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They're breaking up but you feel bad. That could be because in addition to hurting for a couple in pain, there's a chance you will lose a cherished friendship--or two. : Friends in Need

October 03, 1994|KATHLEEN O. RYAN | Special to the Times

They were the couple you always caught the latest movie with, or perhaps you helped each other on moving day.

Your weekends were spent at each other's back-yard barbecues, or your kids were on the same soccer team. You took occasional vacations together. Maybe you asked them to be your child's godparents.

You knew they had disagreements, but all couples do. Then one day they drop the bomb: Their marriage is breaking up.

As their world crumbles, your future with this couple has abruptly changed forever.

You feel awkward and upset. You don't know who to believe. You try not to take sides. When friends divorce, their closest allies not only deal with their own sadness, but must avoid becoming a casualty by staying in the marital DMZ.

Barb Collins of Corona said she felt shocked and hurt when the couple she and husband Bill least expected to break up suddenly did.

"They seemed like the ideal couple," she said. "It's not as if they owe you anything, but when you invest yourself in a friendship you end up feeling somewhat betrayed."

The wife, who initiated the divorce, did not stay in touch with the Collinses. Bill Collins said he found himself siding with the husband, who felt failure and embarrassment over the situation.

"They seemed like a couple that belonged together," Barb Collins said. "It was very hard to accept that they weren't together anymore."

"People change tremendously and marriages can't always accommodate individual changes," said Marlene Schoen, a Beverly Hills psychologist specializing in relationship issues. "Divorce may occur because couples are unable to make changes in their lives to support personal growth."

Schoen thinks it's important for friends to put their own needs aside and to look at what the divorcing couple's needs might be.

Both couples will experience the divorce as a loss, said psychologist Peter Fisk, a family and marriage specialist practicing in the San Fernando Valley, and author of the book "Give and Take With Eb and Flo: Adventures in a Marital Relationship" (Fithian Press, 1993).

"As with any loss, there will be grief, depression and sadness. Assuming that your relationship with each person in the couple was equal, your friendship with them as individuals should not disintegrate. Tell yourself, 'I'm losing the couple, but I'm not losing the people,' " he said.

Schoen and Fisk agree close friends can and should be honest about their feelings.

"It's going to be an uncomfortable process. Explain that you would like to stay friends with both of them," Schoen said.

"You need to say, 'How can I help? How can we remain friends on your terms for right now?' Ask them how you can make it easier," Fisk said.

Friends will see some psychological deterioration in the divorcing individuals, he added.

"It's important to be compassionate and understanding. Let them know that what they say is in the strictest confidence and try not to get drawn into the negativism. Mix the realities with positive statements. Let them know divorce doesn't mean the end of life," he said. "Also be realistic about how much you are willing to listen to."

Marcia and Carl of Burbank found themselves so embroiled in the tumultuous personal life of their friends that when those friends finally split up, Marcia and Carl were completely burned out and declined to get involved in the divorce.

"Define the boundaries of your friendship and let them know when they are putting you on the spot," Fisk said. "You'll be much more of a friend by bringing them out of the doldrums rather than allowing them to constantly focus on the negative aspects of the break-up."

Staying friends with both parties puts you in a delicate situation. Fisk finds the natural inclination for each person in the divorce is to look for allies among their existing friends.

"Everybody wants to be viewed as the good guy," said Al Brill of Sylmar, married to Alice for 10 years. Both are previously divorced. "I would never recommend choosing sides. It's important to support them individually, while staying neutral on their situation."

"If you start taking sides it will only create more conflict," Schoen said.

She said that it is important not to make a judgment about who was right and who was wrong in the relationship. Both parties are hurt and will see things very differently, Schoen said. Friends should accept each individual's perception of their feelings.

"You just don't know what goes on behind other people's closed doors," Brill said. "If you're in a good marriage it's either difficult or impossible to understand being in a bad marriage. When you're in a bad marriage you can't imagine what it's like to be in a good one."

"They're getting enough advice already," said Richard Sherer of Redondo Beach, who is twice divorced. "If you attempt to advise them, there's a great opportunity to hurt your friendship."

Sherer finds that being a good listener is the best gift you can give a friend who is divorcing.

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