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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, January 5, 2004

Divorce can split up friends, too

Illustration by Jon Orque • The Honolulu Advertiser

 •  It's easy to run into ex in Hawai'i

By Karen S. Peterson
USA Today

When a couple divorces, who gets custody of their friends?

Divorce is cataclysmic for those who split. But more than their families are affected. Just who stays friends with whom, and how are those informal decisions made?

With a divorce rate for new marriages hovering just below 50 percent, most of the still-married have been through it: the divorce of a special couple, forcing friendships to undergo friend shifts. It's much more than just facing the tricky decision of which ex to invite to a party. The pain for friends can be very real.

"Divorce is traumatic for the married friends of a divorcing couple," says Dave Zinczenko, 33, editor-in-chief of Men's Health. Friends can feel like "horrified onlookers," he says. "Friendships are redefined, and new boundaries are created."

A large body of research shows that "social networks make a big difference in peoples' lives," says Jay Lebow, 55, a psychologist with the Family Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Busy couples today tend to have friends who are also couples, he says. A divorce drives a wedge between them.

Some friendships crumble, say experts on family life who themselves have had to renegotiate relationships with the divorced. One major reason for a rift: the newly single need to head in a new direction. And old friends remind them of what has become a past life.

Susan Lieberman, 61, of Houston, author of "New Traditions: Redefining Celebrations for Today's Family," has had to create some rituals for herself and her husband.

The couple with whom the Liebermans spent 10 New Year's Eves divorced. One is still a friend, but the other left their lives. "The person who wanted to leave that marriage wanted to leave our friendship," she says. "I had a sense that there was a clearing of the slate, a leaving behind of a way of life. It was very painful for us." Since the split, "New Year's has never been as good."

Friends who initially sought comfort during a divorce may reveal so much about themselves that they feel uncomfortable later, says social psychologist Susan Perry, 57, of Los Angeles. "If they have told you intimate details during this deeply emotional time, they may shut down again later. They may be embarrassed or ashamed."

Perry has a group of close friends who socialize often together and have had to deal with a split. Two single members had a romance that ended, and the group is struggling not to take sides. Immediately one thing became clear, Perry says: "The two can't be in the same place at the same time."

Not all splits are that traumatic for a couple's buddies, however. Carol Dawson, 48, of Jeffersonville, Ind., has an excellent relationship with her ex-husband, who lives about an hour away. The two have agreed to take turns: Each takes custody socially of their mutual friends — with exclusive access — for a year at a time, and then they trade. "Our friends think it is a hoot," she says.

However, in many cases, custody of the friends splits along gender lines. "Guys will still tend to talk with the divorced guy, and women with the divorced woman," Zinczenko says. Those rules hold up "unless some heinous act has occurred, like someone has slept with the baby sitter." That person then becomes a "social outlaw" and could be treated by everyone "like a pariah."

There are no hard and fast rules for who gets the friends of a divorcing couple, says Loriann Hoff Oberlin, 42, of North Potomac, Md., author of "Surviving Separation and Divorce." The friends you bring into the marriage may remain your friends, she says, "but that is not always the case. Who inherits the friends is truly determined by each circumstance, each person, and the values each has."

Maintaining friendships with both of the divorced gets complicated if one is a favorite, says etiquette maven Letitia Baldrige, 78, of Washington, D.C. "It is really hard if one is greatly liked and the other isn't. That person then is often cast out into the wilderness."

David Levy, 52, an attorney with Kalcheim, Schatz & Berger in Chicago, helps couples leave marriages. In his personal life, he says, he is careful to "remain neutral" with two friends who have split. He and his wife "did not divorce them. They divorced each other."

The couple has made it easier on friends by remaining civil with each other, Levy says. "They both show up at their kids' games. I will schmooze with each of them on the sidelines. And we make an effort to see them both."

Divorcing couples can make their friends nervous about their own marriages, and it is the friends who pull away.

"A divorce calls into question the legitimacy of one's own marriage and commitment," Zinczenko says. The couple can wonder, he says: If it can happen to them — and we thought we knew them well — can it happen to us?

Perry, the author of "Loving In Flow: How the Happiest Couples Get and Stay That Way," encourages friends to give the divorced partners time, "and then reach out to them." That benefits everyone involved, she says.

"Long-term friends are so rare in our society," she says. "You don't let go of them lightly."