What Do I Do with My Guilt over My Best Friend’s Divorce?

My marriage has never been better, and hers is falling apart

This time next year my best friend and I will have been friends for two decades. She’s always been the jelly to my peanut butter; she an outgoing introvert with geeky proclivities who could pass for normal and me a shy extrovert often mistaken for a nerd (is it the glasses??) who would rather watch reality TV than play Settlers of Catan. Our lives have been odd parallels, while still being a study in loving opposites.

We started dating our future husbands within a week of each other our sophomore year of college, though her new beau was a stranger at a party and mine was an old friend we’d known since middle school. We got married within months of each other seven years later. She had a secular ceremony with surprise handwritten vows, a beautiful couture gown she lusted after for a year, and a kids-free banquet hall reception for two hundred with a killer DJ and boozy dancing late into the night. I had a religious ceremony with traditional vows, a “this will do” chain store dress, and an all-ages restaurant reception for eighty with an iPod “DJ” that I shook my booty to with one or two friends until 9pm.

This time last year she left her office job after a decade of feeling stifled and began bartending. I quit my decade of bartending and with a huge sigh of relief began my professional corporate career. This time last year my husband and I very deliberately chose to “start a family,” as the saying goes, feeling secure in our marriage and joyfully wanting to add a new member to our unit. This time last year was the first time my best friend used the word “divorce” out loud to me.

**record scratch**

That’s not how our parallel lives were supposed to go. My husband and I were supposed to have a baby and buy a house in the suburbs while she and her husband adopted a dog and moved into an updated apartment nearer the downtown area of their city. She was supposed to be doting on my daughter, her new niece, while I lived vicariously through stories of her nightlife adventures, not barely holding herself together and spending all of her resources (time, money, energy) on going to counseling and fighting with her husband. It was supposed to be okay that I was distracted with this new huge chapter in my life and had less time for my best and most dear friend, not neglecting her (however much by necessity) when she needs support the most.

It’s so easy to get caught up in a narrative, that when something makes a hard left it can take some time to find your footing. I am still flailing around, unsure of how to help this woman I love so fiercely. Our lives no longer have this weird and beautiful symmetry, and twenty years of quirky comparison suddenly seems very cruel in light of the stark differences between the states of our marriages.

I’m not sure there is a relationship lesson to be drawn from our two roads, the effortlessness of my happy marriage has mostly been due to the sheer luck of two people growing in the same, compatible direction, and the combustion of my friend’s is in spite of years of hard work and tireless communication. But I am learning a lot about friendship and what it means to truly be there for someone whose experiences and choices are so alien to your own. It’s become clear there is no one right way to be married, and what happens in someone else’s marriage does not actually reflect upon your own (no matter how coincidental the timing of things may be).

I don’t know if my friend’s marriage will survive this roughest of patches. My heart breaks for her every day, and despite the lessons being learned above I still feel an almost persistent guilt that my road has been so smooth and seemingly only continues to improve. For now however, I just listen to her and metaphorically hold her hand through it, since our physical hands are a thousand miles apart.

While we never stood in front of our community to pledge “until we are parted by death” like I did with my husband, my commitment to her is so much stronger than the convenience of parallel paths. She’s off in a new direction now, one that I will hopefully never be able to relate to, but I am still with her on this journey. Anywhere she goes, shall I go too.

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  • Amy March

    I think the relationship lesson to be drawn is that we are all just people. We aren’t character sketches written in a screen play and we don’t have roles to fulfil. There are some people you are friends with because their lives fit nicely with yours- you work together, you have kids at the same time, you do the same hobby. And there are others who you are friends with because you love and cherish who they are behind all the roles they play. Sometimes it’s hard to know which kind of friend you have until the external stuff changes.

    • Jan

      This writer’s description of her connection and devotion to her best friend reminded me of my own relationship with my best friend. When we were kids we were always perfectly in sync and it was difficult to realize as we became adults that we were changing and evolving in very different ways. Regardless, however, we’ve remained incredibly close because we are pillars for one another’s lives, and that kind of relationship just doesn’t dissipate because one of us got married and then divorced and then married again and is talking about having babies (me), and one of us is perpetually single and far cooler and loves to close down the bar with a huge circle of awesome friends (her). Our lives may not be perfectly in sync anymore, but when it’s counted– when my husband left me, when her father died– we’ve not hesitated to drop everything and be there for each other. Literally, like, we’ve hopped on planes and driven spontaneous 7-hour trips just to lay in bed with one another and cry. I think our adult relationship is so much deeper and lovelier in this way, than our childhood/teenage relationship ever was.

    • G.

      This. How people respond to the external stuff changing is really important, both for knowing what kind of friends you are and for finding a path forward. In this case, being there for your friend probably means doing the work of figuring out what she needs from you–and giving it. This doesn’t have to be huge, it might be a phone call check-in, or making time to visit, or sending a treat when she had a terrible day, or making sure she has someone to celebrate with on her birthday. In turn, she’ll also be figuring out how to support you on your path–sending you dinner, doting on your daughter, going to the zoo for a walk with your daughter when she visits instead of wandering around downtown, etc. It’s about listening and caring and showing you care in the ways that are meaningful to the other person.

      • Amy March

        And it may be that at this point in time, she isn’t going to support you. And that can also be okay, because you have other people in your life to do that. It’s not always an equal trade.

        • Cathi

          As the author of this piece: yep. You got it. Though it’s been a huge struggle to really, truly be okay with the one-sided relationship at the moment.

          I hate that she’s pretty much missed (and continues to miss) this piece of my life, but it’s a bone to pick with the universe, not her.

        • G.

          Yep. Reciprocity isn’t tit-for-that but a commitment to being there for one another in balanced ways over the long haul.

  • emilyg25

    Not a relationship lesson, but a life one: We do not walk down neat paths. Even if you’re totally on top of your shit, control is just an illusion. I find remembering that allows me to be more flexible and adaptable, and reminds me to enjoy this moment because you just don’t know what will happen next.

  • Jessica

    Over the last not-quite-year, people have been afraid to tell me good news because I was going through such a shit-show. I hate that–I can still celebrate and be happy for friends, while also being a little jealous that their lives are going well and mine is taking a sharp turn. Jealousy in and of itself is not toxic (though it can turn toxic), and I remind myself how when I had really good times, my friends were there to celebrate with me, even as they were struggling with jobs and boyfriends/girlfriends and moving and parents and everything that makes up life. I’m more than happy to pour a glass of wine or cup of coffee and listen to the good things that my people so richly deserve, as long as we can take turns and they hear about the struggles and bad moments I’m going through.

    • G.

      Yes! I am happy to be happy for my friends and share their joy when they have wonderful things happening in their lives while mine is…challenging. But the reciprocity is really important. (Says she who is a little frustrated with a very close but long-distance friend who has been non-committal about attending a celebration for a big professional milestone for me. She’ll be in my area for a conference and the max it would require is coming a day early or leaving a day late, if that. Her “we’ll see” response was not what I was expecting, and it was really hurtful, though I don’t think she realizes it. Anyways…)

      • Anna

        have you told her it’s important to you?

  • Jan

    Having been in your best friend’s shoes, LW, please know that your guilt is unnecessary. She loves you and is happy for you, even if those things are a little drowned out by the tremendous sadness and anger and fear she’s feeling about the status of her marriage. This shift in her life does not change who she is, or who she is to you; it’s just another of many, many turns in life for the both of you. Be there for her, listen to her, be her shoulder to cry on or vent to, and continue to live you life and share the important parts with her.

  • AP

    As the “barely holding herself together” friend when my marriage was at its rockiest, you know what I felt guilty for? Missing my best friend’s law school graduation, because just a few days before I was supposed to fly out for it, my then-husband landed himself in the hospital on his third DUI arrest after totaling our car.

    Guilt does us no favors. Just be there for her, as she has been for you in the good times and will be again when your life gets hard, as it inevitably does for all of us. The ways my best friend was there for me in that terrible time? Understanding when I couldn’t make it to her graduation, listening to me for hours, sending me “thinking of you” cards and a surprise box from Sephora to cheer me up, letting me crash at her house for two weeks after I finally left him and spoiling me the whole time with goodies from the farmer’s market and Magic Mike on my birthday.

    If I believed in soul mates, she would be mine. Our paths have been incredibly different, but our hearts are intertwined. You’ll both get through this. Let go of the expectations, the guilt, the “supposed to” and comparisons, and just be there.

    • Jessica

      I recently called my best friend my soul mate. She agreed. It was magic.

      • Jan

        Have also called mine my soulmate. I don’t even believe in soulmates but she’s honestly the closest thing I think there is.

      • Amandalikeshummus

        I first encountered this concept in a short story a long time ago that we have many soul mates throughout our lives. Sure, it’s different from what most people mean; but to me it’s more meaningful. You can really feel when you meet souls with someone, and I think sometimes it’s for a lifetime, and sometimes it’s for a shorter timeframe. I have two best friends who are my soulmates. I have my parents. I had an ex who was for a time. And I have my current partner.

        • Ilora

          I love this!

  • Oy Vey

    When I was going through the darkest days of the lead-up to and post my break-up, there were two friends who helped me the most.

    One was my friend who had just gone through a divorce with her emotionally abusive, alcoholic spouse. We were able to cry on each others’ shoulders, compare notes, and generally be big whiny, complaining messes with each other without judgment.

    The other was my friend whose relationship had never been better. She’s the friend who dropped everything and had her partner drop everything to come move me out of my ex’s place. Witnessing their love and teamwork and general awesomeness of their relationship showed me what I should hold out for. She told me how much work they put into it too (couples’ counseling, weekly relationship summits over wine). And when she had good news, it brought me out of my funk. It forced me to get out of my own head and be present for her. Get back to normal.

    The shoulder to cry on is so necessary, but so are the champagne glasses to clink.

    • AP

      “Witnessing their love and teamwork and general awesomeness of their relationship showed me what I should hold out for.”

      Very much this.

  • Ashley Meredith

    There’s also the idea that knowing you are happy may be exactly what she needs right now. Through all the painful years of my marriage, my friends’ “I love you more than yesterday you’re the perfect spouse I’m so grateful etc” anniversary posts sliced me to the bone. But also, it was good to be reminded that not all marriages were like mine, that some of them were actually good, and that once I got myself untangled from my bad one, there would be hope of maybe finding one of the good ones myself someday.

  • I’m not sure this will be comforting to you, but it’s the truth. The thing is that if you live long enough there will be bad things that happen to you too. You will have at least one big tragedy. The smooth ride you have had thus far is great, but there is no need to feel guilty about it. I know it’s imopssible to just stop having a feeling, but know that you will need your friend to lean on in the future when you are having a rough time.

    • Cathi

      Author here, you’re very right that it’s a give and take. And being able to give and take is what has made our friendship endure for two decades. She was there to listen to me when I had miscarriage after miscarriage over the last couple years.

  • NotMotherTheresa

    “Our lives no longer have this weird and beautiful symmetry”

    Ah, this has been one of the most painful parts of growing up for me. It seemed like once upon a time, my friends and I were all living on the same level, so to speak–we came from comparable families, we lived in the same neighborhoods, we went to the same schools, and while we weren’t always on the same path, all of our paths seemed equally nice.

    And…that’s not really the case, anymore. Some of my friends are ‘winning’ at every aspect of life–they have great careers that they love, awesome marriages, big bank accounts, good health, etc. Other friends are realllllly struggling in pretty much every dimension–there are almost no bright spots in their lives, and very little light on the horizon. And others of us yet are just sort of ‘meh’, living very average lives that aren’t hopelessly bleak, but aren’t what we dreamed of, either.

    It’s tough. It’s tough to be the friend who’s life sucks when your bestie is out making all of her dreams come true. It also sucks to know that even though things are going pretty well on your end, that the friend who you love so much is having a really rough time.

    But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that life is a roller coaster for us all. A few people lead extraordinarily charmed lives, and a few live extraordinarily cursed ones, but for most of us, there will be some wonderful days and some not so wonderful ones. Your lives may not feel as beautifully symmetrical right now as they have in the past, but that’s just because right now her roller coaster is currently going down the track rather than up it–it’s very possible that two years from now, when you’re knee deep in dirty diapers and a whiny toddler, that her life will be looking as wonderful as ever, either in the form of a marriage that’s found new strength, or an exciting new relationship with somebody she’s more compatible with.

  • e.e.hersh

    Ooo – this took me back to a kinda weird situation I was in when I first started dating my husband. I was all gooey in love and three (Three!!) of my girlfriends were having trouble in their marriages. These friends and I had a standing happy hour date every week where I’d hear all about the tough stuff they were dealing with while I was on cloud 9 in a new and fun relationship. The hardest part wasn’t listening or being compassionate to my friends (I like to think I did a good job there), it was figuring out how to not compare their relationships to my own. I kept seeing the issues my friends were having and I’d think “Will this be me someday? What are the little problems now that will turn into huge marriage-ending issues for us down the road??”. That was kind of rough to think about. I’m not sure what lessons I learned from that situation yet (give me 10 more years)… but “go to counseling earlier rather than later” was probably one of them ;)

  • tealamal

    This essay is so beautiful. I hope your dear friend feels so grateful for your own honesty and support — I certainly would! thank you for writing this.

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  • EF

    I really like this piece. close friendships are hard to come by, and it IS weird when live suddenly swerve in different directions. bravo for standing by your friend, though, however you can.

  • Lynn Arguello

    What a waste of time and effort to fall in love with a person who was hiding behind a mask of horns and evil.and in the end you realize you life of a murderers wife wasn’t everything they always promised and played out to be as a king of good men?I’ think im proud to say I made this one out alive again and can quote by experience been there done that!quote to the unknowing even a century doest mean you know someone not a lifetime of happiness!looks like the green mile returns for volume 2 in theaters soon!don’t cry for no valveeda cheez!always meant something to me.locked behind the bars of misery for a lifetime isn’t a lifetime of liveing like a beautiful queen free of her will .

  • NTB

    I am very late to the game here, but as someone who recently finished my own divorce, it actually gives me a great deal of hope that so many of my friends are thriving: having babies, taking great jobs, and buying homes. Yes, it stings a bit sometimes when I remember that MY life was supposed to turn out THAT way, but deep down I know that I’m at this place in my life for a reason. Seeing their lives move forward in positive ways gives me hope that there’s always something good out there for me, too. It all just takes time.

    I also remember that when I was planning my wedding, other friends were struggling to get pregnant, buy homes, and get good jobs. Some were still waiting to get engaged. Some were coping with family illness. Life has a *funny* way of turning the tables. Friends have supported me through this time, and I can only hope I can return the favor by being supportive when they need it.