My best friends are divorcing and I’m stuck in the middle
The dilemma I am stuck between two divorcing friends – and I don’t know how to cope. It’s horrible listening to them call each other names and degrading each other. If I push back and say, I don’t think X is insane, then I get a strip torn off me. The husband contacts me when he wants me to get his wife to do something – although he does it under the disguise of “I want some advice.” I told him I find this manipulative. He dismisses it as me being ridiculous. I keep telling them both that I don’t want to be involved in their arguments. I am not a divorce lawyer. Both of them have behaved badly at different points. I’m trying not to judge and have told them how I feel, but it makes no difference. There are three kids mixed up in this, who are also my godchildren, which makes it all the worse.
The wife is one of my oldest friends, the husband has been a friend for 20 years and, of course, I want to remain in the children’s lives. How do I do this?
Philippa’s answer You are trying to do the right things: you are trying not to judge, you are trying to put down boundaries. However, the boundary-setting isn’t working and you are getting sucked into the toxic soup they have created between themselves. We all have a limit to our tolerance and it is wise to put down our boundaries and stick to them, before we reach that limit.
I will share a technique counsellors use, it will help. Practise recognising the difference between content and process. Content is what they say, process is how they say it. The content is the words and the process is the how. The boundary you need for yourself is that you don’t get involved with the content.
Getting involved with the content is how you get sucked in, become over-involved and lose your ground. Engaging with their judgments – saying they are unfair or fair – is how you get more involved than you want to be and feel stretched in all directions. You can support them by noticing and feeding back to them what their process is. Let’s have an example. She angrily declares that her ex is a fool (she probably says something far worse, but this column reaches to places where they have boundaries about swearing). Don’t argue about whether he’s a fool or not, or whether it is unkind of her to declare him as such. You may feel he acts this way because he’s feeling alone or because he’s scared. Don’t say any of that – don’t even say that it upsets you that she is name-calling. Keep your response just to her process and what you feel about her process. For example: “You sound so frustrated and angry, it must be difficult for you right now.” But you must express yourself in your words, not mine. I’m not giving you words to parrot.
I will share a technique counsellors use, it will help. Practise recognising the difference between content and process
The formula here is that your involvement only goes as far as being involved in how they feel and how they seem. If you don’t engage with their words you won’t engage with their arguments with each other. Your mantra is: no content, only process.
You’ve told them already you don’t want the name-calling, but they’ve continued, so ignore the name-calling and the judgments and, instead, just tell them how you feel about how they seem to be feeling. For example, “You seem determined about this” or “It sounds like you’d really like some answers about that.” A therapist would point out their cyclical patterns of behaviour to aid their self-awareness, but you don’t have to bother with that. You are a support, not a judge, nor a fixer.
It does sound from your letter that if you are pushed into a corner and asked to choose, you’d choose her. If it felt so painful to her that you continued to be friends with him, then this may be the course you want to take. Although, if you felt that for the children’s sake you needed to keep both adults in your life, there is a chance she might understand that. It must feel like being on a tightrope.
Empathy is many things, but it is not taking responsibility for other people’s feelings or finding solutions. Often, we feel we need to offer solutions even if we are not being asked for them, yet most of us just need to be heard. By not feeling that you must fix them, you will take pressure off yourself. It may feel as if they are putting you in an impossible situation, but it is you who has agency over your relationships.
If you feel manipulated again, that is the time to put down your boundary. I’d say something like: “I won’t be acting as a messenger. I’m not going to pass this on. You’ll have to communicate through lawyers, not me. I am not a conduit.”
You probably wouldn’t need to underline it quite as much as I did here – again, use your own words. Be clear about what you won’t do and then – this is the easy bit – don’t do it.
If you succeed in not becoming overly invested in their individual arguments while supporting their feelings, there is a chance that your relationship with both will survive to the next stage.
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