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Coupling

Divorcing our friends

Even though I split from my husband, couldn’t our social circle remain unbroken?

By Marianne Jacobbi
January 17, 2010

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An old friend I hadn’t seen in two years, not since my divorce, was coming to town and wanted to get together. She’d been a friend of both my ex-husband and mine for decades. She’d be having dinner with him. Could I meet for drinks before?

They say you have to choose sides when a couple splits, decide with whom you want to remain friends, because you’re no longer one big happy friend family. I was never sure why this was true -- until my own marriage came apart. My ex and I had divided up the assets and our children were mostly grown, so child custody wasn’t an issue, but we’d never discussed the friend question and who’d get custody of whom. We’d been married a long time and had friends he’d brought to the marriage and ones I’d brought, his colleagues and mine, and a good number of shared couple friends.

We live in a no-fault state, but we all know there are fault lines in most divorces, which is why you draw new boundaries and divide everything up when you part, including your friendships. Divorce is about loss. And friends often get caught in the middle. They feel the loss, too. It’s not that you force them to choose -- I don’t remember ever asking any of our friends to take sides. It’s just that after a divorce there are sides. The dynamics change.

A divorced female friend cautioned me soon after my separation that I’d likely lose some of my couple friends because “married women don’t feel all that comfortable around newly available women,” she said. “They’ll drop you like a hot potato.” (That turned out not to be true.)

But friendships definitely shift post-divorce, and everyone has to figure out where he or she belongs and feels most comfortable. The custody issue sorts itself out gradually, and people make their choices based on loyalty and love, anger and blame, kids and shared history. You keep some, you lose some. From what I can tell, women, who are usually the social secretaries throughout marriage, are also often the keepers of friends after the marriage ends.

But two years after my divorce, there was still this one person who’d managed to straddle the friendship fence. She’d remained chums with both my ex and me. She lived 3,000 miles away, so I rarely saw her. Now she was in town.

Could I forget the fault lines and the past, not go there, and simply enjoy an evening out together and have it be like old times? Would I be able to bare my soul, or at least a piece of it, knowing she was also my ex’s good friend? I wasn’t sure, but I was open to giving it a try.

We ordered our cups of tea and shared pleasantries and pictures. We covered our children and jobs and lives today, avoiding any talk of the painful past few years. We managed to dodge the land mines -- until about an hour into the conversation, when, after asking about the singles scene and my dating life, my old friend said something about my ex and his new life with the woman for whom he’d left our marriage.

I interrupted. “Too much information,” I said.

I realized then that our relationship had forever changed, that there was no going back to the uncensored talk of days past, to a bond based on intimacies and confidences and no holds barred.

Our free and open friendship, in which we’d shared any and all information, had become a casualty of the divorce. Nothing stays the same when two people split up -- not your family life, not your plans for the future, not the friendships that helped hold you up as a couple.

I returned home and sat down to write my old friend an e-mail. I explained how I felt. I said that divorce is complicated and awkward and that it affects every aspect of your life, from your pocketbook to your address book. “Let’s let it go for now,” I wrote. “Who knows what the future will bring?” Then I said farewell. It was the right thing to do for me.

Marianne Jacobbi is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. She lives in Cambridge. Send comments to coupling@globe.com. Story ideas Send yours to coupling@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to ideas we will not pursue.

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