Late one night last year, I was sitting in my apartment doing some work when my phone rang. It was my close friend, *Alex. Alex was dating another one of my good friends, Sonia, and she had brought him up to Michigan to meet her family. I assumed they were together and wanted to say hi, but I was immersed in what I was doing and ignored the call.
Just when the missed call had registered on my phone, the screen lit up again — this time, it was Sonia. “They must really love me,” I gloated to myself, and decided to answer. I was busy, but then again, I was the reason they knew each other. Couldn’t I spare a minute to indulge my friends, who probably just wanted to shower me with heartfelt thanks for introducing them?
I shouldn’t have answered. Turns out things were not going well up in Michigan, and the two had decided to split. What transpired next was several days of fielding enraged calls from both parties, each looking for confirmation that the other was a pig goblin. I felt blindsided, and moreover, unsure what to say to keep the situation from getting worse. After a few days of back-and-forth, I finally told them each that I couldn’t talk with them about the other person anymore; that I would be more than happy to talk about potting soil or car parts or our favourite sizes of measuring cup, but not the other person.
There are tons of circumstances in which you might find yourself in the middle of a breakup. Maybe, as in my case, you all belonged to the same friend group, and two members of that group started dating. Another possible situation is that your friend starts dating someone with whom you also eventually become close — after all, part of a good relationship is involving your significant other in your social life.
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The latter scenario is what happened to John, whose friend Scott had been dating a woman named Jen. Scott and Jen dated for around three years, and in that time, John and Jen became friends in their own right. But when Scott and Jen’s relationship eventually fell apart, John said he had every intention of remaining friends with Jen. “I can’t just turn off a friendship that I built with somebody because of the friend that I knew first,” he explained.
Breakups are hard on everyone, including the third parties who find themselves trapped in the middle. There are, however, steps you can take to ensure that everyone emerges as unscathed as possible.
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Don’t feel obligated to take sides
In the aftermath of a breakup, it might seem that battle lines are being drawn. But assuming no one was grievously wronged, your friends should be mature enough that they don’t expect you to choose, said Shula Melamed, a relationship and wellbeing coach. If both parties are using you as a sounding board, it’s important to draw your own conclusions about the situation, and be cautious when it comes to committing your allegiance to one side or the other. After all, being friends with someone is very different than being in a relationship with them, and there are undoubtedly facets of your friends’ personalities that you know nothing about.
“When you’re in an emotional relationship, a sexual relationship, an intimate relationship with another person, it can really trigger other parts of your psychological profile,” Melamed said. “Things that as a friend, you might not ever be able to witness yourself because you don’t trigger that person in the same way that an intimate partner does.”
Another important component of remaining friends with both parties is transparency, said Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert and the founder of The Swann School of Protocol. She suggests starting by asking each friend how they feel about the fact that you intend to remain in contact with their now-ex.
“Maybe the person says, ‘Well, I know you’ve known [the other person] since childhood, and I’m OK with that, but I just don’t want to hear his name, ever,’” she said. Knowing how the other person feels about you keeping up with their ex will help you determine what you should and should not bring up in the future.
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Be clear about boundaries
Getting caught in the middle of a breakup is a drag, but how it plays out depends on how communicative and mature the breakup-ees decide to be about it. Ideally, neither party will try to mine you for information about the other, but even if they don’t, it’s up to you to place limits on what you are and are not willing to talk about.
“The rule I keep for myself is, I try to kind of partition my relationship with both people, so I’m not going to talk about one person to the other person, or vice versa,” John said. “I don’t want to be involved in this picking at old wounds type of thing.”
In order to avoid getting pumped for info or dragged into placing blame, Melamed suggests steering the conversation back to the person you’re talking to.
“Ask them what they’ve been doing to take care of themselves throughout this process—how are they handling things? How are they doing? Just gently guiding the conversation back to their own process.” Breakups are incredibly painful, but they can also be a time of great self-discovery. Offer to take a class or do an activity with your friend—anything to help them move forward with their lives, and leave the past where it belongs.
If your friends are making unreasonable requests, like trying to prevent you from being friends with their now-ex, Swann recommends giving it some time and space. Particularly if the breakup is fresh, people can say and do things they won’t necessarily mean once the initial rawness has worn off. That said, if one party did something heinous to the other, it’s worth considering whether you even want that person in your life in the first place.
“Birds of a feather flock together,” Swann points out. If someone cheats or acts in an abusive manner, do you really want to keep that person as a friend? “Definitely do that inventory check,” she said.
Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want repeated to the other friend
The truest line ever uttered by Jerry Seinfeld was this: “Elaine, breaking up is like knocking over a Coke machine. You can’t do it in one push. You gotta rock it back and forth a few times, and then it goes over.”
When it comes to amicable splits, very few people manage to make a clean break on their first try. This liminal stage is one that you, as a friend, need to be especially wary of. This is something that Katie experienced firsthand following the breakup of her friends, Elisa and Ryan. All three of them were part of the same friend group in college, but after a year of dating, the two decided to end it. But was it really that straightforward? Of course not.
“The thing that made it complicated was, you’ve got two very nice people, but they’re still hooking up randomly,” she said. “It wasn’t a clean breakup because there was still all this sex happening.” It being university, neither party was communicating effectively about what the sex meant: Elisa was convinced that the continued boning implied they’d be getting back together. Ryan thought no such thing.
“Elisa would often come to me and be upset, and so I’d listen to her a lot, and I did find myself getting kind of annoyed with Ryan, because he was allowing this to keep going,” Katie said.
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While talking shit in this scenario might have provided temporary catharsis, it’s a good thing Katie didn’t. Because, surprise! A year later, Ryan and Elisa got back together; eventually, they married and had two kids. “They’re really happy together,” Katie confirmed.
In a situation like this, Melamed thinks that the safest bet is not to say anything you wouldn’t be comfortable with the other person hearing. “Think twice about what it is that you’re saying,” she said, because, “you don’t want to say something that you can never take back once they’re together again.”
When to keep your mouth shut, and when not to
Unless you’re dedicating a lot of time to strategically sparing your friends’ feelings, you’re probably going to wind up letting slip something that will touch a nerve. At one point after Scott and Jen broke up, John remembers telling Jen about a weekend trip he and several people — including Scott — had gone on together. “It’s a little weird that I’m hearing about a trip I would have been on if Scott and I been together,” Jen told him after.
Jen’s comment made John realise that even something as seemingly innocuous as recounting a fun weekend can sting, even if that wasn’t his intention. “I try to be conscientious of not trying to rub it in a person’s face that they clearly can’t come along on the group activities that they would have otherwise,” he said.
Katie said her rule of thumb is to be aware of her friends’ feelings, but not go overboard trying to avoid talking about the other person. When it comes to whether one person is moving on, “I try to be very mindful about not bringing that up, because it’s just not worth the headache,” she said.
While it’s definitely not necessary to mention every date a friend’s ex goes on, you also don’t want them to be the last person to know if they’re involved with someone else, Melamed said, since “you don’t want that person to feel like a fool.” Being the messenger of hurtful information is never fun, but being direct and leaving out unnecessarily details will hopefully blunt the trauma. “Be gentle with the information, but don’t lie to them,” she added.
Sometimes, being a good friend means having to tell someone something you’d rather not. It sucks, but so do breakups. Be honest and mature, and don’t worry: The three of you will get through this.
*Some names have been changed to protect anonymity.