What do you mean I have to give up custody of my friends?!

By its very nature, divorce means going through every part of the life that you built with your spouse and figuring out the best way to separate your life from theirs.  What happens with the house?  Will I be able to find an apartment that will accept our dog?  What will our parenting schedule look like for the kids?  Who gets the vacation home?  Sometimes you’ll find out that you’re willing to give up one part of that life in exchange for another piece of it, and ideally at the end, there will be a satisfying division of the things you had together being each of yours individually.  However, during discussions about assets, parenting plans, alimony, child support, and debt, one of the most important assets you have is often over looked – who gets custody of your friends?

It’s not fair, but for the people around you, being part of your support system while you are going through a divorce is like travelling in the wake of a speed boat that is pulling you along by a rope tied to an inflatable tube.  They can be thrashed from side to side, get hit with waves, pulled from one direction to the next as the boat takes sudden turns, and sometimes they can even be thrown off the ride completely.

It’s not unrealistic to see invitations to dinners disappear or to find yourself excluded from bowling night with the couple you normally go out with on Friday nights.  Some friends may quietly step out of your life.

While we can’t get a court order for that outlines how and when you get to visit your friends, we can share some insights with you that will hopefully help you navigate this part of divorce that, quite frankly, no one really wants to think about.

The first thing we need to go over is a pretty hard truth: Most of your friends are situational friends.  They’re people you hang around with because of circumstances in your life.  They’re people from yoga that you get drinks with after class, they’re other parents that you meet because your children are in the same class or on the same sports team, they’re people that you work with and even people that you live next door to.  These friendships spring up because of common interests and circumstances. While many of these friendships are rewarding and give us a sense of fulfillment, the relationships may fade as the circumstances of your life change.  To be clear, these friendships are not fake or superficial; they simply just aren’t forever.

You’re going to find that many of your friendships in divorce are just that – situational.  You find out that you only really were hanging out with the Olsen’s because they were a couple and you were too, so you had couple’s nights.  Tim and John were close family friends because your spouse worked with them for 10 years.  And the Patterson’s and their children were around because you were neighbors at the lake house you and your spouse purchased as a summer vacation home (that you now sold as part of your settlement).  As you travel through the journey that is your divorce, you need to be prepared to see the end of some of these situational relationships.

But remember, this is completely and totally normal.  You’ve been here before; you may just not be realizing it.

Think back to all the moments in your life where things changed.  You graduated high school, then you went to college, then you graduated college, you moved to a new city, you got married, you had kids.  In each of these moments in your life you had great and wonderful friends and relationships, but as you moved on to the next chapter of your personal story you left parts of your life behind.  Think about it – how many times do you run into someone from your past and think “We should catch up!”  Just as the circumstances of those relationships have changed, so are the circumstances of your current ones, and it’s going to be ok. It just really sucks – especially if you thought you were closer than it turns out you were, or worse, those friends seem to take your ex’s side.

To help you understand the place people are coming from, we’ll go over some of the most common reasons why friends tend to disappear and some thoughts on how to ease the fears or concerns:

  1. They’re situational. We already mentioned this earlier in the post, but this is a big one.  A lot of your friends are going to inherently be drawn to one person or the other in a divorce.  Your co-workers are likely going to side with you, your spouse’s co-workers will probably side with them.  It’s normal for people to go with the people they have an attachment to based on their specific situation.  Maintaining these friendships is difficult, if not impossible, because it is going to always involve putting you in close proximity to your spouse or their confidants which may not be the best idea even under ideal circumstances.  If you are insistent on maintaining these friendships, however, you must work out social arrangements with your spouse and come to grips with things like how you feel being around them in social settings.  If and when you do finally reach out to these friends (especially after they have already “picked a side”) you should be upfront and honest with them about your desire to remain friends.  You may find that they want to do the same but are uncertain about how to remain impartial.  If you manage to keep these friendships intact, keep gossip to a minimum.  Remember, these people are tied to your spouse and aren’t likely going to feel comfortable if you start talking bad about someone they still like.    However, be prepared because losses here happen.  Many people may be uncomfortable maintaining friendships with you if they are close to your spouse (and vice versa).
  2. Your friends don’t know what to say, feel awkward, or helpless. This is another very common one.  Your friends will likely not understand what you’re going through and just may not be very good at comforting these difficult moments.  Some people just cannot comprehend how to comfort someone who is grieving.  It’s nobody’s fault, but it underscores the difference between sympathy (feelings of sorrow and compassion for someone going through a difficult time) empathy (the ability to understand the difficulty of what someone is going through.  The most important thing you can do here is to communicate with your friends openly and honestly.  Tell them what you expect of them, if anything at all.  Let them know that you understand that it can be awkward and that it’s ok to feel this way.  Sometimes, it’s best to save your stories and venting for groups that understand what you’re going through and you can reach out to local divorce support groups.
  3. Divorce is polarizing! Remember the analogy about the speed boat?  As you move along through life, you’re pulling your relationships along with you and, sometimes, things may take an unexpected turn.  This is doubly true while you’re going through a divorce.  It doesn’t matter who walked away from who, how amicable the agreement, or what the circumstances are, it is not unusual for your friends to want to support both of you or based on their perception of events, support one spouse over the other.  This can, and often does, create real tension in couples that your friends with when they both choose to support a different party in the divorce.  Desires to avoid that kind of stress may result in these types of friends to fade out while things are turbulent, but they may also come back when the dust settles.  Just like with your friends who may feel awkward or helpless, keep communicating with you friends here too.  Let them know you understand that they have their own thoughts and feelings and do not make them feel like they have to be put in the middle of you and your spouse.
  4. And then, there’s fear. This is especially potent for your friends who are in relationships of their own.  Confronting a divorce is often akin to them confronting their own fears and worries that they have in their own relationships.  Seeing what you are going through reminds them of the things that could one day happen to them, and in the face of that fear the blink and flee.  It is very common for couples watching their friends go through a divorce to close their ranks and withdraw so as not to be confronted with the uneasy nature of their own insecurities.  The more uncertain and insecure someone is in their own relationship, the more likely they are to withdraw.  Sometimes though, this fear can manifest as jealousy.  It is also common for friends in couples to now view you as a threat to their own relationships because you are now “eligible” and may already be close with their spouse or partner.  This may lead to hostility towards you, even if in a passive aggressive manner.  Truthfully, it may be best to let go of these types of friends.  There is enough stress in your life, you don’t need this too.
  5. Your friendship develops an expectation of duty and can become draining. We all know that person, right?  The one who is just exhausting to be around because they need and need.  You’re constantly there for that person because, truthfully, they don’t even know how to be there for themselves.  That could become you, but it doesn’t have to be.  Just remember to set boundaries with some people.  When a relationship becomes draining, people will often leave it, but you can nurture these by continuing to give back to the friendship in meaningful ways.  Never miss a chance to express your gratitude to your friends or return their support in kind.
  6. You become the dreaded friend who demands that they pick a side.  Friends are kind of like your children – they didn’t ask for you to get a divorce but they’re now drawn into it because the two of you decide to split up.  Unless you are 100% certain that your friend is yours and yours alone, don’t push them to agree how rotten your ex is.  We’ve seen so many investigations where someone things for sure their friend is going to back them up and the report comes back with, “They’re both good parents.”  Your friends don’t like the break up either.  Don’t make it worse for them.

Even armed with this knowledge; sometimes it’s just best to take a step back, remember this is a normal part of life, and let go.  Not every relationship is worth holding onto, and as you move through this process you are going to find out which of the friendships you have are worth preserving and which ones are tied just to this chapter of your life.  Those ride-or-die friends, the friends who show up with dinner and a case of beer or bottle of wine and don’t leave until you’re done crying – those friends are going to help carry you through this.  And once you come out the other side ready to start something new, new relationships will be waiting.

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