Despite TV’s portrayal of female friendship as nurturing, unwavering, even strengthening throughout trying times, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the people we think we can count on are more like shadows – apparent when things are bright but invisible in the darkest hours.
In the early days of my divorce – a time when I was barely keeping my head above turbulent waters – I instinctively threw out a lifeline to the group of women I considered to be my closest friends. A few of us had known each other since grade school. We had championed one another in our marriages, children, new homes and career changes. We shared girls’ nights, couples’ outings, and holiday gatherings for years. I needed their support and encouragement more than ever.
I wrote a lengthy email detailing my shock and disappointment over what had transpired. A group email was the fastest way to disseminate the information to everyone at once, plus I could better edit my all-over-the-place emotions from behind a keyboard. I poured out my heart and in turn, received instantaneous replies of mutual sadness, anger and disbelief along with promises of big hugs reinforced by even bigger, stronger margaritas.
And then…? Nothing. Crickets.
I’ll admit, I retreated from the world for a while as I tried to sort out the chaos that was my life, but still I expected my friends to find a way to rally around me, not evaporate altogether. Where were the girlfriends who showed up on your doorstep toting Chinese take-out and a sad DVD so that you can all have a good cry? The ones who called out the jerk who just broke your heart and assured you that you’re much better off without him anyway? Oh yeah. They’re on TV.
“Only 13 per cent of divorced women list their ex-husband’s parents as part of their social network; they claimed they had difficulty maintaining relationships with their former in-laws because it was hard for the in-laws not to take sides and to act as if “blood is thicker than water.”
“Not only in-laws disappear: many divorced adults find that friends disappear as well – especially if the friendship had been formed during the marriage and was shared with the spouse. On average, people lose three friends when they get a divorce. Sometimes this is the divorced person’s idea; sometimes it is the friend’s. Divorced individuals are twice as likely as married people to break off relations with a close friend, and they are more likely to feel excluded by their former pals.”
From “Divorce: Causes and Consequences” by Alison Clarke-Stewart and Cornelia Brentano
At first, I couldn’t figure out what had happened. Did my friends wrongly think I was strong enough to handle everything on my own or were they just too busy to risk getting sucked into someone else’s messy drama? Did they disapprove of the choices I was making or just not know how to comfort me in my hour of need?
When I talked to my counsellor, she told me that it wasn’t at all uncommon to lose touch with certain friends during divorce. Sometimes, the issue hits too close to home (divorce could be *cough* contagious) or you are seen as a threat (not that you’d steal their men, but that you could dare to be happier(!) post-divorce). Sometimes, they’re uncomfortable with grief and don’t know how to relate to you anymore. Sometimes it’s because they just don’t want to be weighed down with heavy conversation. Face it, divorce is a real downer.
My counsellor wanted to know if I was the first in our group to go through something similar. I told her no, a friend had separated from her husband in the two years’ previous.
“And what happened to her once her marriage ended?” she asked.
I sat silent for a moment. “She stopped coming to our get-togethers. Her name would come up from time to time, but that was about it.”
“Did anyone make a point of reaching out to her?”
“A few times, I think. I mean, I didn’t because I wasn’t terribly close to her, but as I recall, she just wasn’t returning any messages. She was going through some dark stuff and so I guess we sort of stopped inviting her out for girls’ night.”
The irony hit me like a punch to the gut. I’d pushed them away.
“They discover after the divorce that the social world is like Noah’s ark – they are not accepted without their mate. Some friends withdraw from both husband and wife to avoid taking sides; others split into his and hers camps. Often, married couples do not know how to incorporate a single friend into their couple activities. They may feel threatened by the single person because he or she looms as a sexual threat or makes too many demands.
“At the same time, divorced individuals may isolate themselves from their friends because they feel that they no longer fit in, they are upset by seeing others’ happiness, or they assume that others are critical of their behavior. Especially if the divorced person is embarrassed because of the ex-spouse’s behavior, it is difficult to put on a happy face and socialize with the old gang as if nothing has happened. It is also difficult to socialize if seeing the old gang brings up painful memories of the way it used to be.”
I was deeply hurt that my friends had not reacted in the way I expected. I curled up into a ball and withdrew, not knowing what to expect from them next. Facing them might put my marriage under the microscope to be picked apart for over-analyzing, or worse, lead to an all-out pity party. While I longed to be consoled, I wanted their acceptance and empathy, not their judgement or pity.
I didn’t want anyone to walk on eggshells around me, but even I was concerned about what might set me off in that weepy state of hypersensitivity. Our usual conversations centered on home, family and marriage and we talked at length about our kids and our husbands. Where I once would have loved to share in the giggly news of romantic surprises and grand vacation plans and major home renovation projects, the idea of having to participate in such chatter appealed to me as much as a splitting migraine.
All I wanted was to feel normal again and yet, the last thing I wanted was to be around normal, happily-married people who carried on as if nothing earth-shattering had happened. My marriage imploded. The only life I knew was now in ruins. I was an entirely different person from who I was the last time any of my friends saw me.
And what would they understand about what I was going through anyway? They all still had their husbands.
“Having lost old friends, many divorced individuals lose no time trying to acquire new ones or renew friendships that existed before their marriage. Most find new friendships in their neighborhoods, work settings or formal organizations. They are likely to make friendships with other single people rather than married couples.”
They say that making friends after 40 is much more difficult than when we’re kids. Nicole Zangara, author of Surviving Female Friendships: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, says that building friendships requires letting our guard down, along with plenty of awkward small talk, uncomfortable moments, uncertain feelings and lots of energy depletion with near-strangers.
“There’s this notion that women should have friendships like the characters on Sex and the City. It’s not that easy and simple. You have to work on developing a friendship,” Zangara told the Boston Globe. “Maintaining friendships is equally challenging. You have your work sphere, your family sphere, and friendships — keeping all of those in order is really hard.”
I was lucky to have been able to make new friends, some of whom were also going through a split or had been through it and successfully moved on. I deepened my connection with a handful of women who had unexpectedly but graciously drawn closer to lift me up during my crisis. And later, when I met my partner, I was grateful to be welcomed and adopted into his friendship circles. Between us, we have a richly diverse group of friends, many of whom are couples enjoying their second marriages and beyond.
Earlier this year, I reached out to the friend who’d been the first in our group to divorce. She looked happy and healthy from the pictures I’d seen on Facebook. I sent her a private message to congratulate her on her exciting new business venture and to inquire how she was doing. She responded without hesitation. After we got caught up on each other’s lives, she asked if I had been in touch with anyone from the old gang. No, her neither.
She said that as she gets older, she finds herself happier with having fewer but closer friends. Me too. We both agreed that sometimes it’s good to let old relationships fall away to make room for new ones, especially if they help us move forward.
I’m hoping she and I will get together soon for a margarita so that I can tell her how truly sorry I am that I wasn’t more supportive and understanding in her time of need. That it was easier to look away than to look directly at something difficult and uncomfortable. I will assure her that going through my own divorce has made me a more compassionate person and because of that, I’m sure I can be a much better friend than I used to be.