When bad things happen to good friends.

Image: Flickr/DrJohnBullas

One of the things you might have picked up about me if you’ve read my blog for a while is that I’m absolutely, shockingly rubbish at NOT taking sides.  Some people are marvellous at sitting on the fence and seeing both sides of every situation. Friends, I am not that person.

This is rather inconvenient at the moment because two of my good friends with are getting divorced. I want to be a good friend to both of them, and be supportive and not get involved. But I can’t help thinking that one half of the couple is being a complete IDIOT.

I want to slap him repeatedly around the head because I don’t think he realises that he has responsibilities to his three young children, and he doesn’t yet know how rare it is to find an amazing, beautiful, smart and kind partner who loves you. And he’s throwing it away. Not only that but the manner of his leaving is causing so much more pain than necessary.

But when I saw him this week, what I actually said was, “I’m so sorry to hear about everything that’s happened. I hope you’re okay and that things get better soon.”

I can’t help feeling I’ve been disloyal to his wife (who is one of my very best friends) and not entirely honest, somehow. But I also feel it’s important in that situation not to take sides because how can you possibly know the full story of someone else’s relationship?

I remember the day after I broke up with my ex, I got two phone calls from female friends. I’d known both of these women for the best part of 10 years, both had been at my wedding, and were good friends.

Friend A said, “Unless you can convince me you have a good reason for doing this, I just can’t see us being friends anymore.”

Friend B said, “It sounds like you’ve made a really hard decision. I hope you’re okay but if you need cake and a chat, just let me know.”

No prizes for guessing which woman I never saw again, and which one is still a good friend.

I guess as I get further into my 30s (sob), I’m going to see more and more relationships break up around me, and second marriages, and step-families. It’s modern life, isn’t it?

But it does make friendships complicated. I don’t like to lose friends, but I want to be a good friend at the same time – what do you think? Any tips on balancing those two things? 


Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

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  1. SmartLivingDiva
    15th August 2010 / 11:00 am

    I think taking sides is inevitable really – you might try to be impartial and in the middle but chances are there’s one half of the family you like better than the other half, one half who is less ‘to blame’ (I don’t really mean that but it seems the best choice of words), one half who you’ve known longer than the other half. And you won’t want to hurt the half you like more by seeming to betray them by continuing a relationship with the other half. So I say, don’t be wishy washy. Stay polite, don’t mudrake and keep your cool, but draw your line in the sand and keep to your side of it – support the partner you’ve chosen to support, be there for them – everyone needs someone on their side in these things.

  2. L
    15th August 2010 / 10:41 am

    Interesting to read your perspective on this. As the recently-dumped female in a nine-year relationship, and someone who my ex readily admits has many of the great qualities of your female friend (and I love him with all my heart), it was good to get an idea of how our friends might be feeling about it.
    You might expect them all to react how you and ‘Friend A’ did, unable to avoid laying blame and siding with me. But no. I appear to be the one who has lost friends, people who I thought were joint friends but a month after the break up have said not one word to me. Someone suggested embarrassment might be playing a part here. It’s hard to tell.
    Neither of us are the type of people to expect anyone to choose sides (and I know he won’t have asked anyone to do that), but it seems to be a natural reaction for some people. If your friends have many shared friends, like yourself, then they have many socially-awkward events in front of them! That’s the next stage I’m really not looking forward to…

  3. 15th August 2010 / 11:09 am

    It is really hard. Some of our friends have broken up and we have always stayed even handed with them because largely, it’s been a mutual decision rather than one leaving the other etc. We’ve made it clear to both sides that we intend staying in touch. Almost inevitably, you tend to lose touch with one of them. Our neighbours broke up just before my son was born – it wasn’t a surprise to me as I’d seen their relationship from the inside quite a lot. The husband was reasonably good friends with my husband so we saw him regularly, even tho it was him that moved out. He now lives on the other side of the world but I still reckon I have more to do with him than his wife, who lives over the road. That’s just the way their lives have gone and how she has chosen to live her life since. I have no issue with it but she’s moved away from the circles we used to move in and we just don’t seem to have much in common anymore. It’s not I don’t speak to her, it just doesn’t happen very often.
    In other case, the husband is a lifelong friend of my husband and his wife was only a part of the circle of friends through him. We did say she was welcome to stay in touch but she chose not to, even tho it was a very amicable thing. We were sad but we respected her wishes.
    The problems arise when either one or other of the couple want YOU to take sides with them, which does happen sadly. The best way is to be firm with them if you really want to stay in touch with both parties and if you lose a friendship over it, I would question whether you need friends like that, unless the situation really dictates it.
    I think, as ever, you have to judge each situation on its merits and try to stay as even-handed as possible and only take sides where it seems the only right thing to do.
    Sorry, lots of waffle because it’s a really difficult area and like you, I’ve been on both sides of this sort of thing.

  4. 15th August 2010 / 3:55 pm

    I think when I split up from my ex, lots of our mutual friends took his side because I didn’t have the energy or inclination to talk about what had gone wrong. While he was very open and talkative about how he felt, I was the opposite and I think they naturally felt a lot of sympathy for him, and therefore were cross at me for ‘causing’ that.
    After a year, I’d lost pretty much all of our mutual friends bar one or two, but I figured those friends who did stand by me were the ones worth keeping, and the others probably weren’t such good friends to begin with anyway.
    Best of luck, though, it’s very tough in the early days

  5. 15th August 2010 / 3:56 pm

    I suspect you’re right – I think it’s tricky not to feel hurt when your friends are still friendly with someone who has stitched you up.

  6. 15th August 2010 / 3:57 pm

    Thanks Kate, you’re right it is horribly difficult and I naturally do want to take sides, but I agree you should only do that where you’re sure it’s the right thing to do.
    How odd about your friend across the street and her husband, though – I wonder if she minds you’re friends with her ex?

  7. 15th August 2010 / 6:32 pm

    I had this situation when I was pregnent with my daughter, our best friends split up and I did take sides – I think it’s only natural although I really tried hard not to at first.
    The result was that my best friend ended up living with us for almost a year and her ex partner stopped speaking to us as he thought that by inviting her to stay with us we were encouraging her not to go home.
    I do wish that I’d handled it differently now as it was such a shame to lose a good friend. Sometimes I don’t think it’s possible to stay friends with both sides but I suppose it depends on the reason for the split.
    Sorry for waffling 😉

  8. 15th August 2010 / 7:18 pm

    ah, one of those ‘we’re getting older’ problems we now face… you cna only be honest with yourself and let your natural feeling do the talking. Perhaps by being honest with him about how you feel he;’s behaving you are being a friend to them both – he may either listen, or tell you another side to the story or get pissed off with you – whichever way, you;ve been true to you…. and both friendships. Hard times though.

  9. Nikki
    15th August 2010 / 7:29 pm

    Just reading a fabulous storybook by Jane Fallon (Foursome) on this very topic and its interesting to see things from different perspectives. As an outsider I don’t think any friends ever have the whole picture of your relationship and its your right to safeguard and retain privacy over it. You shouldn’t need to tell everyone your side of a break up, after all – we’re are British LOL and have that stiff upper lip! Likewise it’s fine if you need to offload to friends about it. Horses for courses, but you’re spot on Sally and only true friends will remain.
    From personal experience when our two best friends broke up (he broke it off with her for reasons we still don’t know about- they were an awesome couple and never stopped laughing together), he actually dumped us as best friends which really hurt. He even asked us to look after his ex and then strollled off into the sunset – got another girlfriend within 4 weeks, moved in together after 6 weeks and had a baby that same year – prob the reason he broke up with our mate. Needless to say it was a shock to her and to us and we all got dumped. There’s nowt such queer as folk.
    Sometimes its better to hold back on your own thoughts and maybe they know better if it’s not working, but likewise, sometimes people just don’t know how lucky they already have it. More fool them and hugs to those they hurt in the process.

  10. 15th August 2010 / 8:56 pm

    By the time my ex finally left me (and oh god how relieved I was not to be the ‘bad’ one) I’d pretty much lost contact with all *my* friends, and only had ‘his’ friends that I saw once in a while by that point. Needless to say once we split my old friends were there for me asap and I left the friends I’d made to him. In my eyes they weren’t really my friends, just people who I spent time with sometimes.

  11. 15th August 2010 / 9:02 pm

    Waffling’s encouraged round these parts, don’t worry!
    What would you do differently in hindsight? I do sometimes wonder if I owed our friends more of an explanation at the time, but then I think I was so busy trying to cope and keep a roof over heads and work and look after a baby that I barely had the energy to get up in the morning, much less endlessly debate why I ended a relationship. Hmm.
    Maybe it’s not possible when one person is being so badly hurt by it. I wonder if it’s just not possible to not have a view in that situation.

  12. 15th August 2010 / 9:04 pm

    Yep, I’m practically middle-aged 😉
    Yes, I do think if I say to him tactfully that I am concerned he isn’t behaving as well as he might, I’ll feel I’ve been honest – if he then chooses not to be friends, that’s his choice?
    It is hard though, definitely.

  13. 15th August 2010 / 9:04 pm

    Hi Nikki
    I never really thought about friends being dumped and hurt – what an interesting perspective, thanks!
    I don’t think I dumped any of my friends, though, they ALL dumped me!

  14. 15th August 2010 / 9:05 pm

    Yes, I had quite a few of those when I was married. I remember my ex once telling me I wasn’t very good at making friends. With hindsight, it was actually just that I didn’t like *his* friends all that much! So glad you found good friends to see you through.

  15. A
    15th August 2010 / 11:29 pm

    First off, I think you are right not to get involved. When my ex and I split up, it turned out he’d spent quite some time trying to paint himself as some kind of victim. He lost friends because it emerged he had told a lot of lies. I encouraged people to stay neutral – I told them I did not expect anyone to take sides, or choose between us, so they didn’t need to feel awkward or worry. Saved a lot of hassle. Until they all decided they didn’t want to know him anyway…
    But aside from the fact that you never really know what goes on in someone’s relationship (even if someone tells you, it’s always just one side), I think it’s just better to be neutral and supportive, like you’re doing, Sally. Because whatever the reason for person A leaving person B, it’s not up to anyone else. It doesn’t matter how their friends feel – it’s not for a friend to tell someone whether they “should” leave their relationship or not. That’s not being a friend, that’s being judge, jury and social executioner – not to mention downright selfish and self-obsessed.
    People can feel what they like, but their feelings shouldn’t become the problem of one of the people actually going through the situation firsthand. I think it’s pretty disgusting to take someone who’s going through a break-up and expect to dump your hurt on top of theirs. So, Sally, I think you’re right to only be in touch with one of those friends still.
    As for L, it’s at times like these that you find out who your actual friends are.

  16. 15th August 2010 / 11:52 pm

    I do agree, it’s best not to get involved because you can’t know who is or isn’t to blame – and I do wonder if anyone can really be ‘to blame’ – life’s complicated.
    But I do still think as a friend you can have an opinion on how friends conduct themselves during a break-up – being cruel or dishonest isn’t okay no matter what the circumstances. And maybe a good friend would step in and say, “Look, I know you’re angry but treating her like this because you’re angry and hurting is hurting the children and you’re a better person than that.”
    Or maybe that’s me being hopelessly pompous and judgmental, I don’t know.

  17. A
    16th August 2010 / 3:42 pm

    Yes, I think that’s OK. But there’s a difference between that and opining on whether someone “should” leave in the first place.

  18. 17th August 2010 / 11:26 am

    When my friends separated after two years of marriage, it was he who called to “break the news”, explaining how difficult it was for him but he felt, despite much effort on his part, that there was no future in the relationship, that they had got married too young / too quickly. There was, he assured me (without my asking, I must add), no one else involved. When I then called his wife, she was understandably devastated, not only by his sudden departure but by his already existing plans to move in with his new girlfriend. Despite his behaviour toward his wife and blatant and deliberate lies to me, I did try to remain friends with him too – he was my friend initially and so it seemed wrong to take her side – and even attended his wedding to the “other woman”. That said, I found the day somewhat farcical and struggled to believe the sincerity of his vows. I also felt incredibly guilty for being there, as if my witnessing the sealing of this new relationship was somehow a betrayal of the old. My efforts with him dwindled after that, and we’re no longer in contact. As for his first wife, we’re still in touch, but I fear my determination to remain neutral (to the point of going to the second wedding, which took place just a few months after the divorce) was detrimental to our friendship, and we now only speak occasionally by email.