My friends’ bad split could ruin everything

My circle of friends is traumatised by the break-up of two of the group, and my imminent 30th birthday party feels like an ordeal

PROBLEM: I’ve been in a very tight group of friends since college and we have had tough times and great times together. The problem is that two people who have been at the centre of the group and who have been a couple for years recently split up – badly. The whole group is now traumatised, with both people insisting that sides are taken.

It’s my 30th birthday next month and I would like to invite both my friends to the party, but the acrimony is so bad I don’t think this is possible. I feel terrible and my party is becoming so stressful that I’m not sure I will have one. I care about both of them dearly, but I am struggling to know what to do. I feel that I’m not only losing two great friends but the whole group as well.

ADVICE: This is a very sad situation. It sounds as though the group was very tight-knit and you are all experiencing not only the loss of being able to take that for granted but also the loss of a future where you would all be connected for life.

Like all grief, the initial reaction is denial, and usually the group stalls while hoping the couple sort out the problem themselves. However, it seems that this will not happen, and so everyone needs to emerge from the position of not seeing and to accept that there is a serious problem.

Most of you want to stay connected to both parties, but this may not be possible if the couple are vitriolic about each other. They may want to tell you how awful the other person is and they may want you to be righteous on their behalf. This may put you in the position of agreeing with both people while you are with them but this will come asunder when one discovers that you are still close to the other.

Ideally the group will come to some agreement, for instance that both people should be invited to everything and each party will be able to suspend hurt and anger for the sake of the larger group. However, this may be a pipe dream as the group cohesiveness may then depend on pretend or pseudo friendship. What could happen is one person quickly gets into a relationship with someone else, puts happy pictures on Facebook, and the whole group is again asked to take sides.

This break-up involves grief for everyone. It is unlikely that the past can be recreated, and everyone will have to accept and acknowledge the reality of the loss. Lasting friendship is extremely important, and many of us expect our friends to be there for the duration of our lives. The effect of the loss of this is not to be underestimated, and we must allow ourselves to go through the stages of grief along with the couple. The Kübler-Ross stages of grief are well-known: denial, anger, bargaining, despair, and acceptance. We need to understand there is a process to go through and we are unlikely to come to an understanding or place of peace quickly.

If you try to remain equal friends with both, you may end up with acquaintances and not real friendship. Upsetting as it may be, you may have to choose to be close to one person and just linked to the other. However, you may have to set ground rules with the person you choose to be friends with, including that you will not degrade the other person. You have rights as a friend too.

You need to be clear about the aim of your party: to celebrate your life in the presence of friends and family. You can organise and pay for everything to be just right, but you cannot be in charge of how people will feel or behave on the night. You are not responsible for your friends’ break-up, but if they both attend your party, you have to be clear that you expect them to behave well and that they are there for you. Any sorting out of their relationship needs to be done outside of your celebration.

Perhaps others in the group could be assigned to be a support to each party, so that, if they are feeling overwhelmed during the night, they can be helped through it.

Friendship is not just one way: you too can ask that the group stand behind you.

You clearly value friendship and this is a principle worth cultivating. As Woodrow T Wilson said: “Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together.”