For example, recently two of my friends who were in a couple broke up and it’s been awkward ever since. Where we used to all go out together once or twice a month, now I have to split time between them, and I have the nagging feeling that I’m cheating when I hang out with one and not the other. After driving myself crazy for a few weeks (Do I talk about or avoid the subject? Partake in talk about the ex or awkwardly change the subject when it comes up?), I sought some advice on dealing with the joint-friends breakup—who keeps whom? And does it really have to come down to that?
After the eating-boxes-of-chocolate-and-crying phase subsides, the confusion about sharing friends turns out to be a common problem. But is joint ownership really possible—and is it worth the hassle? There are a few things to consider.
What caused the breakup?
“Some breakup situations are easier to deal with than others,” says Dana Miller, a San Diego-based life coach. “For example, if someone cheated or abused the other partner, this will obviously cause a lot more friction than a more mutual breaking up would.”
If the couple just decided they weren’t right for each other—whether it’s for a difference in values, goals, too much fighting, whatever—that may make it easier to remain friends with both. But if there are extenuating circumstances—one person in the now-defunct couple was abusive or dishonest—weigh the benefits of keeping both of them in your life.
Who are you really trying to stay friends with?
“If you’re in a couple that was friends with a [now-broken-up] couple, that makes it more complicated,” says Miller. “You’ll be feeling the most pressure to take sides.”
Sarah Gwerder saw this in action when she and her boyfriend of two years broke up.
“The few couples that we were friends with pretty much retreated back to whichever one of us they knew before we were together,” she says. “It was a bummer because I thought I had grown pretty close to a few of them.”
If you were truly friends with both of them before they were in a couple, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to maintain that. If you were only friends with one, on the other hand, then the original friend may feel betrayed if you continue a friendship with the other person after a breakup. Miller says being honest is key, as is making that original friend the higher priority. Ask how he or she would feel if you were to continue the relationship with their ex. Know that making friend number one the priority may mean sacrificing friend number two.
“Try setting up some ground rules to make your original friend feel okay with it,” Miller says. “Say out loud that you will never talk to person one about person two, and let her know that your friendship remains the most important.”
But what happens if you decide you don’t want to continue a friendship?
Do we have to stay friends?
“I had become close with a couple through my boyfriend. It was his best friend and his girlfriend,” says Allie James. “But when they broke up, I knew I had no connection to the girl, and keeping her in my life wasn’t priority.”
And that’s okay. We’re all busy and, let’s be serious, most people you meet out there just don’t make the lifelong-friend cut.
“Many people will get the hint and won’t take it personally since they’re leaving that part of their life behind anyway,” says Miller.
If they don’t get it? A little white lie could do the trick.
“After a few awkward run-ins, I bit the bullet and quickly explained to her that my boyfriend felt weird about us being friends still,” says James. “It wasn’t true, but it got the point across.”
Whether you choose honesty or almost-honesty, the key is to be firm and to let ’em down easy. They don’t need two painful breakups, after all.
On the other hand, if you want to keep both people in your life you should …
Do it right.
Still convinced you can stay close both of them? Other than honesty and friendship prioritizing, there are some other useful techniques to put in play.
- Let each one tell his or her side of the story, especially if it was an ugly breakup. Rehashing the dirty details may seem counterintuitive, but letting someone share those details will help them find closure and become closer to you as a friend. But, you’ll have to remember the next point at all costs.
- Never, ever, ever talk badly about them to each other. Even if they start the conversation (which they likely will). Period.
- Build them up. Both of them are going through a hard time, and what they need from friends is support and help moving forward. Whatever they need—the proverbial shoulder to cry on, someone just to listen, or a tequila-shot-taking buddy—be there and it’ll be obvious that your intentions are genuine.
Honestly, I think it’s rare to remain equally close to both parties. Things just aren’t going to be the same as before, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to keep both friendships going. In my experience, there’s a natural division that tends to revert us to whomever we were closer to before the relationship. And that’s fine. Unlike with books, puppies, keepsake mugs, and the other goods we divvy up after breaking up, joint friends are possible. All it takes is a little strategic and compassionate planning.