Seeing friends get divorced can be a disorienting experience, no matter what the circumstances. Suddenly, the unified couple you once knew becomes two individuals, often with different stories, perspectives and needs moving forward. What should you say? In my experience as a certified divorce coach, it’s even more important what you DO NOT say:
One of the most painful aspects of separation and divorce is alienation and loneliness. In moving from “we” to “me,” many divorcees lose family and friends who distance themselves because they are opposed to the decision or situation; they no longer know how to relate to one or both; or they don’t know what to say. Therefore, “friends” tend to say nothing.
This is about the worst thing you can do. We all need acknowledgment of our life experiences, no matter what they are and no matter who we are. Failure to receive such validation can make divorcees feel like they are not worthy of concern and companionship along such a difficult journey, regardless of whether they initiated the divorce or received the bad news. Your job Is not to judge, but to support.
Similarly, many divorcees themselves self-isolate when sad, depressed, exhausted or fearful of others’ judgment. Suddenly, they don’t know who is there to support them and who is not. Let them know with your simple words and kind gestures that you are there for the long haul.
Even if you don’t know what to say or disagree with a divorcing friend’s decision or situation, put aside your hesitation and judgment, and try to reach out in compassion and kindness. Social isolation is unhealthy, and lack of communication only breeds misunderstanding on both sides.
Having a support network is essential to getting through divorce, which is statistically the second most stressful life event. No matter what you think or how you feel about the divorce, remember that being a true friend means sticking around through the ups and downs of those you care about, independent of their choices or life circumstances.
“You deserve better than that bitch/asshole.”
Those going through separation and divorce are grieving the loss of a spouse and the life that came with it. Therefore, they are often swimming in a pool of difficult emotions: denial, anger, sadness, blame… This negativity needs to be worked through, but not added to. Instead of contributing to it, simply listen and reflect what you are hearing.
For example, if your friend is venting about the horrible things his or her partner did, focus on the feelings behind the words, not on the accusation. Instead of saying, “I can’t believe he/she did that to you!” offer “You sound very angry,” or “I hear that you are really sad,” depending upon what is coming from their mouths and body language.
No matter whom you consider to be your friend in the divorcing couple, whether one or both, it’s important to realize that you don’t know the full story and never will. Even if one partner did something you consider despicable, like having an affair or being abusive, you never know the circumstances behind those tragic events. It is not your place to judge what actually happened or the character of each spouse, only to comfort the suffering of your friend.
“Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be okay.”
Well, that’s easy for you to say… Often such words are an escape from your own sense of powerlessness to help, but they are not what your friend needs to hear. He or she likely has a long list of concerns in mind, and a comment like this feels like a dismissal of those things.
Divorce changes every aspect of one’s life, not just the marital relationship. Financial security, residence, custody of any children, job status, social circle, and beyond are all thrown into uncertainty. The concerns are real and need to be heard.
Instead of brushing off your friend’s worries, it is better to offer a listening ear, along with some open-ended questions, if necessary, such as, “What feels the most urgent to you right now?” or “How can I be supportive of you while you have so much on your mind?” He or she will tell you, and appreciate your interest and concern more than you can imagine.
There is nothing more valuable to a person going through divorce than the accepting presence of a caring friend. More helpful than what you say is what you don’t say. The suffering of your divorcing friends needs to be acknowledged and heard, not avoided or lectured. Be one of those friends. Who knows… You may need him or her during a major loss and transition someday, too, and your friend will have known what it is like to walk in your shoes.