"You’ve gotta choose a side. You have to decide!” a friend screams at me over the noise of the Lower East Side’s 169 Bar. We’re debating another split between mutual friends.
“This isn’t fourth grade. Life is more complicated than that!” I yell back, trying to cut through the Friday night post-work hysteria.
Rarely is it articulated, but often there is an unspoken assumption that in divorce, the friends will choose a side. But I don’t like to let people go. I’m losing people with each break up, with each divorce. I’m in my mid-40s, and I’ve had plenty of time to see couples split. Partnerships where I knew both parties before they got together, as well as those where I knew one, and grew to like the significant other. I spent time with them as a unit and as individuals, so when they split, it was a loss for me, too. Of course, sometimes it’s a relief to jettison a boorish or high-maintenance spouse-of-a-friend, but mostly I want to stay friends with everyone, even other people’s exes.
Sometimes when a couple falls apart, there is a clear arc, but more often it's a fraught and murky pathway to separation, peppered with misunderstandings and circling back to previous turning points. After all, these couples saw something amazing in each other; they loved, they travelled, they set up house, they procreated. They don’t simply switch off a light when it’s over, and neither do I. I want to remain friends. I want our children to remain friends. I want to be supportive, but I don’t want to be a conduit for one half of a former couple’s negative emotions. It’s not my divorce. And anyway, every state now has no-fault divorce for married couples.
What about no-fault for the friends of the breaking up, too? I don’t want to ice one person simply because her marriage ended, especially when so many partnerships do end.
I’m not saying there is never one person clearly at fault, or that no one behaves in a way that warrants an end to our relationship. When there are safety concerns due to violent behavior, or if one partner continues to abuse drugs or alcohol, then those are not friends I feel safe maintaining. But the mere act of divorcing is not cause for me to spurn someone for life.
Perhaps my reluctance to let other people’s exes go is because I’m an only child who grew up an ocean away from aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. My parents were New Zealanders who moved to Australia in the 1960s for better work opportunities. My mom was a nurse, then an “air hostess;” my dad, a door-to-door floor wax salesman who morphed into a successful television executive.
Maybe I want to keep everyone I care about because I know what it feels like to be isolated from those you love. Or maybe my reluctance to take sides stems from the fact that I did a take a side—my mother’s—when my parents divorced.
I was in my 30s when my parents split. My mom, suddenly alone, seemed to me needier and more vulnerable than my father. I found her sadness easier to deal with than his anger. It made sense to me to take her side, but in doing so, I also alienated myself from my father. Our breach went on for several years.
I’d always loved my father and admired him, and we had been very close at times. But it was only after my own marriage, and when my father found himself in the hospital for a lung transplant, that I realized I could really lose him. As I drove to and from the hospital every day for five weeks, I thought about what life would be like without him. I often gripped the steering wheel and howled with grief. What had I done, distancing myself for so long?
Thirteen years later, after his successful operation, we remain very close. I’ve realized that kindness and forgiveness are not limited commodities to be doled out by a judgmental bystander. We especially shouldn’t rip away support systems when people are at their lowest moments. Thinking about my own family’s split, unfriending someone else’s ex feels inhumane.
Nonetheless, I have friends who are affronted or confused when I make an effort to see their ex. My personal policy, I’ve decided, is that they just have to deal with it. Their anger is not my anger. Their ex is not my former friend.
This policy also applies to my own exes. My ex-boyfriend drove my husband-to-be and me to the church for our wedding, in 2002, steering his beloved vintage Ford Fairlane. A few years later, with toddler in tow, I attended his wedding to a woman I now consider a friend. They took over our baby carriage when we finished with it.
My husband’s first wife came to visit us from France, along with her son from her subsequent relationship, a boy the same age as ours. Despite the language barrier, the boys were friends immediately. The fact we had these Francophones staying with us felt perfectly normal, like a gift—though I admit it may have sounded a bit like a French farce when others asked how we knew each other.
However, I’d rather live with the occasional raised eyebrow than fall in line with some unexamined social more that limits my life. My goal is to do my best to hold on to those people who enrich my life. Even if that includes your ex.
Caroline Jumpertz is a Brooklyn-based writer. She moved to the United States from Australia in 2010 with her husband and son, after her application was randomly selected in the US State Department’s annual Green Card Lottery.