12 Ways to Support a Friend Through a Divorce
January is a month where we see an uptick in divorce filings. People have made it through the holidays and with the New Year, it feels like an opportunity for change. Some people make resolutions that this year is going to look different from the last in regards to their relationship. This can lead to taking steps to initiate the legal proceedings for a divorce, even if it has previously been discussed between spouses.
Do you know someone in your life who is going through a divorce or who is contemplating separating from their spouse? Often wonder how you can help them during this difficult time? Divorce is the second most stressful life event people can go through – second to the death of a spouse. People need support during this time. It is common to have one spouse want the divorce and the other not want it, even if they can acknowledge that their relationship is not healthy. Change is scary! Typically, we tend to focus on the one who doesn't want it as it outwardly seems more emotional for them. However, the one who is initiating the divorce is also struggling with many emotions and can use support. These suggestions are geared towards supporting both of those roles as well as men and women.
1. Listen and be patient.
Divorce is primarily a grief process. People are saying goodbye to their known world and foundation of stability that they have known for a long time. They are replaying their entire relationship in their mind, looking at it through a different lens, and mourning what was their reality when they come to find out it wasn't their spouse's reality. They are also mourning the future that they had planned with this person – retirement, future family events (e.g., graduations, weddings, etc.). Every anniversary (birthdays, wedding anniversary, and important dates to the couple) and holiday is a reminder that things will be different. The family traditions will change, they often have to say goodbye to their home and may be spending time apart from their children based on parenting schedules. They have to grieve the loss of the relationship and then transition to rebuilding their life, which takes time. Listen. Invite conversation. Encourage your friend that you are not "sick" of hearing them talk about the same old same old. It is how they are making sense of everything.
2. Reserve judgment. Practice compassion. Don't give advice.
How you listen is as equally important as listening itself. The most effective listening is when you actively pay attention, you are able to name and validate their emotions, and you just empathize and practice compassion towards them. Now is not the time to say, "I told you so." Or "I saw this coming a mile away." Or "You'll be better off without him/her." (While you may feel that way and in the long run, they may come to see it, now is not the time for that conversation. They have to get there first.). Being judgmental about the fact that they're getting divorced from a moral or religious perspective is also not helpful. You can have different morals and values and think you'd do something different if you were in their shoes, but this isn't about you and you can be supportive of others even if you'd do differently. You may also think you know what they should (or shouldn't) do because either you've been through, your parent's divorce, or you know others who went through a divorce. But advice giving, unless specifically asked, is often unhelpful. It makes people feel as though you're minimizing their emotions and just going to solution-mode and trying to fix things. We also tend to get frustrated with others when they offer unsolicited advice. No one likes being told what they should do, even if your intentions are good and helpful!
3. Don't regale them with tales of ugly divorces and war stories.
Every divorce is different. Many people are able to navigate a divorce with respect, integrity, and cooperate with the divorcing spouse in order to make decisions for their future. Especially when people share children and have to transition to a co-parenting relationship, hearing about how ugly other divorces get creates fear and anxiety that theirs may turn out that way or encourages paranoid and suspicious thoughts about their spouse that may not have been there otherwise. And if people can navigate it with respect and integrity, hearing about other nasty divorces makes them question if they are doing it "right" since they aren't having the same experience.
4. Ask what you can do to help.
Getting divorced becomes like a second job. There are many tasks involved in separating two lives that have been legally and financially combined. Meetings have to be scheduled with attorneys, financial professionals, appraisers, and others, which takes away from full-time jobs and adds to the home duties as well. It is overwhelming and time-consuming, especially if they have kids. Ask if you can babysit the kids for an evening or a Saturday, really whenever they can use it to give the person time to complete tasks, get caught up on work/chores, or just have respite. Ask if there is something you can help with around the house – cleaning, cleaning out, packing up, etc.
5. Invite your friend out or over to socialize.
Often times people who are going through a divorce have the mindset they don't want to be a burden on others or bring others down. Even the ones who initiated the divorce can feel as though their friends don't want to see them or talk to them or hear about how they are feeling. Spending time alone and wallowing in sadness and misery usually doesn't help, so ask them to go out to dinner, coffee, come over watch a movie, just spend time with them. Let them know it's ok for them to show up as they are and ask them how they are doing with everything. Men especially, ask your male friends how they are coping and to share what's really going on inside. Don't give up if they say no the first few times. And maybe if they continue to say no, bring the coffee, movie, wine, etc. over to their house!
6. Tolerate and be understanding of the mood swings.
People experience every emotion under the sun when they are going through the divorce process. This can range from deep sadness to rage, to anger, to excitement, to feelings of freedom and happiness, to feelings of abandonment, to feeling lost, to anxiety, to fear, and many more. And this can change on an hourly or daily basis. Or they may be humming along and string a few good days together then bam! another intense sadness wave hits them. Be patient and understanding that their emotions are all over the place. Some research says it takes 2 years to heal from a divorce, and it can certainly take longer if it was unexpected or the legal aspect takes a long time to be completed. I always tell people to give themselves at least 2 years, and most women 3-5 years to heal. People can also have unexpected emotions arise, especially if they were the ones who initiated the proceedings. They have the right to feel every way they do, even if they "wanted" it. Meet them where they are each day.
7. Don't support unhealthy behavior and be honest.
Going out with your friend for a beer or glass of wine once in a while is a positive thing. However, if you notice your friend is wanting to go out a lot and becomes intoxicated on a regular basis or goes home with new partners, recognize that as unhealthy coping mechanisms and let them know you're more than willing to be a positive support system but you're not going to support and enable destructive behavior. Acknowledge you know they are hurting and want a way to escape the pain, so be honest and let them know you're concerned about them. Which leads us to our next item:
8. Encourage your friend to seek therapy or divorce recovery groups.
Therapy is a valuable tool in this process. It is a space for them on a regular basis where they can process all their emotions, identify healthy coping strategies, and make sense of the dynamics of their marriage with a trained professional. Attending divorce recovery groups at church or through a therapy office can also give people the experience that they are not alone in this and that others really understand what they're going through.
9. Bring food or dinner.
When a spouse passes away, people bring casseroles and dinner. People who are going through a divorce can certainly use this type of support as well. Taking that off the to-do list can be a tremendous relief and shows your care and support.
10. Resist the temptation to know and spread the gossip.
If your friend wants to share details of what went on in their marriage, feel honored that they trust you enough to share. While it can be fascinating to hear sordid details (and serves as a comfort for us in the comparison trap of "hey, at least my marriage isn't that bad.") your friend's divorce is not a source of entertainment for you. It is painful and should be treated with care. If others in your circle of friends ask you for details, say it is not your information to share and if your friend wants them to know, your friend can tell them directly.
11. Don't tear down their ex, especially if they have children together.
Sure, you may want to trash talk the ex because you see your friend is hurting and you want to step in and be angry for them. In the long-run, staying stuck in the anger and hatred does not help your friend move towards rebuilding. And it can unintentionally influence how they are communicating with their ex. Strained co-parenting relationships have a majorly negative impact on the children. It is best when both parents can remain respectful towards one another. There are ways you can let your friend know you don’t approve how they were treated without destroying the character of their ex.
12. Don’t rush them into dating.
It may seem like getting back out on the dating scene is a positive thing. Hey, you’re a catch! Others want you! You have a lot to offer! This comes from a good place and good intention, but jumping into a relationship will only serve as a temporary band-aid before they will be forced to deal with the emotions from the divorce, because our emotions are pesky like that. Let them tell you when they are ready, then you can set them up with your co-worker you think would be a good match!
Overall, show up as the friend you’d want if you were going through a divorce. And you don’t have to do it alone. You can rally a friend group, the family, co-workers, etc., and share the load of helping your friend through this. Much like we all would if cancer struck your friend.
I provide a variety of divorce services: divorce/separation counseling, individual counseling, divorce coaching, mediation, and collaborative divorce. If you are contemplating divorce or have filed for one and need support through this journey, schedule a consultation and we can see which services are the best fit for you. If you have a friend you think can benefit from professional services during this time, share this post.