Anita Cali sat with her old college friend Gloria, talking about Gloria's ex-husband Peter. Suddenly tears sprang to Anita's eyes. "I miss Peter," she said of her friend's husband. Gloria rolled her eyes in exasperation: "You're just like the kids!" she said. Gloria and Peter (who don't want their real names used) were married for 17years. Their divorce, while not exemplary, was not particularly malicious. After 18 months they had worked out custody of their three children and portioned out the assets.
Nevertheless, their friends felt compelled to choose between them. Gloria, who had instigated the divorce because she realized she was gay, kept her old friends, like Anita, but nearly all the Orthodox Jewish couple's married friends sided with her husband. Peter, who told his ex-wife that of the friends he lost in the split, he missed Anita most, did not return Anita's calls.
The question of who gets the friends when a couple splits is not the sort of issue that attracts a federally funded study, but it's a dilemma almost every adult faces. Can you stay friends with both spouses after they're not friends anymore? Does the snapping of one bond put all the skeins of the friendship at risk?
While there are no rules ordaining the divvying up of friends after a split, in many cases it works like an unspoken prenuptial agreement. That is, you take those friends you brought to the marriage with you when you go. You also take the friends you use more often--the ones you work with or, if you're the custodial parent, the friends with kids. Often a sort of morality clause kicks in. People feel they should side with the spouse they perceive to have been wronged. The adulterer has a new love; the betrayed spouse gets the old friends.
But the situation is infinitely more complicated when a couple makes friends as a couple and there are no clear loyalties. For starters, many married people read the divorce of close friends as a threatening act. It breaks the cocoon that surrounds the foursome. The intact couple sometimes doesn't want to confront the fact--or let each other see--that there's life after divorce. The now separated friend becomes a third wheel on outings. And, suggests matrimonial lawyer Robert S. Cohen, many wives feel threatened by newly single women in their midst. Finally, people don't know what to do or say or how to help without being too intrusive.
The net result for the divorces is often abandonment. "I am good friends with exactly two of the couples that Harry and I were friends with," says Beth Hartman, 41, who called an end to her marriage in 1996 after five years. She was stunned by how quickly she was dropped from her social circle after the split. Her ex-husband, she says, fared no better. "I was almost more confused at the loss of all these friendships than I was at the end of my marriage," says Hartman, who is sensitive enough about the issue that she asked that we not use her real name. Indeed, losing friends often intensifies the alienation and unlovability divorces feel. "One thing that cushions the effect of divorce is social interconnectedness," says Linda Carter, director of the Family Studies Center at New York University's Child Study Center and a couples therapist. In other words, friends don't let friends divorce alone.