How to help your friend who’s getting divorced

October 20, 2016 § 1 Comment

It has been more than a year since the judge declared my marriage over, so I thought I’d write this up. Because given the divorce rates, chances are you know someone who’s going through it, and you’re not sure how to help.

My friends carried me through my divorce like an army of earth angels. So I can tell you what really worked for me.

  1. Listen. More often than not, they will just need someone to listen, someone who can just help them share the load in their head a little. Don’t offer advice or solutions unless they ask for them. Don’t give your opinion unless it’s asked for. Just let them sit on your couch and talk. Your job is simply to listen and be there.
  2. Treat them like someone has died. If divorce is anything, it’s a massive grieving process. Depending on which side of the divorce they are, they may be grieving the loss of someone they love very much, which hurts like hell. And then they don’t even have the closure that death brings – they will still bump up against that person in all kinds of unexpected ways, even if they don’t have children together. They’re also grieving the loss of a dream – their happily ever after. So be gentle, be kind, be comforting.
  3. Do small practical things. Going through a divorce means waking up feeling like small, bewildered child every day, and being sent to face an army of Goliaths with not even a slingshot to defend yourself. And while you are fighting that battle, you still have to go to work, keep things running at home, and if you have children, not just care for them, but hold their emotional health as they go through something that has nothing to do with them directly, but affects them deeply. And then there’s a crapload of admin and paperwork. You have no idea how interwoven your life is with that of your spouse’s until you have to disentangle, separate and pack into two separate boxes. So the simplest things – a packed lunch for the kids, a cooked evening meal, babysitting, washing the dishes, helping with a new household budget, mowing the lawn, helping with a school lift – those things can save your friend’s sanity some days.
  4. Accept that you probably can’t stay friends with both sides. At least not now while they’re going through it. Because you are going to hear the worst side of at least one or both of your friends. When the dust is settled, maybe some of those links can be rebuilt, but your relationship with both people will be changed. It’s unavoidable. Be there for whoever you are closer to for now, and don’t get caught in the middle.
  5. Call them on their shit when you have to.  This is important. People going through divorces will tell you stories about what’s happened, and what the other party has done. But stories change every time we tell them. We emphasise certain details; neglect to mention other things – it’s just how human beings work. So take it with a pinch of salt and remember that no-one is all bad, and no-one is all good. And when you hear a friend being unreasonable, unnecessarily difficult or just plain obstreperous, call them on it. I see far too many people getting away with abominable behaviour, without anyone saying, “Hey. That’s not okay.” We all need to start taking more accountability for calling our friends on their bad behaviour – and not just in this context.
  6. Help them to do non-divorce things. Take them to dinner. Take them to movies or a show. Talk about art or music or sport. Talk about the rugby if you really must. But distract them for a little while from the all-consuming maelstrom of angst and anxiety. You may have to use your best persuasive powers to get them out of the house, but they will thank you afterwards.

Finally, if you happen to have a spouse of your own, learn from what you are hearing and seeing. Go home and tell them how much you love them: count the ways. Don’t take them for granted. Show them great affection. Remember again why you promised to love them forever. Make sure you really see them.

And then keep doing it every damn day for the rest of your life together.

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