form and break up, sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst of Utrecht University in the Netherlands surveyed 1,000 individuals about their friendships, waited for a decade and re-interviewed the 604 he could find. On the basis of his data, he determined that over a period of seven years, we lose and replace about half of our friends. This makes sense considering not only the lifestyle changes we all undergo, but the ways our personalities change over the years.
Even more interesting — and a bit disturbing — Americans confide in fewer and fewer friends each decade. While Facebook numbers mislead us that we have hundreds of “friends,” we all know these are mostly acquaintances, past connections and work contacts. Cornell University sociologist Matthew Brashears 2011 data confirmed previous findings from Duke University that, while in the 1980s, Americans reported having three close friends, the number these days is two. Worse, the number of people reporting they had NO ONE to discuss important matters with increased from 8% in the 1980s to 25% in 2011, a 300% rise.
Keep in mind too, it’s generally accepted that those closer to your spouse will most likely go with him or her and slowly withdraw from you. The situation works in reverse as well. Maybe they were old family friends or fellow college classmates. Expecting a friend to remain connected to two divorcing partners isn’t realistic in most cases.
Understanding that losing a friend is not the end of the world helps you cope better with giving one up. Research from Harvard shows our brains are hard-wired for friendship. New friends are always nearby. They’re teaming in your area’s meet-up groups, as well as churches and neighborhood organizations.
Reaching Out to the Right Friends
Don’t lose a good friend simply because you feel self-conscious. Drifting apart through inaction will just leave you both with eternal questions. Take the “bull by the horns” and contact them either by email or phone. When you contact them, demonstrate that you understand the sadness and confusion they may be going through.
People pull away from those divorcing for reasons that range from seeing the divorcee as a threat to their own marriages to just not knowing what to say. More just don’t know how to handle a grieving person. There are many things that can be helpful: a therapist, divorce support group, family members to listen to your anger and sadness. You already know it can be a lot for friends to take. To avoid over-burdening them, make sure to always ask about how things are going with them. Save some of your stories for those paid to listen and your support groups.
The friends you’d like to keep and think you have rights to claim most likely would appreciate your making the first move. Create a list of these people and plan on sending an email or calling them. Try a matter-of-fact email or letter along these lines:
I appreciate your offers of dinner and walks during this tough time in my life. I know you liked ________________ (spouse), and this break-up could be disconcerting for you, too.
I guess we all now go into a time when our connections will be tested, even questioned. It’s important to me that you know how much I appreciate you, your off-beat sense of humor and appreciation for mountain biking (some specifics). When arranging social events, you may need to choose me or ___________ (spouse). I totally get it! Please do not feel uncomfortable doing so.
Also, if you feel like inviting both of us, please let me know ahead of time so I can determine whether I’m ready for that or not.
Finally, although I am single, and you two are still married, I would so appreciate being included in whatever social opportunities you feel appropriate. I love being with you and look forward to having more great times in the future!
That’s not so horrible; is it? This straight-forward, mature approach may even impress the recipient! The worst that can happen is they won’t respond. In those cases, you have your answer. Process it with your support systems and move on with your life.
Science shows us that while our friend bases may always be in flux, having friends makes a better health booster than even stopping smoking. The old adage, “Make new friends, but keep the old” will always be with us. We need both the reliability of our current friends and the excitement of new ones. The good news is that most people are always open to having a new friend. Other newly divorced people can be great support, and finding them is as easy as locating your nearest divorce support group.