Our marriages exist within our communities, and many fear that a divorce will shatter their social circle. We foster connections as a couple, and some of those may only work as part of this pair, since friends may not know how to accommodate the new, single you into their lives. Divorce affects social circles in different ways, for different reasons, and maybe in ways we did not expect.
Sometimes friends in couples worry that your divorce will "rub off" on them; researchers have posited the existence of "divorce contagion," a phenomenon in which divorce seems to spread through friendship groups. Those you know in a shaky marriage don’t need a study to tell them that a new possibility has been introduced; someone who shuns you in a misguided effort to preserve her own marriage is making a statement about the vulnerability of his or her union, not your worth as a friend. Still, it’s painful when it happens.
As rattling as it feels, a social shake-up can also be am opportunity to seek out people who better support your new life. Our friends influence us, often more than we realize. “People don’t usually have the opportunity to switch up all their friends, but in a big transition you can do that,” says Carlin Flora, author of Friendfluence: The Surprising Way that Friendships Make Us Who We Are. “You can choose with intention. You can say, ‘Who do I want to be influenced by?’ If you think about what your goals are and get yourself around other people whose goals are similar, it lifts you up.”
We change friends in all major life transitions; divorce is no different. As with going away to college or getting married, divorce is an opportunity to reconfigure your social circle to better support your new life.
Divorce can bring old friends closer; many people I’ve met said a fellow divorcee reached out to them in a new way, a tennis partner suddenly evolved into a confidant, or a family member came forward with new warmth.
Divorce also can shed new light on old acquaintances. A year into my separation, I was still living in my marital townhouse in Hoboken, New Jersey. I’d begun to notice something I hadn’t expected: Now that I was by myself, other people began to look different.
For example, take the older, divorced owner of the townhouse next door, a brassy hairdresser to the stars, a single mom who darted around town in a convertible Porsche and short-shorts. When we moved into our house, she was spending evenings out back smoking cigarettes and listening to ‘60s music with her fiancé, the volume so loud I could have danced the Shag in my bedroom with the windows closed. Shortly after we arrived, she rented out her house to a young married couple, and moved down south to marry.
This seemed good news. I saw my new neighbors as far more similar to my husband and me. We were both professional, young couples with little kids. (Well, they were young.) I worked hard to befriend this family, inviting their daughters over for playdates, sipping wine on their back deck after our children had gone to sleep. Then my marriage ended. I felt a chill from the neighbors. Was it due to my divorce? I couldn't tell.
The hairdresser’s second marriage ended, too. She moved back to town, camping out in the empty ground-floor rental unit of her townhouse, below her tenants. No more loud music and chain smoking or zipping around town in the Porsche. She was living in her own basement, spending hours in her short-shorts ripping out the walls, renovating as if her life depended on it. She tossed out bags of clothes. She handed me a cashmere cape she thought I’d like, and left a stack of relationship books for me on the wooden railing between our back decks.
Soon she gave notice to the young couple, and reclaimed her home. Late nights, I’d be out walking my dog, and she would be on her stoop, another single mother well past 30, alone in this bedroom community. She was not just a solo mom with an only child, as I was, but also closer in age than I realized. We were only a handful of years apart.
One night, I was walking home after a date with one of the few single men my age who lived in town. He'd been playing his guitar and singing at open-mic nights around Manhattan as a way to boost his mood, post-separation. His wife was filing motion after motion against him, draining his savings and sapping his spirit.
As we neared my house, I saw my neighbor sitting on her stoop with three cups of Starbucks, looking like she planned to drink them all, one by one. “This is my neighbor,” I said to my date, glad to see her. “She’s recently divorced too!”
“Are you divorced?” she asked him.
“Almost,” he said, looking at the sidewalk.
We talked about his future ex. She’d wanted the divorce, yet seemed no happier single. She’d turned wrathful, filing repeated frivolous law suits. He’d remained calm in the face of her rage, which seemed to make it worse.
“She still loves you,” my neighbor said, taking a drag on her cigarette. “Every time she screams at you, she’s saying, ‘Care about me! Care about me!’ If you can have some compassion, I guarantee you, she’ll change her tune.”
I stared at her. Of course! How had I missed this? “Wow, I think she’s right,” I said. I sat on the stoop next to my thoughtful, intelligent neighbor, touched by her relationship wisdom. My date took out his guitar and sat on the sidewalk before us, singing one of his new songs. I wrapped my sweater around my shoulders against the Northeastern chill and scooted closer to my neighbor. I felt part of a new community, all of us recuperating, reconnecting, rebuilding, each with real needs, but also real strengths, something to give.
Divorce can shake up friendships, but it also gives us a chance to connect with others. It’s so easy to dismiss people around us, to erect a wall without even realizing we’re doing it. Divorce is a chance to break down those walls. Sometimes, as in my case, the humbling experience of divorce cracks open the hubris that can distance us from other people, enabling us to populate our world anew.