Help! How Do You Keep Mutual Friendships Intact After a Breakup?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

My girlfriend and I recently broke up, reluctantly, after two years together. We both felt strongly about remaining close friends, and we talked at length about looking out for each other as we transitioned out of the relationship. For me, in part that meant keeping our circle of mutual friends mutual rather than engaging in a push-pull. It also meant direct communication rather than indirect. I didn’t want either of us to put friends in a position where they felt like they might have to choose or take sides, nor did I want either of us to be surprised by secondhand information that might be hurtful.

Unfortunately, my vision has blown up in my face. She has drawn our support network closer to her, leaving me to make sense of what little filters back to me. This has compounded my sense of loneliness and isolation as I work through mountains of grief and self-doubt.

I get that breakups are hard. I also understand it’s hard to be a friend and to remain neutral when a breakup happens. But what went wrong here? Was it unrealistic to think we might look out for each other? How do couples manage breakups in a way that better honors each other while keeping mutual support networks intact? —Outside Looking In

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Dear Outside,

Hello, and thanks for writing. Boy, talk about best-laid plans, to say nothing of good intentions! Sorry to hear about all the painful turmoil.

Firstly, the questions you pose at the end—good ones, incidentally—lead me to ask some of my own. None of them are meant to blame you for what happened. While we all play a part in relational transactions, I’m less interested in “blame” and more interested in addressing the painful emotional dynamics of the situation. Thus, I wonder:

  • What do you mean you and your girlfriend broke up “reluctantly”? Does this reluctance have anything to do with the aftermath of what happened—i.e., was it more your idea than hers, or vice versa, due to an unspoken or unresolved problem? Perhaps whatever was left unsolved or “hanging” ripened and then spoiled into resentment or whatever is fueling her divisive behavior. Perhaps there were communication issues that translated into acting out or rebellious behavior on her part. Is she blowing off steam with friends she feels “get it” instead of sharing with you? Does she have any reason to believe you can’t or won’t “get it”?
  • How, exactly, is she drawing your support network closer to her? Whatever the answer, it is happening at your expense and needs to stop. You might ask yourself (and her, at some point): is she leveling false charges, exaggerating, or making up negative stories? Is this perhaps due to an unconscious desire to hurt you because she has been hurt? And is her current behavior a pattern with what you’ve observed before—that she acts out feelings she can’t express verbally (such as anger, disappointment, etc.)?
  • Is there a way to set the record straight with your friends? Are they shunning you outright? (You may want to address matters with her directly before taking this step, unless you have a dire need to remind your friends that there are two sides at play here.)
  • When you speak of “self-doubt,” what is it you are doubting? And does this, again, speak of any dynamic that is/was happening in the relationship? Do you tend to criticize or blame yourself for something that happens within the relationship? I was a little surprised you didn’t seem angry at her—more befuddled. Perhaps the anger is directed inward, as if you blame yourself unfairly for something that needs more hashing out between the two of you.
  • Sometimes couples need to seek couples counseling to, ironically, make an amicable parting. Is that possibly the case here?
  • I’m a little concerned about these friends of yours who are drawing toward her without checking in with you. Hey, y’all, how about a little benefit of the doubt? Makes me wonder if these are fair-weather friends or if she’s really that persuasive. Is no one attempting to get your side of the story? If there’s irritation or anger on your part over this, no one could blame you.
  • Most pertinently of all: Why not address your concerns directly with her? You mention the goal of direct communication, but I get the impression there is little to no communication between the two of you. How come?

It is easy to underestimate the raw power of emotion, especially the so-called darker or “negative” emotions: hurt, anger, resentment, and so forth. (Take a look at our political scene for ample proof.) The problem in the context of a close relationship is that so many of these emotions go unexpressed or remain unconscious, or “unformulated” in the phrasing of psychoanalyst Donnel Stern. It takes relational exchange for such feelings to find formulation and then grounding. Without expression, they can translate into behavior—what we call “enactment” or “acting out.” Perhaps you can encourage her to instead use her words since she may be quite hurt or angry by what happened, has an ax to grind, and is grinding it—unfairly, it sounds like—on you.

I think it would be important for her to explain what is motivating her to act like this, if you feel ready to hear it, and provided she can communicate it to you in a way she owns rather than projecting her feelings (blaming you). If I were you, I might be angry myself that she is so baldly violating the terms you both agreed to regarding the post-breakup plan.

I think it is also important that you tell her you really need her to cut it out—that her behavior is hurtful to you and therefore isolating, since they are, after all, your friends too and she ought not use them as pawns. Is she acting out of anger and trying to hurt you? Because if so, it’s working. What happened to the original agreement?

Your description of the “blueprint” for the breakup sounds reasonable, but maybe it was difficult for her to carry out if she held an (unconscious) woundedness. But again, if that is the case, she needs to say it—or at least stop what almost sounds like revenge behavior.

I would encourage both of you to speak of your own feelings rather than blame each other. The old therapy adage about using “I feel …” statements rather than “you’re at fault because …” holds true here. Sharing authentic feelings allows for empathy; blaming provokes defensiveness. I do not sense your intention was to hurt her, but perhaps you unintentionally underestimated the intensity of her feelings or emotional state around the breakup—either because she failed to communicate (no one is a mind-reader) or because you didn’t pick up the cues, or some combination of both. These things happen, but the solution is not to try to hurt the other by putting friends in the middle. This is not the behavior of the “close friend” you each promised to be.

Your description of the “blueprint” for the breakup sounds reasonable, but maybe it was difficult for her to carry out if she held an (unconscious) woundedness. But again, if that is the case, she needs to say it—or at least stop what almost sounds like revenge behavior. Perhaps she merely agreed to “terms” so as not to rock the boat, or felt at the time it was fine—though once the breakup occurred, cold reality set in and her wrath or other intense feelings emerged. Again, all of this is speculative and warrants further exploration with her directly. (She could also be bidding for your attention, to address whatever led to the reluctance of ending things.)

Finally, there really is no blueprint for managing breakups. It is never easy, and there is no right way to do it. It really depends on the personalities and circumstances of those involved.

Thus, my suggestion is that you address your most excellent questions to her—or, at the least, should you not want to have such a dialogue, remind her of your agreement and ask her to stop. (The more direct, the better.) I certainly understand your sense of betrayal, which could correspond to what she is also feeling and is expressing (again, perhaps unconsciously) via her behavior. (Behavior itself is a communication.) I strongly recommend you address your feelings about the chaos that is causing so much distress. Because right now she seems to be, sadly, acting almost like an enemy rather than the friend you hoped to have.

I hope that helps, and thanks again for writing.

Warmly,

Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • 6 comments
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  • Max

    Max

    September 29th, 2017 at 11:38 AM

    You weren’t unrealistic in hoping that something like what you had envisioned, but it was probably a little naive because I have never known a couple in real life where things worked out that way.
    People, well most people I would say, are inclined to choose a side whether you want to or not. It is just our nature.
    And I think that for the most part the friends always go with the females because the other females are all friends.
    It’s life. It wasn’t foolish to believe it, but now you see what the truth is and you just have to pack it in and move on.

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    September 29th, 2017 at 2:23 PM

    Thanks Max!

  • Gracie

    Gracie

    September 30th, 2017 at 11:28 AM

    If the break up is an amicable one then I think that it can be easier for the whole gang to stick together.
    If there is a lot of bitterness and animosity, then I think that it can put the whole friend group in a really weird position and it almost like they become forced to choose one side or the other.
    I hope that if this ever happens to me that I will be a little more considerate and not force the side choosing. But you never know, emotions can always get in the way of making good choices.

  • allie

    allie

    October 5th, 2017 at 2:44 PM

    It’s inevitable, there will be sides chosen and it is pretty obvious that along the way you are going to lose someone who you thought was your friend before.
    But if they abandon you during that time of need, my thought is that they were never all about being your real friend anyway.

  • Adison

    Adison

    October 6th, 2017 at 7:16 AM

    I guess that in some ways you have to be willing to consider just how much wok and effort you wish to put into maintaining it, just like with any other relationship that you have had.

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    October 6th, 2017 at 8:21 AM

    Thanks. Love the comments.

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