The Dos And Don’ts Of Talking To Divorced Friends
Want to help? Then read this.
My experience with divorce was nothing like the way it plays out in books or movies — or even, for that matter, in my own head. Like everyone else, I never thought it would happen to me, but when it did, I thought I at least knew what to expect. I was surprised, but not always in a bad way.
And, like every other life stage, I learned from it. And I’m proud to say that, along with other life skills I’ve collected, like my ability to wear the hell out of a bridesmaid dress and pick the perfect baby shower gift, I’m now a black belt at comforting a friend through her divorce. This is what every woman should know.
Apologize. “I’m so sorry” is the stock reply to the news that you’re separating, and while it’s well-intentioned, I’m not necessarily looking for sympathy. Sometimes I’m simply stating a fact, like when I let my kid’s pediatrician know about my change of address, and an apology makes me feel like it’s something I should be sad about, or, worse, a personal failing. A better response, says Constance Ahrons, a mediator based in San Diego and author of The Good Divorce, is to ask how I’m feeling about it and take your cue from that. Emotional reactions to divorce can run the gamut from angry to relieved.
Ask about the kids. As the mom of a young kid, stepmom to an older one, and the child of divorced parents, I was tortured by the idea of how my divorce would affect my children. It was one of the main reasons I delayed filing for so long. So when I was telling one of my son’s daycare aides that his dad and I were splitting up, and she asked how I thought it would affect him, it gutted me.
Often, especially in cases that don’t have an obvious cause like infidelity, there’s a perception that divorce is selfish, says Ahrons. People think you should just be able to resolve your differences for the sake of your kids. But believe me when I tell you that any parent who has considered ending their marriage has given plenty of thought to how it will affect their kids’ well-being, and they will never be 100 percent guilt-free on that issue. And while they’re looking out for their children’s emotional needs, no one is looking out for theirs. Ask how I’m doing instead.
Confuse “amicable” with “easy.” These days, there are more 50-50 custody arrangements and “coparenting” situations, and if you can swing it, it certainly eases some of the stresses of divorce. But just because you’re able to end marriage civilly doesn’t mean it’s pain-free. “Losing a partner is a huge shift in your life, regardless of whether you ended it” — and research shows that in most cases, women are the ones who do so — “or they did,” says Ahrons. “A lot of times, if you made the decision or were part of making the decision to end things, you don’t get as much help and understanding as you would have if your spouse was a real bastard.”
Staying on good terms with an ex, especially if you’re raising kids together, is commendable. It can also be emotionally draining and trying. Your friend might be happier since her divorce, and her kids might seem fine, but even under the best possible circumstances, she’s dealing with a reality that’s vastly different from what she anticipated, and shouldering a burden that most people share alone.
Set her up — with other divorced women. I was always hearing about the extremely high divorce rate in this country, so I assumed finding fellow divorcées to bond with would be easy. It turned out to be like Finding Nemo, only with more crying and way more Ellen DeGeneres. As the only one in my peer group going through this, I felt even more isolated and alone. Family and friends can be supportive, but it’s hard to muster up true empathy for something you never experienced, and I couldn’t even find a decent support group. (Pro tip: Try not to break up in the summer; everyone’s on vacation.) My situation isn’t uncommon. “I hear quite often from people who do not know other people who got divorced,” says Ahrons. When a coworker finally confessed that she had been divorced and just kept it quiet, I rejoiced to finally have someone who understood.
Buy her lunch. Divorce ain’t cheap, and research shows that women take a disproportionate financial hit in the process and its aftermath. Shelling out for lawyers and taking over a mortgage or paying rent on a new place are only a few of the expenses for the newly single, and watching your savings account dwindle can both depress and terrify you. If you were working, your job performance has probably suffered; and if you weren’t, the prospect of supporting yourself can be daunting. I went through a major job change at the same time I separated from my husband, and when my financial future was at its most murky, a friend took me to breakfast and insisted on treating. In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t make or break me dollarwise, but being able to enjoy the small luxury of a latte my penny-pinching self would never have splurged on was so, so welcome.
Let her third wheel. We live in what Ahrons calls “a coupled society.” Friends tend to assume you’ll feel awkward being the only single person at a gathering, and social invites dry up. This happens, by the way, at the same time you suddenly have more free time than you’ve had in years because the kids are at their dad’s. When I was married, a lot of my social life revolved around my kids and my husband’s family. Suddenly having time to myself was — and still is — a treat, and I’ve cultivated plenty of new hobbies, but I definitely miss hanging out with married friends and will leap for any chance at a play date. Holidays can be especially weird, when you have nowhere to go but home alone after dropping off your kid, which is why I heart the rise of Galentine’s Day, Friendsgiving and other noncouple-oriented holidays. Issue the invite, and let her decide if she feels awkward for not attending.