So your friend is going through a break-up – but you're close to their ex-partner, too. Is it time to pick sides? Or can you really maintain friendships with them both?
When a good friend's relationship falls apart, you'll automatically be there to provide a shoulder to cry on and help her pick up the pieces. That's what friends are for, after all. But the whole situation can get a little trickier if you also count her ex among your closest friends. You've all known one another for years and shared so many experiences. You can't imagine life without either of them. So how are you going to react?
Initially, a lot will depend on the nature of the break-up. If it's all very amicable and they've simply grown apart, it obviously makes your role a lot easier – at least in terms of not getting involved in any name-calling or mud-slinging. But if things aren't so great between them – maybe one of them has had an affair, for example – you're likely to feel far more pressure to pick sides.
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Set your boundaries
Even though it may be easier said than done, the trick is to be firm but fair from the start. It doesn't mean you shouldn't be on hand to offer tea and sympathy. You can still listen to everything each of them has to say. But don't allow yourself to get drawn into the 'blame game'. You're in a very awkward position here – and no matter how upset or angry your friends are with one another, they should understand and acknowledge this.
'The first thing to do is lay down some boundaries for both parties,' says integrative psychotherapist Hilda Burke. 'It's worth remembering that neither of your friends would be likely to speak ill of another good friend of yours to your face. So by the same token, they each need to respect your feelings of goodwill and friendship towards their ex-partner. Explain that they will also benefit from this boundary as their ex will not be permitted to bad-mouth them to you.'
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Be honest – but not too honest
It's natural to feel a little awkward about letting one friend know you've seen their ex-partner socially. But while it may be tempting to simply not mention it, it's far better to be honest. If your friend finds out from someone else, it will only make the situation worse. They may end up feeling hurt and deceived, and your friendship really will be under threat.
It may be the case that you've always been closer to one half of the ex-couple, while your partner is closer to the other half. These divides are often across gender lines. It's very easy to find yourself lured into a game of Chinese whispers here: your partner tells you what your friend's ex has been saying about the break-up and your friend then tries to prise this information out of you. This kind of situation can place a big strain on your own relationship, as well as your friendships, so needs to be avoided at all costs.
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Should you ever pick sides?
Let's be honest, though: in some cases, you'll end up siding with one friend over the other, no matter how much you may have valued the other friendship in the past. 'If you do pick a side, you must be prepared to lose the other friend,' warns Burke. 'Nobody likes to feel ganged up against – least of all when they're feeling vulnerable after a break-up.'
But how hard is it to remain neutral? 'All you can do is try to make it clear to them both how much you value each of their friendships, and how much you hope to maintain them,' says Burke. 'These boundaries should serve you well if one of them starts dating again.'
In the eye of the storm immediately after the break-up, it can be difficult to see which way events will pan out. The dynamic of your friendships will inevitably change to some extent. You may grow apart from – or become even closer to – one or both of them. Who knows?
For now, your main aim is damage limitation. Openly picking sides immediately is rarely a good idea. Yes, you might be understandably angry with one party for instigating the split and breaking the other one's heart. But over time, they will both come to terms with what's happened and move on, and so must you.
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