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To The Rescue

March 27, 2000
e-mail e-mail to a friend in need

There's a lot to be said for schadenfreude. (Especially when you know what it means.) But when bad breakups happen to good friends, fancy Middle High German terms are often the furthest thing from our minds. And, in an understandably selfish sense, so, often, are our friends themselves. In other words: our friends split up, we freak out. As Felicia Lee mused in a recent New York Times column: "When your friends divorce it's like a divorce in the family. You count on these people. You expect some things to last and they don't." And likewise, as NYC psychotherapist Diane M. Churchill told the Times, "When we hear someone has fallen off the path we feel betrayed in the struggle; the person has let us down."

Right. That's when we enter:

The Breakup Blast Zone:
The Fallout on Friends

When my dear friend V. announced that she and her husband were separating, I thought I'd entered in some sort of relationship Freaky Friday. That my friend had been swapped for Other People. Other People's Parents, even. You know, the kind of People Those Things happen to. I felt: old. Older than I realized, anyway. I still sleep with a big stuffed dog, dreaming of the day my prince will com, and my peers are already at the ... never-after. But even more so, I felt disillusioned -- and terrified. Here I had these memory of those two jitterbugging giddily around a divey karaoke bar, this unit we referred to as "Herandhim"-- well, what was that, then? If that wasn't It, then what is? Being a Finder was tough enough. Being a Keeper, I was chilled to realize, is not a guarantee.

Here's what my friend P. had to say about his friend M.'s divorce: "I felt terrible because he was living my worst marriage fear -- finding out that you just can't stand to live with your wife and no counseling or therapy in world will help. It also highlighted my second worst marriage fear, which is thinking you know someone but then something (or someone) changes. They'd been together for many years -- how could they divorce after only one? What could have changed? I had no clue and neither did he. Result: I'm scared. And confession: I was already gun-shy with relationships, but his divorce clearly has increased my insecurities toward relationships. For my own selfish reasons, I need him to get into a good relationship, if you know what I mean!"

Breakups can strike fear into the hopeful hearts of singles -- and can also shoot a poison wake-up dart into the complacent hearts of couples. And there, I've just given you the cliffhanger notes for the Off-Broadway hit Dinner With Friends, wherein one couple's sudden split shines a harsh naked lightbulb onto the marriage of their closest friends...who begin to interrogate their own partnership in ways they'd never imagined.

My advice? Well, see the show if you're in town. (Especially Thursday.) Remember that if you think the point here is to just Get a Relationship, you've got another think coming (like, 'I think we've got to talk"). And remember: there's always plenty about other people's relationships that you don't understand. You see them at the karaoke bar, not alone at home. You see them through your own filters, not theirs. Which is fine: just take to heart what you like about your "great couple" friends as an example -- not an ideal.

And if they do split, you are entitled to the feelings and reactions that come to you through your own "What does this say about me and how I may die alone and be found three weeks later, half-eaten by an Alsatian?" filter. Especially if they bring you some useful insight.

But. Well, first of all, if you're legitimately angry at one party, that's one thing -- but don't let your own issues guide which "side" you choose, if any.

As M. (referred to by P., above) notes: "In every case, our formerly mutual friends maintained a friendship only with my wife even in cases where the friendship was strongest with me. Is it because couples gravitate away from the divorcer and stay friends with the party who was not seeking the divorce? And is that caused by a sense of unease about the stability and inherent worth of their own relationships -- or does this mean that I am just inherently a less desirable friend than my wife?"

I'm telling you, in this case, it's got to have something to do with the former. Which is too, too bad for all involved.

Because, bottom line: this breakup is not about you.

As V. reflects: "I felt like I had this responsibility to my friends. There was this sense that -- well, so many of my girlfriends were single, and in search of that holy grail of marriage (much as they'd hate to admit it) – they were like, 'How could you?' Everyone is always talking about how all they want is a nice, sturdy, steady guy ... and here I was dumping one. It really pissed people off, though I didn't notice anyone asking me for his phone number, either.

And then there was the all-important problem of people's world view: as in, 'Well, she has this great relationship, so there is hope for me.' And then I didn't, so it was like, there wasn't. There was a lot of anger that surprised me. People said, 'Well, I know you wouldn't do this if you didn't have to," but then there was -- later, after they had said the right thing -- 'How could you have been so selfish?' Which part of me agreed with it was hard to hear. And people had to reassign me in their own minds. I had been 'married off-limits fascinating chick' and now I was like 'regular old single gal who goes through boyfriends and stuff.' I just feel like I had too much responsibility to make people feel comfortable. It was a lot to bear -- not only was I letting down my husband and my family, but also my friends, and that made everything so much crappier.

Silver lining: My husband was my go-to guy, my point person, my best friend, and when I lost him, I had to find that again ... and ultimately, most of my friendships were strengthened."

Moral: in the fallout of breakup, take care of your friend, or let your friend(s) take care of themselves. But get someone else -- a superhero who's been there? -- to take care of you.



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