The question: My friends are getting a divorce and I'm afraid I'll be caught in the middle. Even though I didn't initially know my girlfriend's soon-to-be ex-husband, I have formed a close relationship with him during their relationship. Now, I'm worried my girlfriend will expect me to support her fully through this. How do I avoid taking sides, will I still be alienating both of them?
The answer: Having a strong bond with two friends who are in the process of divorcing is a very tricky situation to be in, and it's wise that you are considering how to thoughtfully navigate these waters.
This is a very emotionally tumultuous time for both of your friends, and a period during which they will be leaning on those close to them for support and friendship. One or both of them may have expectations of which mutual friends will side with whom, and it would be not at all unusual if they have a hypersensitivity to any signs of actual or perceived betrayal from their friends.
The best way to approach this, given you have a feeling of loyalty to both, is to put the issues on the table and have a candid conversation with each of your friends (individually) about the position you feel you are in, and how to move forward in a way that is respectful and helpful to each of them.
As your initial friendship was with your girlfriend, I would start by speaking to her. Think about how you would feel if you were in her situation; I certainly know if I were her, I would appreciate and feel respected to have you approach me first.
Put out there the truth of how you feel – that you value your friendship, that (as she is aware) you have also over the years formed a friendship with her husband, and that you feel stuck in the middle. Let her know you want to support her but aren't sure how to best do this in a way that no one gets hurt. Ask her what her expectations are. The best-case situation is that she understands the position that you are in, and doesn't hold it against you that you also have a friendship with her husband. The two of you can then come to some agreements about how you can offer her support, while still maintaining your friendship with her ex.
I've been in this situation myself, and I found the best thing I could do was let each friend know that I was there to listen to them if they needed support, that I would maintain the confidentiality of what each of them told me, and that I would not engage in conversation where one partner wanted to extract information from me about the other (e.g., who they are dating, what they are saying about the other, etc.).
If both parties are mature and empathetic to your position, this can work well. Your primary challenge will be to ensure that you stick to the boundaries you have established, and be mindful and attentive if either friend strays from the agreed-upon parameters. It would be natural if you found yourself siding a bit more with one friend over the other, but you will have to rigidly adhere to not verbalizing this if you hope to maintain both friendships in the long term.
Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych., is a clinical psychologist and organizational & media consultant. She is the host of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network's Million Dollar Neighbourhood and is the psychological consultant to CITY-TV's The Bachelor Canada. Her website is www.drjotisamra.com and she can be followed @drjotisamra
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