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The Pain and Shock of Losing Custody of Friends After a Breakup

Newly-single people realize they neglected their friends when they were coupled.

When people become involved in a serious romantic relationship, they often marginalize their friends. For example, when couples move in together or marry, they spend less time with their friends—not just at first, but for years to come. Other research also shows that people who are single and not dating have more friends and are in contact with those friends more often than people who live with a spouse or a romantic partner.

When coupled people are in the process of demoting friends, they may or may not feel particularly bad about it. Marginalizing friends is what many coupled people do; it’s the norm. They value their romantic relationship more. When that relationship ends, though, many feel devastated. Then they expect their friends to be there for them, to comfort and support them, even though they may have neglected those friends once they became coupled. That’s the friendship norm: Friends are supposed to be there for you in a crisis. Sometimes, though, their friends are not there for them. Sometimes, after a breakup, people lose custody of their friends, especially when some side with their ex.

How do they feel about that? How do they make sense of it?

To answer those questions, Gaelle Aeby of the University of Manchester (UK) and Jenny van Hooff of Manchester Metropolitan University analyzed 20 relevant threads from two internet forums. An example of a thread that was included in the study began like this:

“My ex has taken many mutual friends.…I just miss them and I am shocked and I would like to understand what is happening….Is there a realistic way to get these friendships back?”

A total of 350 comments were posted in response to the 20 original posts. The posts and comments were contributed by 242 people, including 18 who participated in more than one thread. The researchers could not always determine the gender of the participants, but they estimated that about twice as many women as men contributed original posts or comments.

The forums were public, not private, but the researchers still avoided naming the forums, they did not include the users’ names or pseudonyms, and they made some small changes in the wordings of the discussions to make them less searchable. Aeby and van Hooff reported their findings in “Who gets custody of the friends?”, published in Families, Relationships, and Societies.

Emotional Reactions Depend on Who Was Seen as “Owning” a Friend

The participants categorized the friends in terms of who they saw as “owning” them, and their reactions to losing custody of friends depended on who they thought the friends belonged to.

  • Their ex’s friends. Some friends were seen as belonging to the ex. The participants may have felt badly about losing those friends, but the loss was not surprising.
  • Mutual friends. Some friends were regarded as mutual—“owned” by both partners. Losing custody of a mutual friend was often painful and confusing. Sometimes people tried to get those friends back.
  • Their own friends. The most devastating loss was when a friend they considered “theirs” sided with an ex after a breakup. People were often shocked by this and regarded it as a betrayal.

The emotional implications of losing friends extended beyond relationships with those friends. Other people in their social networks sometimes took sides, too, and custody battles over friends also added to the contentiousness of breakups.

How They Thought About Friends Before a Breakup

Most participants seemed to realize that once they committed to a romantic partner, they neglected friends who were in their life before they became coupled. Some blamed their partner, who may not have liked their friends or perhaps did not want their partner spending much time with them. Others drifted toward friends of convenience, such as the relatives of their partners or other couples they now socialized with. They sometimes regarded those relationships as “superficial, ‘simple’ friendships based on a common situation, rather than a deeper emotional bond.” Nonetheless, losing them hurt.

Where People Find Friendship Support After a Breakup

In the stories they posted about their own breakups, and in the responses from others in the forums, several categories of friends were described as the “true gems”:

  • Mutual friends who took the person’s side.
  • Friends from the past who were there for them after the breakup, even if they had not been in touch for a long time.
  • New friends who had similar experiences of losing custody of friends after a breakup.

What People Learn about Friendships After a Breakup

The once-coupled participants had done what so many others do when they became seriously involved with a romantic partner: They marginalized their friends. They didn’t seem to feel badly about it. And yet, once their relationship ended and they were single again, they were dismayed if the friends they had neglected were not there to support them.

Having once been part of the Couples Club, they were not prepared for demotion to single status, where they were stuck having to “play the part of extras in the lives of the coupled.” They realized, much to their dismay, how privileged they had been when they were coupled, and described a number of unanticipated hurtful experiences:

  • Mutual friends “forgot” to invite them to events with other couples, perhaps some of the same couples they socialized with when they, too, were part of a couple.
  • Coupled people avoided them because they worried it would be too awkward to have them around.
  • Coupled people avoided them, fearing that their divorce or breakup was somehow contagious, “a reminder of what could easily happen to them."
  • Coupled women distanced themselves from single women, concerned that the single women may have posed a threat to their own romantic relationship. (The authors did not find evidence of this theme among men.)
  • Without invitations, the newly single people needed to pursue friendships on their own, but after having been coupled for so long, some no longer knew how to make new friends or get reintegrated with old ones.

Aeby and van Hooff observed, “While they had previously neglected friends, as single people they now find themselves neglected and isolated by friends who in turn prioritise their own couple relationships.” Some of the newly single people thought about that, and vowed to be better to their friends in the future, regardless of whether they were single or coupled. The authors think it is an open question as to whether they will honor those vows.

Other Kinds of Breakup Stories

The researchers described the psychology of losing custody of friends for the people who participated in the forums, without assuming that the experiences would be the same for everyone else. For example, they noted that the tone of the discussions was generally “heteronormative.” It would be interesting to see if the dynamics of friend-custody differs for same-gender couples.

People who are Single at Heart may also have different experiences. They may feel pain if they are in a romantic relationship that ends, but often they feel something else as well: relief. They are happy to go back to the life they love: their single life. In fact, for some, the relief they feel at the end of romantic relationships, including good ones, is a sign that single life may be their best life and that they should no longer try to unsingle themselves. They are happy to embrace the freedom and the solitude that single life offers—and to invest in their friends. Research shows that single people who are not looking for a partner put more into their friendships and get more out of them. They often have “The Ones” rather than “The One.” The Single at Heart don't organize their lives around a romantic partner and then sacrifice their friends.