Many people fear that divorce will shatter their social circle. This is a realistic concern. Our marriages exist within a community, and divorce changes that. We foster connections as a couple, and some only work as part of this pair. Others may not know how to accommodate the new, single you into their couple-centric set. Friends may worry that your divorce will rub off on them. Some researchers point to evidence of a divorce contagion, a way that divorce can spread through friendship groups. Friends in a shaky marriage don’t need a study to tell them that a new possibility has been introduced into your set. Someone who shuns you in a misguided effort to preserve her own marriage is making a statement about the vulnerability of her union, not your worth as a friend. Still, it’s painful when it happens.
In fact, we change friends in all major life transitions; divorce is no different. But it's also a chance to improve our social circle. Sometimes, it brings old friends closer. Many people I’ve met said a fellow divorcee reached out to them in a new way, a tennis partner suddenly evolved into a confidant, a family member came forward with new warmth.
As rattling as it feels, a social shake-up also is a great opportunity to seek out people who better support your new life.
Our friends influence us, more than we realize, and divorce is a chance to prune back thorny connections. “People don’t usually have the opportunity to switch up all their friends, but in a big transition you can do that,” said Carlin Flora, author of Friendfluence: The Surprising Way that Friendships Make Us Who We Are. “You can choose with intention. You can say, ‘Who do I want to be influenced by?’ If you think about what your goals are and get yourself around other people whose goals are similar, it lifts you up.”
Divorce also may shed new light on old acquaintances, such as, in my case, the woman who lived next door.
A year into my separation, I was still in my house in Hoboken, New Jersey, and still feeling too alone. I’d also begun to notice something I hadn’t expected.
Other people had begun to look different, now that I was by myself.
Such as the older, divorced owner of the townhouse next door, a brassy hairdresser to the stars and single mom who darted around town in a convertible Porsche and short-shorts. She spent evenings out back smoking cigarettes and listening to ‘60s music with her fiancé, the volume cranked up so loud, I could have danced the shag in my bedroom with the windows closed. Shortly after we moved in, she rented out her house to a young married couple from Chile, and moved down south to marry.
This seemed good news. I saw my new neighbors as similar to my husband and me. We were both hard-working, youngish couples with little kids, both families with moms who loved Zumba fitness classes. I worked hard to befriend this couple, inviting their daughters over for play dates, sipping wine on their back deck after our children had gone to sleep.
Then my marriage ended. I felt a chill from the Chileans. Was it due to my divorce? I didn't know. Then the hairdresser’s second marriage ended, too. She moved back to town, camping out in the empty ground-floor “garden” unit of her townhouse, below her tenants. No more loud music and chain smoking out back. No more zipping around town in the Porsche. She was living in her own basement, spending hours in her short-shorts ripping out the walls, renovating as if her life depended on it. She tossed out bags of clothes. She handed me a cashmere cape she thought I’d like, left a stack of relationship self-help books for me on the wooden railing between our back decks.
Soon she gave notice to the Chileans, and moved back into her home. Late nights, I’d be out walking my dog, and there she’d be, on her stoop, another single mother well past 30, alone in this bedroom community while all the married families were shut away inside. She was not only a solo mom with a single child, as I now was, but also a lot closer in age than I’d realized. We were only a handful of years apart, whereas the Chilean couple was more than a decade younger.
One night, I was walking home after a date with one of the few single men who lived in town. He'd been playing his guitar and singing at open-mic nights around the city as a way to boost his mood, post-separation. His wife was filing motion after motion against him, draining his savings and sapping his spirit.
As we neared my house, I saw my neighbor sitting on her stoop with three cups of Starbucks, looking like she planned to drink them all, one by one. “This is my neighbor,” I said to my date, glad to see her. “She’s recently divorced too!”
“Are you divorced?” she asked him.
“Almost,” he said. Eyes downcast.
We talked about his future-ex. She’d wanted the divorce, yet seemed no happier single. She’d turned wrathful, filing repeated frivolous law suits. He’d remained calm in the face of her rage, which seemed to make it worse. In the short time I’d known him, I could tell he was a caring father, a hard worker. He was not a careless man with hundreds of thousands of dollars lying around, waiting to be spent on litigation.
“She still loves you,” my next door neighbor said, taking a drag on her cigarette. “Every time she screams at you, she’s saying, ‘Care about me! Care about me!’ If you can have some compassion, I guarantee you, she’ll change her tune.”
I stared at her. Of course! “Wow, I think she’s right,” I said. I sat on the stoop next to my thoughtful, intelligent neighbor, touched by her relationship wisdom.
It’s so easy to dismiss people around us, I realized, to erect a wall between ourselves and others without even realizing we’re doing it.
I was certainly guilty of this. We dismiss others out of busy-ness, snobbishness, the overwhelmingness of our own lives.
The night in Hoboken, my date took out his guitar and stood on the sidewalk before us. He sang one of his new songs, a love song reminiscent of Bob Seger's "We've got tonight." I wrapped my sweater around my shoulders against the Northeastern chill and scooted closer to my next door neighbor. We were our own community that night, all of us recuperating, reconnecting, rebuilding, each with real needs, but also real strengths, something to give.
Divorce can shake up friendships, but it also gives us a chance to connect with others.
Sometimes, as in my case, the humbling experience of divorce cracks open the hubris that can distance us from other people, enabling us to populate our world anew.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.