London - One weekend, a couple of months after my partner of 23 years had walked out, I didn’t have a single plan to see anyone. It was unusually sunny for late March, so after walking my dog one Saturday afternoon, I stopped at a busy cafe.
The tables were all filled - with couples, groups of friends, families. No one was sitting there by themselves.
Finally, I got a table and sat down, feeling more lonely than I could ever remember. I looked at my mobile: no texts, no missed calls. By the time my hot chocolate had arrived, tears of self-pity were dribbling down my face.
And then the phone rang.
It was Natalie, my best friend of more than 30 years, just back from a business trip to Paris. I’d been determined not to bother her as she’d been away from her husband and children all week.
“What are you doing, misery guts?” she chortled. “Unless you have a hot date, it’s supper, here, 7.30pm. And no excuses.”
I’d been rescued.
Without my long-term loyal pals as a lifeline, I’m not sure I would have been able to put my life back in order after the breakdown of my second marriage.
Yet again, I was reminded how, in the age of divorce, friendship seems to have much sturdier foundations than marriage does.
We’ve all witnessed couples who begin a relationship with a big social circle that gets whittled away, so when the partnership breaks down, there is no one to turn to. My advice would be to bind your friends to you with hoops of steel, because the threads of marriage really are gossamer thin.
Caught in the bubble of a heady new romance, of course, there’s often only ever room for two. A study led by Robin Dunbar, head of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, revealed that, on average, having a new romantic partner pushes out two close friends, leaving lovers with a smaller inner circle of people they can turn to in times of crisis.
For divorcee Karen Iverson, the dangers of abandoning your friends for a lover became clear only when it was too late.
When she met David at 35, Karen fell headlong in love, moving in to his flat in Oxford after just three months. Friendships took a back seat.
“I found David just as I was beginning to despair of ever meeting a man,” Karen explains. “I allowed my friendships to suffer, concentrating all my energies on him.”
David was possessive, which, at first, Karen took as a compliment: “He overwhelmed me with his ardour. I even quite liked the fact that he was jealous of my best friend Ben, who he accused of being secretly in love with me.”
When that friendship was destabilised, David turned his attentions to perceived character flaws in Karen’s oldest childhood friend Sally. “We’d been close, as we had both been single for a long time. But with David’s encouragement, I started to see fault in her as well.”
It took Karen too long to realise that David was isolating her from her friends because of his own insecurities: Ben was a threat simply because he was another man; Sally was a threat because David believed a footloose pal could encourage Karen to follow suit.
Mary Clegg, a sex and relationship psychotherapist, describes David’s response as “a testosterone-driven thing, and common across the age spectrum. Any man paying attention to another man’s woman is likely to be seen as a threat.”
Not surprisingly, Karen’s friends were hurt and angry at her withdrawal from their lives and blamed her new partner. Meanwhile Karen, blinded by love, defended David, and her two friends retreated altogether.
Ten years, two children and a divorce later, Karen now bitterly regrets her failure to nurture her friendships. “I was such a fool,” she says. “I’ve tried to repair things with my old friends, but it will never be the same. Of course, I’ve made new friends over the years, through ante-natal classes and the kids’ schools, but we don’t share those all-important formative memories.”
Karen now realises she should have spotted David’s reluctance to allow her to have her own life and friends as a danger signal: “It shocks me to say this, but the loss of my close friends has caused me far more pain than losing David.”
With almost one in two marriages ending in divorce, the facts speak for themselves. You ditch your pals at your peril.
I didn’t understand the true importance of friendship until I was in my 20s. After school, when my pals and I went off to universities in different parts of the country, we drifted apart. Looking back, I can see that one of the reasons I married so young first time (I was only 19) was because I lacked a true friendship group and simply socialised with my boyfriend’s circle.
It was during my first marriage that I forged the friendships that, almost 40 years on, still hold strong. I made friends at, and through, work.
When, after about five years, three other marriages in my new friendship circle floundered around the same time as mine, we formed an ex-wives club, bonding in adversity. We chewed over our failed relationships and planned our future lives, swearing that whatever happened and whoever we were to meet, we’d never neglect one another.
After one particularly stormy, short-term affair, I drove with one of those friends, who had booked a break from work to be with me, to a little cottage in the Lake District. It was one of the most memorable weekends of my life - and not just because we nearly burned the place down with our clumsy attempts to build a log fire in the living room.
For four days we sloshed around in our wellies for as long as it was light, talking non-stop and retreating to our cottage for a diet of cashew nuts and vodka, and endless games of Scrabble. Our friendship, unlike our lives, has never faltered.
By the time I met my second husband, when I was 32, it was a case of love me, love my friends. And the same for him.
Arriving at a relationship with a fully-formed friendship group is inevitable now that couples commit so much later than they used to. However, it can still be a contentious issue.
Jen Rodger, 46 and married with two teenage children, admits that when she first met Nick, she hated it when he and his pals got together.
“They’d all been friends since university days, a great gang of about 20 of them,” she says. “It was like an impenetrable wall between us. They reminisced endlessly and laughed hysterically over stuff I didn’t find remotely funny. We had massive arguments about their insensitivity, but over time it has all settled down.
“As the woman, you tend to have control of the social calendar, and so these days we see more of my friends than we do of his. But he still plays football and has a drink with his mates every week, which no longer bothers me.”
Mary Clegg thinks there are practical ways to avoid friendships getting in the way of your relationship. If, for example, he complains that you spend all evening after work gossiping to your girlfriends, try to do it when he’s not around. If he doesn’t like a particular couple, spare him sometimes by making excuses on his behalf and seeing them alone.
If he always seems to have the energy for the pub with his mates but not for a night out with you, choose your moment carefully and explain that you feel a bit neglected and would really like to go out, just the two of you, on a regular basis.
“You need to negotiate enough time for intimacy,” advises Mary, “but not so much time that you become bored with one another. Separateness is important, too.”
True friends are those who will always rally round when you are in trouble, or sick, or you need a good laugh or a new dress or even just to download your day.
Your friends are there when you need them. Guaranteed. But with your partner, you just never can tell. - Daily Mail