5 Things You Should Never Say to a Friend Going Through a Divorce

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?

  • Christina Swigart

    What about, “I don’t understand, but I love you.”? While a divorce is obviously an extremely personal decision, it does affect more than just the two in the marriage. And it can be difficult for OTHERS to feel that grief of loss as well. In that case, the understanding doesn’t become the precursor to love but it’s important that others have the permission to not understand and to express that. Some crave that sense of understanding for our own closure. Beautiful article!

    • Leandra Beabout

      Thanks, Christina! And you know, I hadn’t thought of flipping the phrase like that, but it works. I see what you mean. Getting a divorce showed me just how far a relationship ripples… my family was deeply hurt, and I’m still not sure if that rift has entirely healed. I didn’t mind when people were honest and said they were hurting (it’s tough to be friends with both people, for instance!). The pain came when it felt like they were blaming me or holding me accountable for their feelings.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Vanessa Harms

    My ex and I were together for 7 years, although not married, our breakup felt like a divorce. One thing I absolutley hate is when others say that they see me with someone else (someone who is completely different than my ex). I’ve heard “oh, I expected you to be with a banker, or business guy anyways!” and “I picture you with a gym guy”. Insert eyeroll here…

    • Leandra Beabout

      Ugh. Yeah, why does it matter who THEY picture you with? Sorry you’re going through that. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • I’ve had the same thing too!! With friends telling me ‘Oh that guy’s your type’ etc (because he looks slightly like my ex) but they forget that the breakup was for a reason and therefore your ‘type’ definitely is NOT everyone who resembles your ex! LOL

  • Allie

    Thank you for writing this! I got divorced last summer, right after my 29th birthday. We had been together for 11 years. Most of my friends and family were amazing but I found that the people I was able to connect with the most easily on the topic were friends who had lost parents, or had friends/significant others who had died. It was shocking to me how much my divorce felt like a death. I searched the internet high and low for something like this. A year later I’m doing much better but I’m glad this is here for someone else to find on Google!

    • Leandra Beabout

      Allie, thank you so much for your comment. I completely understand the feeling of divorce being like a death. Honestly? It’s *still* like a death. Grieving the loss of a person takes years. It doesn’t mean we’re grieving constantly, but I do find that it hits me at random moments– a smell, a sound, a place… It is a unique experience to grieve a living person.

      I’m glad you found the article, and I too hope it’s helpful to someone! Feel free to share it. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • CateCussell

        ‘It’s a unique experience to grieve a living person’ sums it up so perfectly.
        I don’t, for one second, want to get back with my ex husband but I do get a weird twinge every so often and I also feel bad sometimes that my current husband wasn’t my first because he’s perfect.
        I try and remember that without my ex I wouldn’t appreciate my lovely man half as much as I do…. oh the webs we weave!

        • Leandra Beabout

          Thank you! Yes, divorce definitely muddies the grief process. Congrats on finding the perfect man for you! 🙂 It sounds like you are in a truly happy place.

  • CateCussell

    I’m surprised ‘I never liked him anyway’ or ‘I’m not surprised’ isn’t up there. I had one or 2 of those plus one of my bridesmaids (who was also a witness at the wedding) said ‘I knew I should have signed Mickey Mouse’.
    I tried to laugh it off but I was so utterly devastated by her attitude. Needless to say, we don’t speak anymore.

    • Leandra Beabout

      Cate, you’re right– “I’m not surprised” should be included! My experience was the opposite, in that nearly everyone in my circle was shocked … and told me so (the I “love you, but I don’t get it” camp). So sorry that you’ve had people reduce your marriage by writing it off like that. Even when it’s over, it’s still a huge part of who we were and are, I think.

      Thanks for commenting!

  • I have to say that it depends on the person as many people would welcome and appreciate the things that you didn’t like. I don’t think people necessarily mean things in such a negative way, especially if they’re you’re friends- surely they have your best interests at heart so would never try to make you feel bad.
    I do understand what you mean though, particularly the first part about the awkwardness of telling people that you’re not together anymore. When you’re with someone for so long, people tend to see you as ‘one entity’ and automatically ask about the other whenever they see you and vice versa so the awkward moment when you inevitably have to let them know, never seems to get better. I also feel like that awkward moment is almost always followed with a million questions (many of which were on your list) hahaaa!!
    Love the post <3

    Also, I would really so appreciate it if you could check out my blog and YouTube channel (links below)

    http://victorialouisekblogs.blogspot.co.uk/

    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCOSnRJtrnlr3FLsR9Uc5VnQ

    I would appreciate it so so so much <3
    Thank you
    Victoria
    X

    • Leandra Beabout

      Victoria, thanks for reading and commenting! I agree that everyone’s feelings and reactions to divorce are different. My hope with this article is that friends will have a better idea of what it’s like to be in the divorced friend’s shoes. That though things like “Let’s hang out sometime!” sound good, it’s even BETTER to be specific and proactive about actualizing those plans. Like you said, most friends mean well, so I hope that this can be a good resource for making their good intentions all the more clear.

      Thanks for sharing your own writing. I thought the article on feeling more confident was especially helpful and practical.

  • Hannah

    Thank you! I love pity “how are you”. My emotions were changing constantly. I had no idea!!! And the alone time is brutal. I was incredibly vulnerable for a long time. I remember thinking if I wasn’t going through this I couldn’t believe this level of vulnerability was possible. I would love to hear more. It always feels nice to be connected.