published Friday, April 27th, 2012

Leber: Messy breakups cause problems for friends

There are three kinds of breakups: There's the kind where it's all one person's fault and he deserves to be drawn and quartered. There's the kind where it's completely mutual and everyone still really likes each other. And there's the kind where there's no real malice, but everything isn't all roses and sunshine either.

The third type of breakup is probably the most common, and to those of you couples who are thinking of calling it quits, that's the kind that is the biggest pain for your friends. I know, priorities, right?

Several years ago, a good friend of mine ended a relationship with a live-in boyfriend after he informed her he'd gotten involved with another woman. Actually, he ended the relationship with her, but the point is, we knew who the bad guy was. There were no torn loyalties, no confusion, no questions.

Most of the time, though, there's not really one bad guy. Both parties carry a fair amount of the blame. I'll use my last breakup, in 2000, as an example: He treated me badly, and I subsequently took up with another man behind his back. Neither of us behaved admirably. Fortunately, it was a long-distance relationship, so we really didn't have mutual friends.

Oftentimes, however, there are mutual friends, and when both parties carry some of the blame in a breakup, well, it can be hard for the people on the sidelines. An old friend called me recently to ask my advice on how to deal with juggling two friends who are going through a split.

I don't envy her position. In the past, I've been asked to perform some post-breakup mediation, either because the parties involved were members of the same social circle and would inevitably be crossing paths or because one or both of them decided that hatred was unhealthy and they needed closure. Either way, it's not a fun position to be in.

So how to handle things?

"I've been in that situation," said one friend. "I remain friends with both but hang out separately. And I try to avoid talking to one about the other."

That's definitely a viable tactic. If the split is still fresh, trying to take each person's mind off of it while you are in his or her company can be good as well. Of course, if your friend really just needs to vent/scream/cry, be a shoulder or a sounding board. However, if you actually do want to remain friends with both people, you might want to avoid actually joining in on any trashing sessions.

Sometimes, the ex-couple will find a way to avoid each other and still share custody of the mutual friends. You know, Robin gets Monday movie nights, Alex gets Thursday spin class. Eventually one person either moves on entirely, or the sting wears off and they can be in each other's presence in a group situation.

In this situation, there is often some tension, and if approached on the matter, I tend to employ the "cruel to be kind" methodology. You know: "This is why you, Thing One, are an idiot, and this is why you, Thing Two, are an idiot."

In a weird way, I find that people are able to handle things better when they are reminded that they are not blameless.

What about the rest of you? How do you navigate the waters when your friends split up?

about Holly Leber ...

Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...

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