You just got the news that your friends, that couple you've known for years, are getting a divorce.
Maybe you're surprised. Maybe you can't believe they stuck it out this long.
No matter the circumstances, you're wondering what happens next. What are you supposed to do? And what about the friendship? Should you try to stay close with both? Do you have to make a choice of one over the other?
You've never (or rarely) been through this before, and are understandably concerned. You really don't want to do or say the wrong thing, and would feel awful about hurting anyone's feelings.
Having split with my ex almost five years ago, I've endured a few uncomfortable encounters. There was nothing intentional -- I'm absolutely convinced those friends (or former friends) weren't trying to hurt me. But the fact is, they either hadn't prepared, weren't thinking, or couldn't see the world from my perspective.
So, drawing on some personal experience and a couple of informed assumptions, here are six tips for still-married people who don't want to hurt their recently divorced friends:
- Communicate with your own spouse about how you're handling the newly-split couple. Several months after separating, I chatted with a husband at a school event. As we parted, he heartily called out, "Hey, see you at our house in a couple weeks," referring to an annual party they threw. "No, actually you won't," I replied. "I wasn't invited." Yes, the very definition of "Awk...ward!" Whether you pick sides after a divorce or stay neutral, make sure you and your spouse are on the same page.
- If you go back to neutral after making a pick, you need to explain. There was a wife who made a point of declaring I was in and my ex was out, going into great detail about why I'd "won." I would have understood if the couple had remained neutral, but frankly it felt pretty good. Until soon thereafter I saw that my ex was back in. What had changed? Had she pulled off a last second comeback? I don't know, because the wife never said a word. Having been jerked around, I bailed, gladly ceding the "win" to my ex.
- It's okay to acknowledge to the "loser" that a choice was made. I wasn't invited to a milestone event thrown by a former couple-friend; no surprise, the friendship was really through the wives. Not long after, at another gathering, the husband approached and started to explain about their event. I cut him off almost immediately. I said it's okay, I understand, there are no hard feelings, and I really appreciate you saying something. I'd much rather he do that than ignore me, or pretend there'd been no event. And if a "loser" spouse reacts angrily, you just proved that you made the right choice.
- Be really careful of anything involving the divorced couple's children. An online invitation came out for an event. Among the guests, I was listed individually. And right below me was a line with my ex-wife, her new husband, and our son. Our 21-year-old son, who could have been listed individually like his contemporaries, or with me. But no, he was included with his mom and the new guy, as if he was their child, not hers and mine. Yes, it seems trivial -- to a married person, whose family is intact. But to a divorced person whose family isn't intact, it felt like a kick in the stomach.
- If one party in the divorce has been wronged, or it's plainly obvious that there was abuse, infidelity, financial malfeasance, etc., then that wronged spouse is going to see neutrality as acceptance of the ex's actions. And that spouse will consider any embrace of the bad actor a statement that you don't care about the hurt he or she endured. You may think it's not your place to judge, that you should mind your own business, and that neutrality is best for all concerned. And you're eminently entitled to those feelings. But to the injured party, the choice of neutral equals choosing the guilty spouse, and you will either lose the relationship with the innocent one, or damage it significantly.
- If you stay social media connected with both, be aware when posting something about one. For instance, if you go out with the husband and his new girlfriend, then post a shot of the four of you, arms around each other, big smiles on your faces, in front of the hottest spot in town, captioned "Best time ever with Bob and (New Babe)! They rock!!!" then Bob's ex is going to feel a lot like I did reading that online invite.
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