Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

After 29 years of marriage, I asked my wife for a divorce. We had some discussions and agreed we had been living like roommates for years. We told our two adult kids a few days later. We remained friends of a sort; we continued to live in the same house and share the marital bed (as roommates) for another year before I moved out.

For close to 20 years we have had several couple-friends whom we befriended after our children became friends. A couple of months after the Discussion, our college-age daughter told me that one of our friends said, “Don’t worry. We’ll support your mom.” My daughter didn’t like that this friend was “choosing sides.” I asked my wife what she was saying to our friends. She said, “All I’ve been saying is you left the marriage and couldn’t find your way back.” I said I didn’t agree that’s what happened, but I wouldn’t control how she wanted to tell the story. When I moved out, I sent each of the couple-friends a card saying that I had moved out and both of us were fine.

Since then, none of the friends has spoken or written a word to me, with the exception of one couple I went to dinner with. They said, “I can’t believe you didn’t talk to us about your divorce. That’s very hurtful. We were very close friends.” I told them I was going to therapy and wasn’t prepared to talk about my divorce with them, but they still seemed hurt. I feel that my divorce, my loss, and my pain about it are my own to share or not to share with whomever I choose on my own timeline.

How do I navigate these shared friendships post-divorce?

Ty
Erie, Colorado


Dear Ty,

When people think about divorce, they tend to consider the immediate hardships to come: the demise of the marriage, the custody schedule with any children involved, the financial repercussions, the need to adjust to a new home.

But the collateral damage—for example, the tensions with shared friends—can be just as challenging. So let’s take a look at what makes these relationships so hard, and how you can navigate them moving forward.

Part of what makes post-divorce friendships tricky is that friendships made during the course of a marriage tend to be quite meaningful. These are the friendships of adulthood—fellow parents at your kids’ schools, neighbors you see  day to day, communities you’ve joined as a couple (social organizations, temples, churches). These are the people with whom you might have gone on family vacations, shared holidays or other annual traditions, and reached major life milestones. They’re the people you’ve supported through hard times such as an illness or the death of a parent. You’ll have many shared memories with these friends, and your friendships might be entwined with your marriage in others ways too. For instance, you might have formed close friendships with your spouse’s sibling, or her best friend’s partner, who has now become your best friend too.

Then you split up, and the context changes entirely. Those communal gatherings, outings, dinners, barbecues, camping trips, holidays, vacations, sporting events, movie nights, birthdays, graduations, weddings, anniversaries—what to do? Do your friends invite both of you, even if it might be awkward? Do they invite one of you to one event and the other to the next? There’s also the reality that, reasonably or not, many couples prefer socializing with other couples and choose not to invite the lone single person to certain gatherings.

Then there are friends who feel insecure in their marriage and worry that spending time with a divorced person (especially a happily divorced person) will plant the idea of divorce in their partner’s mind. Moreover, shared friends might feel uncomfortable hearing information about one party with whom they’re also friends, or they might feel pressure (even if it’s not there) to take sides.

You can’t control how people might react, but you do have choices. In terms of your friend who made the comment to your daughter about supporting your ex-wife, it’s possible that this friend wasn’t choosing sides, as your daughter assumed, but was simply saying she or he would be there for your ex-wife during this difficult time. If this friendship is meaningful to you, you can always talk with this friend directly, saying that you appreciate the support of your ex and that your own friendship with him or her is important to you too—and see what this friend does with that.

As for the couple who feels hurt that you haven’t talked to them about your divorce, remember that you’re not obligated to share personal details about your marriage or emotional turmoil with them any more than they’re obligated to share their marital troubles or emotional turmoil with you. It’s one thing to be authentic and present with your friends, but quite another for them to request information more for their need to know than for your need to talk it out with them.

Fair or not, some friends will pry. Some will question why you made a decision that you felt was best for your family or your children or your sanity. Some will try to arbitrate a situation they can’t really understand because they didn’t live it themselves. And when that happens, it will help to consider that people’s reactions have less to do with you or your ex-wife and what happened between you and instead almost entirely with their own circumstances—their history, experiences, current relationship, and internal anxieties and emotional makeup.

Of course, many divorced people feel unfairly judged and even painfully abandoned by people they considered good friends based on what their ex has told these friends—very private things, or inaccurate things. It might be tempting to want to share your version of events that differs from your ex’s, and if you do, remember that in these shared friendships, anything you say might get back to your ex-wife, so while getting support from your friends is certainly helpful, you’ll want to make sure not to say anything disrespectful and not to use your friends to send a message back to her that you should communicate to her directly.

Meanwhile, don’t forget that some friends might be keeping their distance because they feel awkward and don’t know how to be friends with both of you. The best way to see which friendships are worth keeping is to reach out to people, let them know that their friendship is important to you, and remind them that even if you’re the only single person there, you’re still the same friend they’ve had for decades and would like to be included in gatherings, events, dinners, and the like. Offer them some input on what you’re comfortable with so they don’t have to wonder—and then simply exclude you.

Over time, these joint friendships will be centered less around what’s happening with the divorce and more around daily life—the shared interests and mutual enjoyment from before. You might find yourself ending friendships that weren’t what you thought they’d been, while also discovering new strengths and commonalities in others, particularly now that your friendships will be one-on-one, potentially making them more intimate. And you’ll be making new friends along the way—friends who will meet you outside of the context of your ex and offer you a fresh start and the opportunity to be seen as you are right now, something your shared friends can’t do in the same way.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.