My friend Juliet Jeske has garnered a following as a “straight spouse” who blogs about (among other things) the pain of marrying and divorcing a man who came out as gay after she’d spent a decade with him. Yesterday she made a list of the Top 10 Worst Things to Say to a Newly Divorced Person, which turned into 12, and I’m sure could easily be a list of 20 or more.
I’ve taken a few of her ideas and incorporated them with my own to compile this list of 10 Things Not to Say to Someone Getting Divorced:
1. I’m Sorry.
Yes, of course you’re sorry your friend’s world has come crashing down, but since so often divorces are ending unhealthy marriages, “I’m sorry” isn’t always the right sentiment in response to the big news. I’ve learned to say, “I’m sorry-slash-congratulations!,” which is a cheeky way of trying to encompass all of the mixed emotions that come along with this tumultuous time in someone’s life. If you’re not sure what to say as your initial response to the news, try just saying, “Are you okay?” That way you can get a sense of how your friend feels and in which emotional direction to proceed.
For more on this, check out Louis CK on why not to say “I’m sorry” when your friend gets divorced.
I mean, of course you can talk to your friend about why they’re getting divorced, but definitely don’t just blurt out, “Why?” It’ll seem very insensitive. Many people who have troubled marriages keep their troubles to themselves for various reasons, and your friend might be dealing with lots of guilt and sadness about having struggled alone for so long. Again, try to ask gentler, more open-ended questions like, “Do you want to talk about it?”
3. I totally saw it coming.
Juliet says, “No one knows what goes on in a marriage besides the two people in that marriage. No one. You may think you do, but you don’t. It is one thing if you have confided to your friend that you were having problems. It’s another thing entirely if you haven’t.” I’ll add that even if your friend has confided to you about the problems in his or her marriage, “I totally saw it coming” really only rubs salt in a very gaping wound.
4. I never knew why the two of you were together in the first place.
Juliet says, “I have no idea why anyone would think this is appropriate to say but plenty go right ahead and say it anyway. To the person who just got divorced you are saying their marriage was a freak show that no one could understand. A newly divorced person is usually in mourning for what they just lost, a comment like this hits below the belt.” I’ll add that even if you think your friend will agree with this sentiment (when people started saying this to me, I agreed or could at least see where they were coming from), wait a while before starting in with this kind of commentary. Again, when the wound is fresh, tread carefully! Your friend will need time to process the fact that their dream has died, and that will be complicated and messy and hurt – especially if their dream was a fantasy to begin with.
5. You gave him/her the best years of your life.
Juliet says, “My mother actually said that to me for months, in fact she still does. She means well and now when she does it, she makes me laugh. I did sacrifice most of my child-bearing years to my marriage, but I still think the best years of my life are yet to come.” The only person that ever said this to me was me, and I said it because initially I meant it. I didn’t realize at the time that I could recover and emerge from the process of my divorce happier and stronger than ever. It’s clear that anyone who says this to a friend is trying to commiserate, but your tactic might backfire and make your friend feel worse than they already do and hopeless about their future. Try to say something positive instead, like, “You have your whole life ahead of you.” Though if your friend is over 40, they might feel like that’s not true, either, even though it’s never too late to make a fresh start. Hey – try saying that!
6. But he/she is so nice!
Seriously. Do. Not. Say. This. As I mentioned earlier, many couples are able to mask their private hell when out in public, and you don’t know how bad things might have been behind closed doors. This is super invalidating and will make your grieving friend feel very angry and hurt. Be a friend. Be supportive. Don’t second guess your friend’s capacity to make good sound decisions. It’s very rare that anyone divorces without thinking long and hard about it. Respect that.
7. Don’t worry, you’ll find someone new.
Well sure, yeah. But not today and not tomorrow – or at least, let’s hope not anyway! You mean well, you’re trying to be encouraging by saying this, but it’s too soon to shift the focus from grieving the loss of one relationship to moving on to another.
8. Couldn’t you just put up with it?
Juliet lists this sentiment in reference to losing a lavish lifestyle, but I’ve heard people say this about keeping a relationship together forcibly because, you know, once you’re married, you’re just supposed to deal with whatever abuses and inequities and lack of compatibility are thrown your way. Juliet notes, “If one partner is treating the other like garbage, the damage to a person’s self-esteem and sense of well-being is not worth it. If the relationship is physically abusive the person needs to get out of it as soon as possible.”
9. You should have tried to keep it together for the kids.
I’ve said it time and time again, children are happier in a happier home than they are in a home full of discord. It’s never best to keep a crumbling marriage together for the kids. Again, nowadays most couples with children try couples therapy and retreats and everything they can before splitting. Sometimes breaking up is the best answer to a difficult problem. If your friend has kids, I’m sure he or she has thought of their best interests before going forward with a divorce. Honor that.
10. Sweet, let’s party!
Juliet talks about how some friends will urge a newly divorced person to go get laid, but she says, “for some sex can turn into another form of self-destructive behavior just like drugs or alcohol.” If you’re single and you’re psyched your friend is now single too, go easy with the tearing up the town stuff. Your newly divorced friend is a hot mess right now and she probably needs a mani-pedi and some tea more than anything. For guys, it’s a little different, but don’t think that just because your divorced friend is a dude he’s ready to go bang hot chicks. Try helping them pack or move, then a few months later you can talk about what’s next.
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