Telling people that you are going through a divorce can be like telling people you have cancer. Some people will run as fast as they can the other direction, because they don’t want to get involved. Some people want to “take your side” and let you know they never did like your spouse anyway. Some people want to show support by telling their own stories that just add burden to the person who needs support. Most people just want to be a good friend.
What should a good friend do?
Listen without judgment. Don’t take sides. Really.
When you tell your friend that you never liked the spouse any way, you are indirectly telling that person that he or she had really poor judgment in marrying the person, and in staying with that person. Don’t do it. If the spouse has done something that has been harmful to your friend, such as having an affair, focus on the action, not on the person.
This is not the time to tell your lengthy stories about your divorce, or about someone’s divorce you have heard about, or someone’s divorce that you saw on television. You may think that you are contributing to the conversation, but all you are doing is shifting the focus to you, and away from the person who needs support. This happens to me frequently, as a divorce attorney, where people want to tell me about a divorce they heard about, thinking I would be able to relate to it. Yes, I can relate to it, and no I don’t want to hear it. If it is irritating to me, it is agonizing to someone who is going through the divorce.
Listen. Acknowledge the feeling. Stop talking.
People going through divorce go through all of the cycles of grieving, just as they would if there was a death. It is a death – the death of a relationship, the death of a family structure and feelings that was really positive at some point in their life. This means that people will be angry. They will be sad. They will deny that it is happening. They will find acceptance, at least of part of the process. And then they will do it all over again.
Listen to the same stories, or the same sentiment. Over and over and over, if that is what is needed.
Be clear and direct about your support for your friend.
Sometimes that may mean that you say out loud, over and over, “I support you.” “I know this is tough, but you will get through this.” “If you are at the end of your rope, tie and knot and hang on, until you can go one knot higher.” “You are a good person.” “You are a good parent.”
Being supportive does not mean becoming an echo chamber for the anger or the sadness or the denial. Hearing anger repeated back to you doesn’t usually heal the anger, it just rewounds, and retraumatizes. Let your friend know that you can hear how angry they feel, that you understand that anger. Your friend is going to say, in different ways, that they want you to hate the other person, like they hate the other person, that they need you to take their side to show support. If at all possible, don’t take sides against the other person. Focus on specific actions that you disagree with, but don’t be disparaging about the other spouse. People often change their minds, then get back together with the person. Or they have children together, and they have to deal with that person. Your friend will remember that you said his wife was always a mean person, and repeat that often, when that isn’t an effective way of coping. There is a scene in a movie “Stepmom” where the mother is saying sarcastic quips about the father’s new wife, who was a good support person for the children. The six year old finally responds “I’ll hate her if you want me too.” Your friend may think that she wants you to hate her estranged husband, but it doesn’t help your friend go through her grieving process and move to acceptance.
Don’t just say supportive things once, then disappear because you get busy. Keep saying it, because your friend needs to hear it when the tape in their head is on repeat with negative emotions.
What makes people feel the most alone when going through a divorce is partially the obvious. There is one less adult that used to provide support and that person is no longer there. Your children are also not there 100% of the time, so any reduction in time feels like a loss. The quiet can be deafening, as you hear your footsteps echo through the house, when not so long ago, there was so much noise, you couldn’t hear yourself think.
The second reason why people feel alone is that their support structure has changed. When I was single, I invited a colleague and his wife over for dinner. I told them that I was surprised at how difficult it was to arrange social occasions especially on the weekends, because everyone else had a family that kept them busy, and they didn’t have time for someone who was not part of a couple. My colleague commented “Oh yes, I used to spend time with single friends, but now that I’m married, I don’t see them any more.” Don’t be that person. Invite a single friend over for dinner. Ask them to come to your kids’ soccer game. Take their phone call even if it is on a weekend.
You should also remember the big occasions, too. Christmas morning alone is hard. Their wedding anniversary is hard, and part of their grieving process. Especially that first year, provide additional support, even if it is only a text message or ecard, just to be remembered.
When you are first separated, or in the process of divorcing, everything can feel overwhelming, and you don’t even know where to turn for information. Hopefully, your friend is able to find an attorney who can provide information, and my website has several articles about different aspects of the divorce process, which are a great resource. Looking for articles or classes that might be helpful would be a great way to be supportive.
Use some common sense, however. An article or two is great information, 100 articles is too much. Be aware that if you are doing internet research, that much of it is opinion. I have frequently had people come in to say “My friend looked on the internet, and it says that I am guaranteed to get custody” or whatever the subject is. The internet is not the same as getting correct legal information, nor does it give advice. Thinking you know something only to be told by the attorney that none of it is true sends your friend back to feeling as if they know nothing, and they can’t trust what they thought they knew.
It’s also okay to recognize your own limits.
Maybe you feel that you cannot be supportive of one parent and not the other parent, because you knew them both well. Maybe one or both spouses are asking for more time, attention and emotional support than you can give. If that is where you are at, then let your friend know that. Don’t pretend that you can do it if you can’t. Give the time and emotional support that you can, and recognize that friendships, like marriages, have ups and downs, and that whatever you can give, may affect your friendship in the short term, but maybe not in the long term.
I have heard many times from clients that it was harder emotionally to deal with a divorce than it was to deal with the death of an extended family member. With a death, there is immediate finality. With a divorce, you have to deal with your spouse for a long time, especially if you have children, and there is not so much finality as an evolving set of boundaries. Be a good friend to a friend at this time in their lives. They need you, and you can make a real difference in their lives.