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.
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?’
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.
"If you ally yourself with one spouse over the other, someone will end up feeling betrayed, she cautions. But say you are unsure how to handle invitations when you host get-togethers. To resolve that issue, tell your friends that you will let them decide what they're comfortable with. Adds Gunnell: “You don't need to insert yourself as the mediator. Let the couple determine how they'll navigate moving forward."
Set clear boundaries
The legal dissolution of a marriage is a process, one that can take years to finalize. It's perfectly fine to lend an ear in the meantime; chances are, you've already made yourself available in the months, or years, leading up to the divorce. Just be sure to safeguard your time and energy levels.
"You want to be there for your friends as much as possible, but set some clear boundaries,” suggests Terry Gaspard, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Bristol, Rhode Island, and author of The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around.
For example, fend off a habit of texting for support late at night by offering to listen during the day, when you are rested. And remember to remain a sounding board, instead of taking on the role of therapist. To keep either friend from feeling isolated, curate activities based on his or her interests. Go fishing with one; plan a backyard barbecue with the other.
Gaspard recalls that after her own divorce, a friend asked her to tag along on a hike with the Appalachian Mountain Club, which she ultimately joined. “It gave me something to look forward to, and I made a lot of friends."
Accept your own loss
The couple getting divorced aren't the only ones affected by grief, especially if the breakup puts an end to long-standing traditions. A dissolved marriage doesn't automatically equal two dissolved friendships, however — though allegiance does tend to align with the person you've known the longest or have a stronger connection with.
Such was the case with Bianco, who ended up choosing sides in her friends’ divorce.
"It was the loss of a friend and a relationship for me, too,” she says.