Friends And Neighbors
By Esther Mann
We and three other couples moved into the neighborhood at about the same time years ago. We immediately became good friends as did our children, many of whom had overlapping ages. Over the years, we all became very close, celebrating milestones, holidays, and everyday life. It was great. None of us ever had to worry about how we were going to spend a vacation or even a Thanksgiving. It was a given that we’d be together.
One of the four couples my husband and I privately nicknamed “The Bickermans,” because they tended to bicker a lot. If you had asked us 25 years ago which of the couples were doomed for divorce at some point, we would have immediately said the Bickermans. Interestingly enough, they are still together, bickering less, and I think they’re safe. Unfortunately, a different couple, whom I’ll call Alice and Sam Levine, haven’t been so lucky. I never thought they were destined for a problem. Not that they ever displayed any exciting love for one another. We never really saw them acting with tremendous joyful emotion toward one another, but they seemed to get along and never argued.
About a month ago, we learned that the Levines were getting divorced. I got a calm call from Alice one evening, and, in her typical relaxed voice, she told me that she and Sam were getting divorced because over the years they have grown apart and they both feel it’s for the best. I was stunned; I don’t think I even responded. I had no idea what to say. When I told my husband, he was similarly shocked. It felt so overwhelming for us. We immediately felt badly for them and for their children, but we also felt terrible for ourselves. It felt like someone came along and pulled the rug out from under us. We couldn’t even process how our lives would be going forward. I write this knowing it must sound selfish, and maybe it is. But Alice sounded so calm and positive on the phone when she called that it seemed as though she was happy about the development and didn’t think about how it would affect the three remaining couples in our group. And by the way, we don’t even know what “grown apart” means and why that’s a reason to get divorced and disrupt so many lives.
Since that call, things have not been the same. We’ve spent time with the other two couples, but it feels like something is off, just not right. It’s like that feeling you get if you have a tooth pulled and there’s this huge gap in your mouth! None of us can make any sense out of it, and the atmosphere now feels sad and mournful, like a dark cloud is hanging in the air.
My husband and I have no idea what the proper protocol is when super-close friends of yours get divorced. And since we don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong to do, we haven’t done anything. We haven’t invited either Alice or Sam over for a Shabbos meal because we don’t want to insult one by having the other. I haven’t even reached out with a phone call to either of them, because I don’t know what to say. Suddenly I feel like a stranger toward them and feel uncomfortable even thinking about them. And, for whatever reason, I’m also feeling angry at them, constantly going back to the thought of how could they do this to all of us!
So we need to put our reactions on hold and get some perspective from you regarding the best way to be with Alice and Sam. How do we continue to include them in our lives in a healthy way that works for everyone? Is it the end of an era that worked well for all of us for so long, and now we need to move on? We had a great thing going for many years but maybe all good things must come to an end.
At A Loss
Dear At A Loss,
When a tightknit group, such as the one you describe with the Levines, the Bickermans, and the other couple, hits a bump in the road—and in this case it’s more like a mountain than a bump—everyone naturally feels bewildered. You all shared a lifestyle, a routine, a comfort level, and a predictable reality that added a level of security to your lives that was cherished by all.
So many couples struggle socially, trying to figure out where they belong. Sometimes they go through friendships because the relationships don’t have what it takes to have long-term traction. Or maybe the wives get along but the husbands have nothing in common. Sometimes a couple is fortunate enough to find two couples that they enjoy, but those two couples can’t be in the same room with each other, and so they are always juggling. You and your husband seamlessly melded into a lovely group of couples from the get-go of moving into the neighborhood—and it worked for your children as well—which is truly a blessing.
No one is going to say that finding ourselves socially is as important as matters of health, finances, and other meaningful aspects of life, but as you’ve discovered, it holds a nurturing and comforting place in our lives and hearts. It gives us a wonderful sense of security that is treasured.
The fact that you and your husband are feeling disoriented right now and unsure of yourselves in terms of your next move is understandable. You are probably feeling blindsided, as no one checked in with you regarding whether or not it was a good idea for Alice and Sam to get divorced. Not that it was their obligation to do so, as this is their life and they must do what they must do. But since you were all so tightly bound together, it probably feels as though it would have been a good idea to run it by you!
So now that I’ve validated your hurt and confusion, let’s move on to protocol. I don’t think there is such a thing easily referenced for people in your position. However, you have to ask yourself what is the right thing to do, considering that Alice and Sam were such good friends of yours for decades. What is the kind thing to do, the sensitive thing to do? What would you expect from them if, G-d forbid, you were in their shoes? Basically, what I’m saying is that it’s time to stop licking your wounds and start thinking about their needs rather than your own. Through all of this, it sounds as though you haven’t taken much time to think about what Alice and Sam must be going through. Yes, their party line was that they grew apart, but do we ever really know exactly what goes on behind closed doors? Who knows what issues they have actually been struggling with all of these years, despite being experts at covering up their challenges? Just because they are not dumping the gory details of their divorce in your lap doesn’t mean that they are not suffering immeasurably right now.
So as you hopefully shift from worrying about your comfort level and begin to address the needs of your longtime friends Alice and Sam, I hope that you continue to include them. Obviously, it will involve some juggling as you take turns including each of them separately, but I hope that you reach out to them lovingly and consistently. Neither of them needs any judgment from any of you. They need support and unconditional love. Friends aren’t only supposed to be included during the good times. It’s when the going gets rough that we see who really cares and shows up. Your foursome had a great, long run. Your memories will always be valued. Now, as life would have it, there is a shift, which inevitably occurs over the years for all sorts of reasons. People relocate, people change, and, tragically, people die. Life happens. Divorce happens. Things that are totally out of our control happen. And we need to deal with these events with dignity, delicacy, and affection.
If you notice that the Bickermans and the other couple are struggling the way you and your husband have been struggling, be the role model, the guiding light for the entire group, by showing them what it looks like to be a loyal friend through thick and thin.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.