Last year, Abbe Wright’s friend group was seemingly perfect. The 28-year-old from Brooklyn mainly hung out with her two best friends from high school, Sarah and Brittany, and their boyfriends, Peter and Patrick, respectively—it was a nice little fivesome. But at the end of the year, Brittany and Patrick broke up—and utter mayhem ensued.
“It was awful,” recalls Abbe, who explains that the breakup aftermath happened in two phases. “Brittany expected Sarah and I to have girl code and not see Patrick, ever. But we’re really close with Patrick, obviously, so we felt trapped. Then Brittany started requesting that little nuggets of info about her love life be edited down. It basically became, ‘Don’t tell Patrick that I’m fill-in-the-blank.’ The whole situation was exhausting and so stressful,” Abbe says.
Experts say that dealing with group dynamics after a friend split is a social situation that’s on the rise—in part because of today’s hookup culture. “What’s happening is that more people are hanging out in large groups and dating within the group because dating is so casual right now,” explains Carlin Flora, a friendship expert and author of Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Our Friends Make Us Who We Are. Here, the three most common post-friend-breakup scenarios—and how to deal with each.
Scenario #1: You Feel Pressure to Take Sides
You don’t have to engage in a friendship custody battle to be supportive to both parties—all you have to do is communicate. The key is to be honest and respectful, and to not sneak around in secret. “Chances are, you may naturally gravitate toward one party a little bit more than the other, and that’s okay. But whatever you do, be sure to say something to both friends like, ‘I understand that it may be difficult for you if I still hang out with Mark occasionally. But I have a good relationship with him too and I want to maintain it—I hope you realize this doesn’t take away my support for you,” advises Andrea Bonior, a clinical psychologist and author of The Friendship Fix. Your friend may be a little hurt at first (“I can’t believe she’s still hanging with my ex!”), but ultimately, those feelings are rooted in confused breakup pain—and your pal will realize that once he or she emerges from the breakup tunnel.
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Scenario #2: You Want to Stay Out of the Negativity
Often, in the throes of a breakup, both parties will vent about the other. A lot. And this can create a rather, um, fired-up environment. In fact, the toxic vibe can be so strong that it can cause you to want to run under a hill and hide rather than support your buds. That’s what happened to Alison, a 33-year-old from Manhattan. “In my heart of hearts, I wanted to be there for both of them, but it was so intense that I also just wanted to bolt and not deal at all,” she admits. The best advice? Don’t avoid your friends—they need you more than ever. Rather, stay neutral by just offering to listen. “Say, ‘I’m here for you, and I get that it helps to vent. But I think it’ll be most helpful if I just listen,’” Bonior advises. Chances are, they’ll be just as happy using you as a sounding board. This way, you won’t jeopardize your friendship with either person—and it’ll be easier to maintain both relationships over time.
Scenario #3: Your Friendships with Both Parties Feel Awkward
When two of your closest friends split up, you’ll find yourself dealing with unexpected side effects, like the whole group email thing. What used to be a quick and easy “send” now turns into: “Who do I include on the list?” Even though you know that they’re going through substantial pain, a part of you may resent them for ending an era for all, says Flora. But just because things won’t be the same doesn’t mean they won’t be good. Your best bet is to give it time; hold up on the group activities until they have time to heal and decide how to handle the new setup. “Establishing the new normal doesn’t happen overnight. Your friends may even feel too sad or stressed to socialize—even alone—in the ways that they used to,” explains Bonior. Be patient, and over time, you’ll figure out what they need from you. In Abbe’s case, Brittany recently started dating a new guy, and she’s been bringing him to group hangs—even with Patrick there. “It’s definitely still a little awkward, but everyone is trying to be mature. I’m just thrilled that we can all hang out again. Things will never be the same as they were, but that’s life, and we’re making this new dynamic work,” she says.
*Names of Abbe’s friends have been changed for privacy reasons.