“There is so much more out there” such a person might say. “Ditch him or her, and make the most of your life.”
A constant concern of mine is the worrying role that “friends” can play in divorce. If I hear about a “friend” or if a “friend” appears in my office alongside my client, warning bells will ring.
In my experience, “friends” come in all shapes and sizes and are always loyal, sympathetic and helpful – at least on the surface.
However, clients often complain that their spouses’ “friends” have encouraged the breakdown of a marriage. They speak with anxiety – and often downright hostility – about the roles played by these people in the lives of their spouses. In some cases, “friends'” lifestyles appear to be incompatible with married life.
Such “friends” are often newly acquired and may be divorced themselves. They usually juggle hectic social diaries. For a spouse plodding along in a dull, lifeless marriage, this sort of person can hold a magnetic attraction.
“There is so much more out there” such a person might say. “Ditch him or her, and make the most of your life.” Following nights out together, glamorous lunches and holidays away, even newer “friends” may appear.
These “friends” are members of the opposite sex, and such friendships can prove to be slippery slopes. Affairs that begin are often known about and lied about by friends. An affair, with its passion, secrecy and danger, can provide all the thrills that had long since vanished in the marriage. If the marriage then ends, it does so with the full co-operation and collusion of “friends”.
From a friend’s perspective, he or she may perceive no wrongdoing. After all, how can it be wrong to sympathise with someone going through marital problems? How can it be wrong to try and cheer them up? How can it be wrong to help someone have a good time?
In reality, a “friend” who looks on as a marriage disintegrate may enjoy playing the role of the valued confidante, who is “in” on what is happening. In the worst cases, the more high profile the couple who divorce, the more entertainment and gossip value it offers the “friends” who egg on the respective spouses. Not that “friends” see themselves in that way. If only they would.
Then there are “friends” who see themselves as divorce lawyers and counsellors, providing well-meaning – but wrongheaded – advice. Having been through the process themselves, at first or secondhand, they offer plenty of advice about what the client should do, and how the case should be resolved.
However, I have never come across two case that are identical on facts. This means that a settlement is never exactly the same. On that basis, it is hard to see how anyone lacking professional training can possibly give advice. But they do – and worse, they expect that advice to be taken. I can’t blame an anxiety-ridden spouse for wanting to follow this advice – but usually it isn’t possible, because the advice is wrong.
The “friends” that worry me most are the seemingly ineffectual ones that hover in the background during client meetings. Often a client will attend with a trusted friend in tow, and will insist that this person remains present. The client wants “back up” and likes to discuss the advice I have given after the event. The friend will sit through the interview, interjecting with the occasional comment and demonstrating total support if the client becomes distressed.
Call me a cynic, but I don’t like friends attending interviews because I don’t always trust their motives. How does my client know for certain that the sensitive information she gives me and the careful advice I give her will remain confidential? How do we know that it will not end up in the wrong hands? Or more likely, how does my client know her friend won’t be lunching out on the story in the weeks and months to come, with the facts becoming more lurid and obscured every time it is retold?
In a divorce, a client should be able to rely 100 per cent upon his or her legal team. Friends play a completely different role, which is socially centred. It is free of the professional ethics, scruples, obligations, privilege and confidentiality that are the lawyer’s domain.
Whenever I watch Desperate Housewives, although the story lines are far-fetched I find the programme’s social observations to be spot on. Even cake recipes are jealously guarded secrets by these housewives, who are all friends on the surface. Their friendships are defined by loyalty and closeness, but also by a strong sense of privacy – with very clear boundaries.