Never mind Brexit, this week’s most fascinating split has been of a different kind – the explosive ending of a famous political friendship. Sarah Vine, journalist and wife of Michael Gove, has explained in detail how their close relationship with ‘Dave’ and Sam Cameron was destroyed by Gove’s perceived betrayal in joining Vote Leave. Though she fondly recalls riotous karaoke nights at Chequers, damp shared holidays on Jura in the Inner Hebrides and school runs ferrying each other’s children, she admits that the couples have not spoken since 2016 when she and Samantha “exchanged cross words” at a party.
Vine seems genuinely devastated at the loss of the long shared friendship, and her testimony is a reminder of just how often a ‘couple split’ happens, and how intensely painful it can be. Unlike one-to-one friendships, couple closeness tends to involve two sets of children too, and often revolves around big family get-togethers and jolly dinners. Those sharing a glass of wine watching the kids play together never imagine that things could go wrong – until, suddenly, they do. And because there are four (or more) individuals involved, disagreements can be far harder to resolve. “We met our neighbours Geri and Paul* the week we moved in,” says Louise Catton*, 49, from Sheffield.
“We held a fancy dress housewarming and they turned up as Jack Sparrow and Liz Taylor and told hilarious stories – even better, their two kids, Mia and Billy*, were the same ages as ours. Soon, we were inseparable,” she recalls. “Paul would wander over with a glass of wine and we’d all end up having a barbecue. We shared bonfire nights, Christmases and dinner parties – we even went on holiday to Portugal. We were like a little commune.”
But five years on, the serpent entered paradise. “My daughter Annie*, then 12, told me that Mia had started to bully her,” Louise remembers. “Mia was telling Annie she was ‘so tragic,’” and that she was only allowed in her group “because our parents are friends.’’ Annie had always looked up to Mia, and was distraught. “I thought I’d have a gentle word with Geri,” says Louise. “I said I could see why Mia wanted to choose her own friends, but Annie was very hurt. I was so shocked when Geri said, ‘well, Annie is a bit of a cling-on, isn’t she? Maybe it’s time they stopped hanging out.” When Louise asked what that meant for their family get-togethers, Geri replied, “I guess things move on, don’t they?” “I couldn’t believe she was throwing away our shared histories so casually,” Louise reflects.
“A few months on, it was as though the friendship had never happened – when they moved away, two years ago, they didn’t even say goodbye.” The rewriting of history is a key factor in the ending of many couple friendships, it seems – from ‘we were never that close’ to a complete denial of the entire relationship. ‘Ghosting’ – cutting off contact with no explanation – is common in dating, but Catherine Gladwyn, 42, founder of Delegate VA Virtual Assistant was shocked when a close friend and her husband did the very same to Catherine and her partner with no explanation.
“We met at the local running club in Swindon ten years ago,” says Catherine. “When she met her partner, our friendship continued and we used to get together as a foursome. My other half gets on with everybody and there was never any tension.” Last September, Catherine sent a quick text – “we’d all recently met for coffee, and I’d taken two days off to help her clear out her house,” she explains. “She didn’t reply which was quite unusual, though I could see she’d read it.” Catherine assumed that she was simply busy, and left it a month – “a long time for us” – then messaged again to no avail. Having checked with a mutual friend that everything was OK, Catherine asked, “have I upset you?”and finally got a response – “it’s been so hectic, I’ll reply properly tonight.”
No reply arrived, and months passed. At Christmas, Catherine says, a card arrived – but no explanation was forthcoming. And when she tried to add the husband to a group she thought he’d like, she discovered that she’d been deleted from his social media. “We were all such good friends,” she says, confused. At first, she blamed herself: “I wondered if she was envious of my job, but I just don’t know.” Their only choice she thinks now, is to accept the situation. “Our social life has changed as a result – we have a lot of mutual friends, and we used to all go for Sunday lunch together. They now have to take turns seeing us. Really, it’s like a divorce.”
Of course, when a couple has to accept that the friendship is over, it’s hard – but you at least have each other for support. But what happens when one partner won’t let go? Lucy, 48, is still struggling with the fall-out from her ‘couple’ friendship, to the point where it’s now causing problems in her own relationship. She had been friends with Tom and Claire for almost ten years, says Lucy, and “I’d always known Tom was a bit of a player – Chris let slip a few alarming stag night stories. But I assumed he’d settled down.” The two couples were child-free, so enjoyed spontaneous dinners and a luxury weekend away every year.
“It was a massive shock when Tom rang one night to say they’d just split up. He’d been having an affair, and Helen had just found out.” Lucy was furious on Claire's behalf but "Chris has been for drinks with Tom since – and now we’re both invited to his 50th, where he’ll be with his new partner." Lucy and Chris have rowed several times about attending, putting it down to Chris’s “peacemaker” personality.
She has sympathy for the Camerons, she adds, because just one betrayal in a couple friendship wreaks havoc: “It sends out ripples and entrenches you in ‘sides’.” Whether it’s worth arranging a meeting to iron out differences is debatable. With four involved, it’s very difficult not to get defensive when things go awry, says my colleague Alison. She and her husband were close friends with a couple who would “always end up having an argument” as their nights toghether wore on. “We really liked them but they didn’t seem to like each other!”
On one occasion, they invited the pair along with other friends to a gig “because they were always on good behaviour in front of new people,” Alison explains. “They arrived in a foul mood, having argued on the way.” The week before, she adds, they had cut short a dinner and “left us sitting alone in a restaurant with the full bill to pay.” At the end of her tether, Alison finally did send the couple a message “laying out our grievances – and they’ve never spoken to us since.”
If she found herself in such a situation again, she says, “I’d bring it up sooner and be more tactful.” But tact is difficult when, like the Camerons, you both feel hurt and angry. Sarah Vine concluded that all you can do is remember the good times. “I try to,” says Louise Catton now. “But it’s hard to do that without feeling horribly sad. The truth is, we try not to think about them at all – because losing a whole family you loved is very hard to get over.”