Breaking up is hard to do, as the old song goes. Some of the stress can come from an unexpected source. When Lee (who asked that only her middle name be used), a mother and health care communications specialist from Williamsburg, VA, split from her husband, she nearly lost her mom in the process.
She and her mother didn’t always get along, says Lee, but after the divorce, her mom’s ties with her ex added extra strain. Though it happened years ago, Lee remembers one incident like it was yesterday. Shortly after the divorce papers were signed, her mom got free tickets to the circus. She took her 3-year-old grandson -- and her ex son-in-law. Lee found out after the fact, from the excited toddler.
“I felt hurt. Then I felt angry,” says Lee. “I’m not saying I’m a better person than [my ex] or anything, but I’m her daughter. Inside I felt that she should always be taking my side.”
It’s not unusual to feel betrayed by the people close to us post-divorce, says Judith Margerum, PhD, a clinical psychologist.
“Divorce is a very significant event in your life. It affects people’s self-esteem, their sense of who they are.” And when a loved one appears to choose sides, Margerum says, “that’s a wound on top of a wound.”
It's not just family. Friendships can suffer. One study suggests that women can lose up to 40% of their mutual friends after a divorce. Some people stay loyal to the person they were friends with first. Some couples don’t know how to include a single person in their social mix, says Marie Hartwell-Walker, EdD, a marriage and family counselor.
Friendships also fizzle for practical reasons. “Sometimes it’s just too hard for a third party to stay friends with both because there are only so many hours in a day,” Hartwell-Walker says.
Tips for Coping
Be realistic. While it may be tempting to ask family and friends to drop contact with your ex, you don’t have that right. “You can’t legislate other people’s relationships,” says Hartwell-Walker. “It’s important to not expect everyone else to fall in line when either you like someone or you don’t.”
Set appropriate boundaries. You can’t ask people to stop seeing your ex, but you can tell them you don’t need to know when he or she gets a new job or starts dating someone new.
Don’t take it personally. The truth is, it’s not always about you, Margerum says. Instead of thinking, "If my mom has a relationship with my ex, she doesn’t care about me," think, "They’ve been friends for 20 years."
Erase the idea of "sides." "That implies that there’s a right and a wrong, and that implies that things are simple,” Hartwell-Walker says.
Be understanding. “You got the divorce, not them,” Hartwell-Walker says. Assume friends and family members are doing their best to manage a difficult situation. Remember that their relationship with your ex is different from yours. “People can be lousy marital partners and still good parents, decent human beings, and good friends.”
Ask for invites. If you think you’re being excluded because you’re a single amid couples, “you may want to reach out to people and say you’d still love to come even though you don’t have a partner right now,” Margerum says.
Fight to keep key friendships. While it may be fine to let go of some friends, there are some you should try to hold on to. “I wouldn’t let a friendship I value go easily,” Hartwell-Walker says. Make an effort to stay in touch.
Think of the kids. If you have a child with someone, you’re always connected, even after divorce, Margerum says.
Plan ahead for sightings. If your mom or your friend invites your ex to a party you’re going to, ask yourself what you need to do to feel comfortable and enjoy the evening, Hartwell-Walker says. Think ahead about who you want to talk with and where you can go to get a little break. Be civil, and stick with your agenda.
Focus on moving forward. If you’re dwelling on your breakup, Margerum says, “you’re wasting your emotional energy on negative things.”