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Why Friendships Take A Dive After Divorce

02/04/2013 12:11 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2013

As a young girl, I instinctively appreciated the importance of friendship. I gravitated to older girls who I could admire and look up to. Reflecting on my adult friendships, I've come to realize that true friends stick by you no matter what. They're there for you when the chips are down, your boyfriend cheats on you, or you lose your job. Since I grew up with three sisters and have been lucky to have many wonderful friends, I was surprised by how my friendships changed after my divorce.

After my divorce, which was over a decade ago, several friends seemed to vanish into thin air or became distant. To this day, I struggle with figuring out why my divorce cost me so many friends. I've spent plenty of hours analyzing this and only recently realized that I'm not alone. When I mentioned this to a colleague, she expressed curiosity and encouraged me to research the topic.

What I found out may surprise you. While there isn't much research on the topic of friendship after divorce, most studies report that after a breakup, friends often fall by the wayside. Fortunately, I found a highly informative chapter on post-divorce friendship in Dr. Bruce Fisher's book, Rebuilding When your Relationship Ends. I was also inspired by a blog written by Aunt Becky for Cafe Mom's blog "The Stir" entitled, An Open Letter to My Happily Married Friends. In this insightful post, Aunt Becky admonishes her friends to be more tolerant and empathetic about her recent divorce. She writes, "things don't always work out as planned, my dear friend."

Most people report that some of their friends become invisible while they're in the process of divorcing. Sadly, this was my experience and I'm still trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The first Christmas after my marriage collapsed, I was struck by how few invitations arrived via email or my mailbox. I quickly learned that there are many reasons why friends disappear or become remote.

Perhaps one reason why friendships change so much after divorce is because friends -- like some family members -- aren't comfortable with grief and so become rejecting or cool. They might even side with your ex, not realizing that they are polarizing and encouraging conflict between the two of you. Friends and family often take sides after divorce. Let's face it -- most people don't have a clue about how to support a friend who is suddenly single.

Dr. Fisher, a renowned divorce expert, cites four main reasons why friendships change after divorce. I hope this list helps you gain insight and feel less isolated.

1. You are seen as a threat. As a newly divorced person, you are suddenly seen as eligible to your married friends -- so invitations die off or disappear.

2. Divorce is polarizing. Friends tend to side with one partner -- either the ex-husband or ex-wife. Rarely do friends maintain contact with both partners. Thus, you might lose the friends who sided with your ex.

3. Fear. Many people fear that if they associate with others whose marriages ended, theirs will head in the same direction. Several women I interviewed for my book Love We Can Be Sure Of told me that the shakier their friend's marriage appeared, the more quickly they were abandoned by that person.

4. Social Stigma. Married people are simply seen as mainstream and more acceptable in our couple-orientated culture. While this issue has subsided somewhat in the past decade as we've witnessed the second and third generation of divorce in our country, it's still alive in many social circles. Divorced people are viewed as part of a singles subculture where the standards are seen as looser, and that may make some married people uncomfortable.

Divorce can change the dynamics in any relationship, and particularly in friendships, it's important to set boundaries. For instance, you might feel like venting with a friend and bemoaning the loss of a love, and they might not be up for a heavy conversation. Letting your friends know what your needs are can be very helpful. Be sure to tell them the truth but be sensitive to their limitations and desire to discuss other topics. It's normal to feel emotionally needy as you're navigating the grieving process, but friends play a different role than counselors. So give them a breather by keeping things light at times.

If you're reading this and wonder how to support a friend post-divorce, perhaps the best thing you have to offer them is acceptance and a listening ear. Try to avoid appearing judgmental since they may be hypersensitive to comments that come across as blameful. Think about it -- when someone is grieving the loss of a marriage, they need time to grieve and gain a better perspective on things. Ideally, friends will be there for each other when they are at their worst. Some are definitely keepers.

In my case, I've been lucky to make new friends who have enriched my life since my divorce. Fortunately, I have even held onto a few friendships for decades, in spite of my changes in lifestyle and marital status. I've been blessed with the good fortune of having many amazing friends who have been there for me during times of turmoil and triumph, as I hope I have been able to do for them.

Follow Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW on Twitter and Facebook.