There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that the COVID-year has driven more couples to separate than normal. Family lawyers say that they have never been busier. They were already reporting a deluge back in August 2020 and it hasn’t ended yet. This doesn’t seem too surprising, for a whole lot of reasons:
- If you are locked in a house with someone else it gets rapidly clear whether you like being with them or not. Couples often spend relatively little time together during their working lives and child rearing years. Life is permanently busy, while COVID caused slow downs and cooped people up.
- The last year has been unusually stressful in a myriad of ways. Families are separated internationally. People are scared of becoming ill. People fall for conspiracy theories and try to convince others to join them. Stressed people are less easy to be around; if both people in a couple are stressed then no-one is going to be very tolerant.
- COVID has exacerbated money stresses for many and differences over money are one of the commonest reasons for couples to argue, and break up.
- The COVID year has definitely put life into perspective, with many people being inspired to do things they had been meaning to do for a long time. If they were sitting on the fence in a relationship, COVID might have been the prod to shove them off.
Separations are not just about a couple, or even about the couple and their close family. Separations affect everyone in the ambit of the couple who are separating. The particular issue I am thinking about is, in a separation where you are friends with both halves of a couple, whether you can remain in friendships with both people. I have experienced this as the ‘separee’, as well as when my friends have separated. Given that nearly half of all long term relationships/marriages dissolve, it is reasonably likely that everyone will be on both sides of the experience at some point in their lives.
The most clear cut scenario in relation to keeping friends post-separation, or not, is where you are given an ultimatum – “If you want to be friends with the other half, you can’t be friends with me”. You have to choose. This scenario comes with variations. I lost one friend from a separated couple, where she was furious that I hadn’t told her that her ex-husband was (casually) dating women. I said I thought that was his business to tell her if he was dating, she disagreed. I said that if there was any risk to her children, I would most certainly tell her; that wasn’t good enough either. I ran out of options and that friendship died.
When I was the separee, in a related manner I discovered that it was extremely hard to see people staying friends with the woman who had an affair with my partner. She was a good friend of mine, prior to the affair. The degree of betrayal I felt at her behaviour was up there on a par with the betrayal that I credited to my ex-partner. I could manage whether I was in the presence of my ex-partner but, for a variety of reasons, I couldn’t manage whether I was in her vicinity. I knew I couldn’t tell friends and family to eschew her company because they had to make their own decisions, but I certainly wanted to.
Which leads on to the question of whether there should be some sort of repercussion for people’s bad behaviour which has led to separations. As I pondered on last week, if the world is deterministic in nature, then punishment is useless because nothing will change. That doesn’t mean we don’t want retribution though! One fumes at the apparent spectacle of a person who has set off a nuclear bomb in one’s life, being treated by others as if all continues as per normal. Of course, for the ‘others’, everything is pretty much normal. The nuclear bomb wasn’t centred in their location, they are only feeling peripheral effects, or none, and they didn’t witness the setting of the bomb.
When you are in the centre of the dissolving relationship, the poor behaviour of the other party is, if not everything, close to it. When you are on the outside, there are more questions around how heinous the ‘crime’ is, as opposed to all the other characteristics and behaviours of the person concerned, which is why you are friends with them. You are not the person offended against, so does the offending behaviour upset you sufficiently that you wish to compromise or leave a friendship? Friendships are as crucial in life as partnerships for happiness (some studies say more so), and take a lot of resources and time to create. One doesn’t give up a long term friendship lightly. Moreover, the behaviour that has led to a partnership dissolving is often unlikely to occur, or be an issue, in a friendship. The one exception to this might be a breach of loyalty – loyalty is seen as core to friendships by many. If a person will betray their partner, might they also betray you?
I observe, without statistical evidence, that all these mental meanderings are more frequently undertaken by women than men. Men’s friendships frequently appear to be less complicated than those of women. They don’t analyse, or question, they go to the pub, or climb mountains together. Maybe they don’t share their feelings, leaving them emotionally isolated in the event of a separation. However, men also don’t risk losing their friendships, other than if their mate can’t go biking any longer because they have a dodgy heart; but perhaps they can get an e-bike so the friend can keep up with the pack anyhow.
There is no conclusion to come to about what will happen to, or what one should do about, friendships in the event of a separation. Every situation will be unique and every person will have their own motivations and degrees of analysis that they are interested in conducting. The only conclusion one can really come to is that as time goes on, life doesn’t appear any simpler. Once upon a time you thought you would grow up and everything would become apparent and obvious; then you get older and ‘growing up’ looks like a childhood fairytale that will never come true.