Relationship breakdown exacerbated by ‘betrayal’ of friends failing to comfort us

Research conducted by Dr Jenny van Hooff challenges the notion that friendship ties are easily disposed of

Jenny van Hooff study

Dr Jenny van Hooff and Dr Gaelle Aeby analysed internet message board posts by those who had broken up with their partners

A relationship breakdown can also cause the unexpected and traumatic loss of friends, new research shows.

Failing to nurture friendships while part of a couple means their support is often not forthcoming when the romantic relationship ends, leading the newly single person to feel doubly isolated and betrayed, finds a study led by researchers from the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University, published in the journal Families, Relationships and Societies.

This deeply felt emotional trauma challenges the assumption that friendship ties are more easily disposed of and less tightly felt than romantic ones.

Dr Jenny van Hooff, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan, and Dr Gaëlle Aeby, Honorary Research Fellow at the Morgan Centre for Research into Everyday Lives at the University of Manchester, analysed internet message board posts made by users who had broken up with their partners.

Unexpected repercussions

The results demonstrate how the privileged position of the romantic couple within social networks can have negative – and unexpected – repercussions when a relationship ends.

Dr van Hooff said: “Our findings indicate that intimate partner breakdown often has unexpected consequences for other social ties. When the expected ‘drawing in’ of close friends failed to materialise, forum users expressed feelings of abandonment and confusion, far removed from individualised understandings of friendships as an easily disposed of tie.”

The research found that despite failing to maintain strong friendship networks throughout the life of a relationship, people did still expect to rely on ‘their’ friends in times of crisis.

It is not possible to really be friends with married people [in] the same way you can with single people…as I am single I have leprosy in married people’s perspective.

When friends then failed to meet these lofty expectations, it was commonly seen as a deeply felt betrayal – particularly if they took their ex-partner’s side in the break-up. Those who did support them are described as “real” and “true” friends.

One message board user wrote: “Friends who do not contact you or who are wishing to remain friends with both ex-partners are not true friends. Yes, relationships end, but as the person having been dumped, I could not imagine trying to remain friends with anyone who still considers my ex as a friend.”

Wrong side of norms

Newly single people also found it hard to reintegrate into their usual social circles – usually dominated by romantic couples – with single women particularly feeling on the wrong side of social norms and excluded from existing friendship groups which were dominated by couples.

One user wrote: “It is not possible to really be friends with married people [in] the same way you can with single people…as I am single I have leprosy in married people’s perspective.”

The research, funded by the Swiss National Science Federation, is part of a larger study led by Dr Aeby investigating the recomposition of personal networks following relationship breakdown.

Drs van Hooff and Aeby selected data from two internet forums concerning divorce and general relationship issues. They analysed 370 posts written as far back at 2009.

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