Buddy System

Understanding men and their friendships.

The Impact of Divorce On Friendships With Couples and Individuals

What happens with couple friendships after divorce?

When couples divorce, their friendships with other couples and individuals often shift.  Kathy Deal and I looked at data from a mixed-methods study that forms the basis for our book, Two Plus Two: Couples and their couple friendships (Routledge, 2012), and published findings this month in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage; we found some interesting trends in friendships with divorce.

One hundred twenty-three couples and 58 divorced people were interviewed about their friendships. Couples told us that they usually lost their couple friendships when the couple split up, that maintaining separate friendships with both members of the couple was rare. Couple friendships are very or somewhat important to over three-quarters of those interviewed and the mean number of couple friends was close to seven. Almost two-thirds said they had couple friends who divorced or broke up.  Over half said that the friendship ended with one person and one in eight said it ended with both; in about one-third both friendships were reportedly maintained.

Divorced people said that couple friendships were important but less so than had the couples. Income, age, and number of years married were not related to the importance of couple friendships.  Almost four in ten said that they lost all couple friendships and almost two in ten said they lost some couple friendships with the divorce.  One 48-year-old man said, "It fractured them. Every single one of them fractured. That was the end pretty much. I moved out so the neighbor friends you had as couple friends, they were gone."  Individidual friends were more apt to stick with the divorcing people (60.3 percent of the divorced indicated this) and one in six said they became closer with their individual friends.

Divorcing/separating people often feel uncomfortable being around couples — it may remind them of what they have lost or they may be concerned about the level of support they receive from the couples.  In turn, couples often feel uncomfortable being around a divorcing/separating person when they have been friends withi both members of the couple. They may fear having to take sides or that their own relationship is threatened when their friends break up. Yet a partnership breakup or marital separation is a time when people need all the friends they can get.  Having clear communication about the nature of the newly shifting relationship between old friends can give everyone a road map about where to go in the future. It can be as simple as the couple saying to each of the separating people, "We would like to continue our friendship and do not want to have to choose sides." It can also be as simple for the divorcing/separating people as saying, "Even though we are splitting up, I would like to maintain our friendship and will try to not have you choose sides." It is also okay to be unsure where the friendship is going and to say, "Let's continue to make this a work in progress because I value you in my (our) life."  People with friends live longer, healthier lives so maintaining them when they are supportive is vital.

Geoffrey Greif, Ph.D., is a Professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships.

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