The Friendship Hoax
Letting Friends Go After a Divorce
By Marnie Mercier & Bernadette Miller
I remember the day; it was late one warm spring afternoon. I was waiting for my friend, Eva. I hadn’t seen her since I had separated from my partner, Henri. I had reached out to her the previous week hoping we could catch-up. She was one of the first friends Henri and I made when we moved here for his career. When we initially relocated, it was a difficult time for me as I was not working and living in a city where I knew no one. I no longer had the support network I had back home and nothing seemed easy. After some time, Henri and I became more established in the neighbourhood and began to make friends, Eva being one of them. I know when you and your partner make friends as a couple, but later separate or divorce, lines are drawn and friends take sides or leave. I didn’t want that to happen with Eva.
I remember seeing Eva as she quickly walked up to me, smiling. I was so happy to see her, and because of what I was going through, was in desperate need of her support. As she sat down, rather than showing concern for my wellbeing she immediately said, "Before agreeing to meet you, I asked your ex for permission.” Although I was shocked by her statement I remained silent. I realise now that if we had a healthy sustainable friendship this would not have occurred.
When I first met Eva, she was outgoing, well-known in our neighbourhood, and had a great career. Over time I noticed that she often assumed the worst in people, circumstances, and situations. There is nothing wrong with a little scepticism; however, her negativity put me in the position of being the ‘upper’ to her ‘Debbie-Downer.’
I understand now that I needed a social network when my ex and I first arrived in our new city; and that some of the choices in friends we made as a couple were not sustainable (especially after we separated). At that time, I wanted friends so I would feel connected to my new surroundings; and I was not looking for long-term relationships. My sister once told me, “In the long run, we are a product of the people we spend the most time with.” I see now how valuable this advice truly was.
Pınar Özbek, M.A., Ed.M. who provides psychotherapy to adults at Etiler Therapy Center in Istanbul in Turkish, English, and French and has a specialty in multicultural counselling says there are several signs to indicate if your friendship is a healthy one. "Notice how you feel while interacting with that person: If you feel accepted, comforted, validated, and supported as you are, that is likely to be a fulfilling relationship. In a healthy friendship, your friend will make you feel so even in the face of disagreement. You will know that the person cares for how you feel and respects you as you are even when you two differ in values, lifestyles, or choices you make. In other words, their support should not be conditional upon your life situation or preferences. It should be there regardless. An unhealthy relationship is characterised by a clear imbalance in terms of give-and-take, and emotional abuse at worst. If you feel systematically judged, despised, or ignored in a relationship, it is likely that you are subject to emotional abuse. Remember: Contrary to family and work relationships that may not always be easy to abandon, friendships are relationships of choice that one should be establishing and keeping as an added value to their life in terms of comfort and support. A network of social support is proven to not only enhance psychological wellbeing but also improve physical health. Abusive relationships, on the other hand, can hurt your self-esteem and have negative effects on your wellbeing. Therefore, keep in mind why you seek friendship in the first place, and reconsider the friendships that no longer serve that purpose."
With Eva, I felt so vulnerable after my separation and in need of a friend that I looked the other way. I didn’t realise at the time the emotional rollercoaster and continuous judgment I was enduring for the sake of our friendship. Eventually, there came a time when I needed to question just how invested Eva was in my happiness and our friendship. The world offers more than enough sources of judgment. The people you keep close to you should be your champions, genuine and reliable. When you surround yourself with individuals who are critical of others and themselves, your self-esteem suffers too. Through Eva and others, I have discovered that not all friendships are beneficial. Sometimes they go off track and can be saved, and sometimes they have run their course.
In that respect, Pinar says managing friendships does not need to be dichotomous as in the decision to keep or abandon them. "You may also consider setting boundaries when you feel like things are going wrong, give feedback to the person regarding the effects of their behaviour on your feelings, and state your vision as to how a fulfilling friendship needs to look like for you. It is important to let the other party know what you expect of them so that they know what your needs and boundaries are. Someone who cares about you and your friendship will make the effort to align their behaviours with your needs."
Pinar says it is also important to keep in mind that in the course of a long relationship both you and the other party may change over time. "Friendships are sustained when the parties adjust to the changes in each other's lifestyle, attitude, outlook, or psychological state. It is quite possible that people get along well and fulfill each other's friendship needs for an extended period of time, but not anymore. In that sense, not all friendships have to last. Friendships both require effort and naturally flow."
If it seems you are the one who carries all the burden of a relationship without any reciprocity, or you are fighting against the odds to keep it working, you might have reached the end of that friendship's lifetime. "If you feel like you are more hurt than supported, putting some distance to relieve yourself of the burden, giving feedback, and seeing how the other party will respond might be the way to go. Things will then flow or not, which will determine the course of the friendship," Pinar adds.
Many of us hang on to unfulfilling relationships when we are going through a rough period, or need emotional support and don't want to feel alone. However, Pinar advises people to think about what they expect from a friendship and consider the qualities of those they surround themselves with through that lens. "You may realise that people other than that abusive friend may be better candidates for [your] friendship. If that is the case, consider pursuing a closer relationship with those individuals, this time setting the boundaries from the beginning. People who are relatively more generous and empathetic than others are at greater risk to be abused in friendship if they keep "giving" even if they do not get much back. If you feel like you are one of them, you might consider paying more attention to your own needs and expectations, and when they are not met, keep yourself from "providing" even if your natural inclination tempts you to do otherwise."
As with most things in life, I learned a lot from the experience. I now understand that when life is going well and you are healthy, pay attention to your friendships. When a personal crisis occurs, such as a death in the family or the loss of a job, and your universe gives you a crash course in vulnerability, you discover how crucial and life-preserving healthy friendships are.
As for Eva, I am glad I had the strength to end our friendship. For me, the loss of an unhealthy friendship has given me a better appreciation for the good ones.