Like almost every other 20-something newlywed out there, I never thought I would get a divorce. In fact, I was sure of it. The thought of willfully living life without my man was absurd, and I planned to be with him come hell or high water. Our love was the kind of love that could “conquer the world,” as Michael Buble’s voice crooned from the speakers during our first dance.
Until, that is, it couldn’t.
Several years into our marriage, dreams changed, everyday drudgeries got us down, and we slowly stopped being a team. That’s the super-mini-micro version of the story. It’s so much more complicated than that, of course. It’s so much more personal, and the highs and lows of our relationship are etched on my soul forever. Some days there are a million reasons why we split, and some days it seems there’s no tangible reason at all.
Regardless of the why though, it happened. And when it did, what surprised me most was how awkward it got with many friends and family. And acquaintances? Well, there’s no conversation killer quite like, “Oh, [Ex’s name]? We’re actually not together anymore…” There’s a hasty apology, followed by an even more awkward rush to the nearest exit.
Despite how isolated I felt at times, I know my family and friends love me. It was hard to feel comforted, though, when few knew what to say. While a handful were wonderfully supportive, others’ lack of acknowledgement felt like silent judgement. Conversely, some spoke up in ways that were more hurtful than healing. It made me wonder how I would have responded to a divorcing friend, and if I would have been able to navigate the situation with the grace and compassion I craved. I’d like to think that going through such a specific kind of grief prepared me to help comfort someone else in the future. Only time will tell!
“So, what happened?”
Ladies, I was shocked at how many friends— and especially casual acquaintances!— asked me this when they heard about my divorce. Let me be clear: What happened to someone else’s deepest, supposed-to-be-longest, most intimate relationship is none of your damn business. Just don’t. If your friend wants to tell you what happened, she will. And regardless of whose “fault” it was, the separation still hurts on both sides. Your job is to meet her where she is, not rehash the juicy parts. Please don’t reduce someone else’s pain to a talking-point.
“How are you?”
Please note: Tone of voice can be a game-changer here. You want to avoid pairing “Aww, how are you?” with a small sigh and pitying eyes.
Granted, this is a sticky one. It’s a good thing to ask how someone is doing, right? It shows that you care! Unfortunately, this social platitude also puts your recently divorced friend in a tough spot.
I remember thinking: “What if I’m having a great day — should I share that, or will you judge me for ‘not caring’ that my ex is suffering?”
“What if I’m relieved — is that something I can admit?”
“What if I’m having the worst day of my life, but I know rehashing it will simply make me burst into tears?”
I remember wanting to say I was doing well, but feeling like I would be criticized for “getting over him” so fast. Likewise, I remember feeling devastated nearly a year later, but not wanting to tell anyone because they would think I was “hanging on.” As I type this today, it has been over two years later, and I’m in a new relationship. But guess what? I still have days when grief blindsides me. It’s a heavy feeling, realizing that you invested years in a future you will never fulfill.
Divorce is the ultimate emotional rollercoaster. It’s enough to give anyone whiplash. Instead of a vague “How are you?” (So tough to answer honestly!), ask, “How are you doing today?” It’s such a small difference, but it takes a difficult question and makes it simple. I can be honest about today. I can let you in on my today.
“We should hang out sometime!”
The most surprising thing about my divorce was how much time I suddenly had. I woke up alone, ran errands alone, ate dinner alone, sat around by the phone alone, and slept alone. Even little introverted me felt lame. When I ran into old friends, they would often try to be helpful by suggesting that we hang out “sometime.” At first, I was excited. But when the suggestion was never followed up with an actual invitation or plan, I felt more let down than if they’d never said anything.
Please, for the sake of your divorcing friend, don’t dangle the carrot! If you want to spend time with her, ask her when she’s free, and then make a plan. If you simply want her to know that you’re thinking of her, tell her so! If you merely want her to know that you’re available in time of need, let her know! You don’t have to suggest time together that you never intend to materialize. Getting a divorce is exhausting — please, if you can, be the one to initiate plans.
“I love you, but I don’t get it.”
Whew, this was a punch-in-the-gut comment. My first reaction: “Who said you need to understand?” My follow-up reaction: “Please don’t ever add a ‘but…’ on the heels of ‘I love you.’ Just don’t.’”
Rest assured, your friend did not roll out of bed one morning and suddenly want a divorce. This is not a spur-of-the-moment life change. This has probably been mulled over, argued through, and volleyed back and forth between spouses for months, if not years. It’s complicated. Understanding is not a prerequisite for supporting someone you love.
“Did you two try counseling?”
This is much like #1. It’s not really your business, and it also reveals your predisposition to think that I could have done more to prevent this. Believe me, if you’re wondering what else I could have done, I’m sure I’ve asked myself the same question. Excuse me if I don’t slap myself on the forehead for not thinking of that myself.
Don’t take this to mean that I’m against counseling. If your friend is already in the throes of divorce, it’s a little late to suggest marriage counseling. Instead, you might venture with, “Do you have someone to talk to?” This is a gentle yet direct way to show that you care.
Rather than asking her what she did to prevent this situation, encourage her to take good care of herself now.
Obviously, most people want to make a divorcing friend feel loved and supported. And you’re probably on the right track if you cared enough to read this article in the first place! Please don’t let the list of things not to say keep you from saying anything. In the end, it’s best to show you care in the most compassionate, open way that you can. Ignoring someone’s pain doesn’t help it go away, and divorce is already isolating enough. Acknowledge the emotional upheaval that your friend is going through. Let her (or him!) know you’re there for her in the ways that you can be (Only commit to supporting in ways where you plan to follow through!).
Here are some compassionate, supportive things to say:
- How are you doing today?
- Do you have someone to talk to? (If you’re willing to follow through, it’s okay to let your friend know that person can be you!)
- What can I do to help?
- Do you want to talk about it? (All those “don’t ask” questions above? Yeah, your friend will probably answer them without you even asking if she wants to talk. And then you’re being supportive, not nosy. Win.)
- I love you. I’m here for you. (That’s it. No strings attached.)
Divorce is tricky. It doesn’t feel the same way to everyone, or even to the same person on different days! There’s no one-size-fits-all platitude I can give you to help your friend… So simply keep in mind that your role is to be supportive, loving, and gracious.
I can never fully express my gratitude to those who unconditionally supported me when I suddenly felt like a ship without an anchor. Be that person in your friend’s life if you’re able. In the end, in good times or in bad, isn’t it about doing the best we can?