How Not to Support Your Friend Through Their Separation and DivorceTracey Gaughran
I’ve written a lot about the failure of my marriage (notice how I still use the word “failure”? Yeah, there’s something psychological there we’ll probably need to address at some point or other), and I’ve had a ton of people come to me for advice as a result, wanting to know how to help support friends through their separation and divorce. And while that’s an admirable sentiment, it is also, I think, just a bit misguided.
Allow me to explain.
When my ex and I announced our separation, there were four generalized reactions from our friends:
1. You have the divorce plague, and that shit’s catching. I will now run screaming from you, with arms all a-flailing.
2. I feel SO BAD FOR YOU. SO, SO BAD. IT IS HORRIBLE, and this has to be THE HARDEST THING EVER. I don’t even know how I’d SURVIVE THAT. OH MY GOD POOR YOU HOW COULD YOU HAVE LET THIS HAPPEN?
3. Though neither of you has said so, clearly I must choose sides between you two, so I’m going to preemptively do that now. *plants flag in one person’s forehead*
4. That sucks, but I’m here for you. Hey, you wanna go catch the Pixies in concert this weekend?
Guess which reaction is the right one?
Okay, so there’s really no “right” reaction, but I think it’s pretty clear what’s wrong with some of these. The idea of there being a “divorce plague” sounds hilarious and idiotic, and of course you’d think that your very smart and sensitive friends wouldn’t respond that way, but I hate to break it to you: some do. If you have a friend who is getting divorced, I’d wager they can count on about 25% of the people they considered friends bailing on them. That’s the reality, sadly. It’s a very rough patch in a person’s life, ending a marriage, and the fallout and repercussions often aren’t fully appreciated until one is in it, surveying the damage. For some people, their vicarious experience of your divorce – and all the pain and discord that comes with it – will be too much. Too real. And, perhaps, it will hit too close to home. Of the couple of friends I lost in my own experience of this process, the most shocking one (a very, VERY close friend) in retrospect now seems the most obvious, in that I knew for years that this person’s marriage was – and I’m being generous here – tumultuous, troubled and rocky. Oftentimes the people who flee the fastest are those who have the most reason to be genuinely terrified, if you know what I mean.
The same goes for people whose responses are either shaming and/or pitying (and there are a lot more of these than you’d think, I’m afraid). If I could write a Helping Your Friend Through Divorce guide, the first chapter would be titled, STOP SAYING HOW SORRY YOU ARE ALREADY, GODDAMMIT. Seriously. The person who’s marriage has collapsed beneath them feels bad enough already, BELIEVE ME. You don’t need to go mincing around underscoring the WOE and SORROW and WOE by cringing and wincing and I’m sooooo sorry-ing like someone died. Here I’ll return to something I wrote on my personal blog called In Defense Of Divorce, in which I cite the following brilliant Louis CK routine:
Let me tell you something. And this is important because some day one of your friends is gonna get divorced. It’s gonna happen. And they’re gonna tell you, don’t go “Oh I’m sorry!” that’s a stupid thing to say. It really is. First of all, you’re making them feel bad for being really happy, which isn’t fair. And second, let me explain something to you. Divorce is always good news. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true because no good marriage has ever ended in divorce. It’s really that simple. That’s never happened THAT would be sad. If two people were married and they were really happy and they just had a great thing, and then they got divorced, that would be really sad. But that has happened zero times. Literally zero. Ray Charles has killed more jews than happy marriages have ended in divorce. So if your friend got divorced, it means things were bad and now they’re I mean, they’re better. They’re not good. Life is shit wall to wall. But they’re better, so you should be happy.
And sure, he’s a comedian – but it’s not far from the unfunny truth. In fact, I’d say THAT is closer to the truth than what the people who walk around moaning and wailing and tearing their clothes over the end of another’s marriage believe. Should you be HAPPY about your friend’s divorce? No, not happy. But should you perhaps realize that there are very, very good reasons this is happening, and in fact should happen – reasons which you, as an outsider to the relationship, could never fully comprehend or know? Yes. THAT. So say you’re sorry ONCE, and then don’t stay it again. People don’t approach ending their marriage lightly, and if some friends of yours are ending theirs, trust that they’re doing it for the greater good of everyone, and for the love of god, IT IS NOT YOUR MARRIAGE. LET. IT. GO.
And you’d think I’m stating the obvious here, but let’s go ahead and say it anyway: NO ONE HAS TO CHOOSE SIDES. PERIOD. Well, unless the couple has explicitly told you and their other friends, “we see the end of our marriage like a game of dodgeball. We’re going to pick teams, and then use y’all to pound the shit out of each other, okay?” If that’s the case, then… well, then you should probably run.
Alright, but enough with the fun and games. How DO you support a friend through separation and divorce in a non-crazy, non-destructive way? Let me break it down:
- Express your condolences and say you’re sorry for their loss ONCE, and that’s it. You can talk about the subject in greater detail than just saying “I’m so sorry,” of course. Hell, you can cry for them and yourself (it IS a death, after all), and bemoan the breaking up of that life and reality that was. Totally appropriate. But then, please, leave it alone.
- Tell the person you are there for them. Day or night, 24/7, there for them. Now, they probably won’t call you at 3 in the morning sobbing, but they might, and obviously you need to be prepared for that reality and you need to have meant what you said when you made that offer. But more than anything, just knowing that you’re there – available, supportive, caring – will be all the emotional sustenance your friend will likely need.
- Finally, please, don’t wallow in it, or let the person going through the split wallow in it. It doesn’t need to be the topic of every conversation. It doesn’t need to be addressed every day, even. What this person needs is to start – in tiny baby steps – seeing themselves as a viable person AFTER the marriage. They’ve spent years – in some cases decades – investing in a coupledom that now, suddenly, no longer exists. They don’t need to keep obsessively going over that again and again. They need to start living a new life – their own, single life. And yes, obviously the first few months (or more) they won’t feel like going out much. But in time, slowly, The Marriage That Is Now No More needs to stop being the focus, the primary topic of conversation, the go-to subject of discourse – both within them, and with them and others. That needs to become the new life they’re creating, and they need to start creating that. So urge them to, at the very least, come over to your place for dinner. Take them to a ball game, a movie, something. Anything. And don’t talk about the ex, if you can help it. Talking about the ex all the time = baaaaaaaad.
That’s it. The essence being: Less Is More. Active, conscious “supporting” tends toward hysteria and further upset on all sides. So instead, take it down a notch or twelve, follow my easy three-step process, and you’ll be on your way to being the awesomely not hysterical, non-shaming or side-taking friend you’d always hoped to be! Act now and I’ll throw in a Slap-Chop! Or, at the very least, a nice “ya done good!” slap on the back. Because good friends are indeed hard to come by, and whatever else may be true, those of us who’ve had a marriage end know that for certain.
Read more from Tracey Gaughran-Perez at her personal blog Sweetney.com