How To Cope When Friends Break Up

A breakup is obviously tough on the couple involved — but if you're friends with them, you face a social minefield of your own. Here's how to navigate it with a minimum of strife.

Don't shun them.

Lots of couples, especially if they move in tight-knit social groups, have stories about being treated like plague carriers after they split up. This is understandable — nobody wants a pair of exes to get into a fight at weekly game night. But post-breakup is often when you need friends and fun the most. I talked to Sharyn Wolf, marriage counselor and author of Love Shrinks: A Memoir of a Marriage Counselor's Divorce, who says the way to solve this problem is openness: "You just have to send them an email, invite them to an event, and say, 'I know this is awkward but I love you both and I want you to know that.'" For more formal events, like weddings, Wolf advocates inviting both exes. For smaller gatherings, she says you can switch off which half of the former couple you invite — "but I think you should be open about it." That is, let both parties know you'll be inviting one to your birthday and the other to Halloween, so that (hopefully) neither feels slighted.

Flint Wainess, coauthor of It's Not Me, It's You: The Ultimate Breakup Book, recommends a different approach:

The key is [...] that you can't do the splitting up of events for them. If you like both people involved in a breakup, just be blunt and tell them they need to split up events. The result is that they both continue to have fun social lives while going through a tough time. And the result for you is that you don't become collateral damage in the breakup.

Listen, but don't badmouth.

Let's face it — talking shit about your ex is often part of a breakup. However, when you're friends with both parties, it may make you uncomfortable to hear one talk about how the other was a self-absorbed jerkoff plus also his butt was ugly. If that's the case, Wolf suggests a script: "I know that you need to vent and I know that you need to get this stuff out, but I think I'm not the right person. Let's talk about who else you can find to trash him to, because it shouldn't be me."

Alternately, if you can handle a little post-breakup nastiness but don't want to participate, just use the nod-sympathetically approach. Says Wainess,

After a breakup feelings get hurt and people say mean things. That's just how it is. So there's no point trying to police the situation and decide who's right about this or that. Just let your friend express what he/she needs to express. Don't agree or disagree, just listen. Then invite them to fun parties.

As long as you don't actively engage in shit-talk and don't report one person's complaints to the other, you should be able to avoid getting caught in the middle.

Don't feel like you have to choose.

If you've become friends with someone's partner, and then they split, you're in a tough spot. Your friend may be hurt if you maintain contact with the ex. Wolf says that if your friendship with Mr. or Ms. Ex-SO is of just a few months' duration, it may be worth saying goodbye — it's not worth straining your relationship with your original friend for a relatively new acquaintance. But if you've become close with the ex over a long period of time, it's totally legit to stay friends with him or her. Says Wainess of such situations:

Absolutely you can stay friends with that person. But there might be a transition period where you have to cool it so that your original friend doesn't get hurt. I'd say two months is reasonable.

So if you were friends with John way before he started dating Bryce, you might not want to take Bryce out for sympathy drinks immediately post-breakup. Let his old friends do that. But once the dust has settled a bit, there's no reason you and Bryce can't hang out — and if John objects, you can gently point out to him that you didn't break up with Bryce, he did. That said, don't go on and on about how hot Bryce's new boyfriend is or how well he's doing post-breakup — keep that information to yourself.

Talk to your friends about how to handle things.

Your friendship with the ex is a touchy subject right after a breakup, but if you bring it up early on, you'll have less chance of making your friend mad later. Wolf advises saying something like, "I want to support you in any way I can, you know that I'm friends with [Bryce] too. Let's talk about how you want to do this." If John wants you to cut Bryce out of your life or talk shit about him, you probably don't want to agree. But maybe he just wants you not to bring up Bryce in his presence for a while, which is a lot more doable. And if you know his preferences ahead of time, you can avoid touching off a crying jag by mentioning that Bryce got a new backpack or whatever.

Don't expect things to be perfect.

Wolf offers this reminder:

Breakups [...] equals pain. There's always going to be pain, and to think that there's any way you can make everybody all right is Fantasyland. It's just not going to happen. In the beginning, feelings will be very tender and people will be very easily injured, and I think you have to accept that.

Even if you're a perfect friend to both parties, they're still going to feel shitty for a while. And the reality is, nobody's perfect. When you're friends with both parts of a split-up couple, there's likely to be some jealousy and discomfort at the beginning. Your goal shouldn't be to eliminate it totally — you probably can't — but just to minimize it wherever you can. Remember, you can't make everything all better. All you can do is support your friends and give them a shoulder to cry on when they need it. And invite them to fun parties.


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Image by Blayne Ward.

Love Shrinks: A Memoir Of A Marriage Counselor's Divorce
It's Not Me, It's You: The Ultimate Breakup Book