Angela Bianco found herself in a quandary when her married friends were going through a divorce.
"I tried to be supportive to both of them, to listen and validate their feelings, but it became very exhausting for me,” says the 56-year-old from Pittsford, New York.
In the end, Bianco had to pick one member of the couple to support, prioritizing the friendship she valued most. “I found that there was no way to sit on both sides of the fence,” she says.
Keeping Friendships Intact
• When extending social invitations, invite both partners. Let the couple decide if one or both will attend.
• Provide support, but set clear boundaries to safeguard your own time and energy.
• Be compassionate without being accusatory.
• Acknowledge your own loss and the change to your relationships.
Watching two friends break up is painful and awkward enough without feeling torn when you value both friendships. It's hard not to take sides, which often means losing one of those relationships.
It's a predicament that appears to be increasingly common. The coronavirus lockdown is being credited with an apparent spike in marital breakdowns. That's an especially worrisome trend for older adults given that the U.S. divorce rate for people age 50 and over has more than doubled since 1990, according to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University.
"We aren't used to being stuck together as much as we are now,” says Matt Kurylo, a divorce attorney in Fredericksburg, Virginia. “The courts are starting to reopen, and there has definitely been a bump in [divorce] cases."
Ways to stay neutral
Couples often struggle for some time before deciding to split. As a friend, you may have heard and witnessed tensions or flare-ups over the years. Remember that each party's perceptions — on finances, intimacy or any other topic — inherently will be one-sided, so try to remain objective.
Also keep in mind that, no matter how much information has been shared, you know only part of the story, says psychotherapist Megan Gunnell, founder and director of the Thriving Well Institute in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. “We can't ever really know what someone else's experience was like,” she says.
To prevent taking sides, swap sentiments such as “I can't believe this happened” with “What you're going through must be really hard."
"Those statements are incredibly compassionate and powerful, even though they are neutral,” Gunnell explains. “And then you can ask, ‘How are you feeling? What do you need?’