Sociology Study Reveals Why Friends Won't Take Your Side After a Breakup

"The expectations that forum users had of their friends were often completely unrealistic."

Some wise but vulgar people once said: “Chicks before dicks” and “Bros before hoes.” While the use of such language is wildly out of date, the sentiment remains relevant. Friendships should trump romantic relationships, or so we’d like to believe. But as a new study in Families, Relationships and Societies shows, we’re not only really bad at putting friends first — we also unfairly expect friends to pick our side when we go through a breakup.

The researchers, led by Jenny van Hooff, Ph.D., a sociologist from Manchester Metropolitan University, and Gaëlle Aeby, Ph.D., a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Manchester, took to the internet to examine how social networks break down after an intimate couple breaks up. Examining and classifying 370 posts from two unnamed forums, they uncovered common themes in hundreds of tales of heartbreak. Their results suggest that the wake of a breakup can indeed fracture friendships, but the warning signs can be seen from miles away.

“The expectations that forum users had of their friends were often completely unrealistic,” van Hooff tells Inverse. “I am always surprised that despite the neglect or lack of effort that friendships suffer, individuals demand such a high standard of them.”

You may want your friends to pick a side, but they probably won't. 

The reason people shouldn’t be surprised when their friends don’t want to pick a side after a breakup is because people in couples generally start to neglect their friends. “Our research suggests that when couples retreat from other relationships and friendships, they place a huge amount of pressure on their own couple relationship,” van Hooff says.

This emphasis on your intimate relationships can be costly post-breakup. While you might expect friends to rally around your cause or “take your side”, the team’s analysis of the posts indicated that this often doesn’t happen. For example, one post reads:

My ex has taken many mutual friends…..I just miss them and I am shocked and I would like to understand what’s happening….Is there a realistic way to get these friendships back?

To van Hooff, it’s not very surprising that mutual friends don’t rush to the aid of the “injured party” because friendships are often neglected over the course of intimate “dating relationships.” One theory explaining why we do this posits that intimacy is a zero-sum game — a finite resource that is split among romantic relationships and friendships. Romantic relationships tend to get the bulk of this finite resource because society has placed a premium on “the couple” as the ultimate repository for intimacy. Van Hooff calls this “couple privilege.”

“Couple privilege is the placing of couple relationships at the centre of personal life, which means that other relationships, such as friendships, are marginalised and seen as less important,” van Hooff explains. “Compulsory coupledom has become so entrenched that its privileged status is rarely even recognised.”

couples privilege breakups
The sting of "couples privilege" even penetrated this bodybuilding forum. 

While the heightened intimacy of coupledom might be nice while you’re in a relationship, the toll it takes on friendships comes at a serious cost, which is why friends may not be eager to leap in to fill the void if the relationship ends.

Though the findings might seem bleak, van Hooff offers a way to learn from the mistakes of the 370 anonymous forum users. “Many of the forum users we researched said they would invest more in their friendships in the future, as well as their romantic relationships,” she says.

So if you’re sensing relationship doom ahead, it’s probably a good idea to reach out to your friends. It may pay off in bounds if your relationship implodes.