Family Matters

Who Gets the Friends? When Family Friends Divorce

Wendy Allard received about 200 cards the last Christmas she spent married to longtime KTVU Fox 2 sportscaster Mark Ibanez.

The next year, living as a single parent, she estimates she received five.

“Maybe eight … call it eight,” says the Danville resident. “Now, I’m not sure how many he got …”

Either way, life changed dramatically for Allard in 2000, the first holiday season she spent single since marrying Ibanez. Her kids were 5 and 3 when the marriage broke up, and, like so many in her situation, not only did her marital status change. Her relationships with her friends changed, as did those of her kids.

“You realize you’re married to a bunch of people and you don’t know it,” says Allard, who has since tied the knot for the second time and added a daughter to her family. “A lot of people eliminate everybody. You’ve got to keep everyone together. It’s work.”

Breaking up a family is, of course, rarely easy. The obvious effect is two people who vowed to stay together through sickness and health did get sick – of each other. Then there’s children, affected by the breakup, which sometimes can take years. 

But one factor few participants consider is how their split will affect their friends.

“We socialized three or four times a week,” Allard says. “It was work-related, but those people were my friends, and we didn’t really socialize after that. It stopped.”

Divorce rates have dropped by 18 percent since 2008, according to Bloomberg News, citing a study done by University of Maryland professor Philip Cohen.

But between 1990 and 2015, the divorce rate doubled for people between the age of 55 and 64 and tripled for Americans 65 and older, according to the same report.

Bottom line? Plenty of families still split up. And while there’s plenty of numbers thrown around concerning divorce, there’s so much quantifiable data on the non-family members around them. Things can get awkward, and family friends often feel as if they have to take sides, which can lead to hurt feelings. 

“Friends who I thought were my best friends turned their backs on me,” says Tracey Fordahl, of Concord. “It was very difficult not only for me, but emotionally difficult for my kids because, along with my husband, (the friends) decided to trash me socially. Which resulted in me constantly trying to defend myself to my kids and the social circle in which I was part. Things got so bad that I had to move away in order to stop all the nonsense.”

We have therapy and courts for couples and families, either to save a situation or negotiate a peaceful way out. But a family law judge doesn’t decide which side gets the friends. 

“If you are close with a family that is going through a breakup, you cannot count on that family to be going through it in that (mediated) manner,” says psychologist Mark Borg, the co-author of “Relationship Sanity: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships.” “However, because it is at least possible that people are aware of wanting and needing care and support from others – and our culture is making more room for this – it is more than OK for you to ask directly how you can support each person (involved in the split), how or if they’ve considered division of friends, family and neighbors, and make this some kind of guessing game, as it usually is.”

“Absolutely everything can be thoughtfully, mindfully put on the table and negotiated,” he says. “Of course kids are affected, and it is much more likely that their feelings will be considered, and that they will not have to choose sides. Nor will their friends.”

Allard says reality struck hard at her daughter’s first birthday party after the split.

“They all RSVP’d and nobody came,” she says. “I felt so bad for (my daughter).”

But it can also be an ordeal for the outsiders.

“Family members and friends can be torn once they become too involved, both emotionally and mentally,” says family law attorney Lon Loveless. “Depending on who is perceived to be at fault, or what transpired, you will find family and friends aligning with the person who they think was not at fault. I especially see this kind of bias in cases involving domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, or adultery.”

Allard has also been the friend on the other side of the equation.

“I’m honest with both of them, because you’re not a good friend if you tell them what they want to hear.” she says. “She wants me to take her side on everything, and I don’t.”

Merely being that friend can have serious implications, Loveless says.

“I encourage family and friends to resist becoming involved,” he says. “If they do, they may be called as a witness for a court hearing, trial or disposition. I recently went to court where the wife was instructing one of her friends to post negative information about the other spouse on the Internet. Although she denied her involvement, the court did not believe her. It was apparent that she had hoped that their children would see the negative information posted about the other parent to make them look bad.”

DeAnna Perry says she was “treated like I had an infectious disease,” when she split from her husband of 21 years in 2014. Her kids were 18 and 15 at the time.

“I’m sure to some, on social media, it may have looked like we were perfect,” says the Antioch resident. “I became the bad guy. I literally hid in my house due to extreme anxiety and panic attacks. I was diagnosed with PTSD. My social life was greatly altered, because I no longer had the big house or the parties. I was no longer the hostess and, financially, I wasn’t able to go out.”

Perry’s 15-year-old daughter also struggled with outside perceptions of what was happening with her family.

“I had friends she really liked,” says Perry. “It was a good lesson for both of us to see just how supportive they weren’t. My daughter missed having girls’ nights, being invited to things. I think she realized that none of the way we were treated was my fault or hers.”

Perry says there were, however, some positive results.

“I truly think it made us closer,” she says. “My son and daughter’s friends became more supportive to all of us. Go figure. The adults couldn’t handle it.”

Fordahl says it can be pretty simple when there’s a decision to be made. Who came first?

“If the friends are yours before the marriage, then they should stay with you after the marriage,” she says. “If they can – great, and even better if they can stay friends with both, especially if there’s kids involved. It created a healthy balance for the children to witness.”

Loveless says bad feelings around a family breakup are normal. Having children on either side complicates things. In the end, staying away until the dust settles may be best for everyone.

“Or find a new group of friends,” he says.  

Tony Hicks is a newswpaper columnist and the father of four daughters.