How to Help a Friend Going Through a Divorce
This won't be easy. But it will be less difficult if you heed this advice.
Your buddy’s words might come out loud, soft, or through tears, but you hear the message. He’s getting a divorce, and you want to help him through it. You might have seen it coming or you’re completely stunned. Either way, his life, and, in a way yours, has changed.
He could be sad, depressed, caustic, or some shifting combination. Even if it was his decision, he could still be any of the above because he’s facing shared custody and being alone half the time. Some changes he’ll know. Others he’ll sense, some he’ll wonder about, and through it all, he’s left with a stigma and a new thought that won’t leave.
“The hardest part of divorce is you have to accept you can’t trust your own judgment,” says Mitch Abrams, clinical psychologist in Tinton Falls and Fords, New Jersey.
So, how can you support a friend going through a divorce? Part of your job is easy, because it requires being his friend. Part of it is harder, because this isn’t a quick process and, during the experience, he’ll be a complex web of conflicting feelings. There are things to do and not do. Hint: It means more listening, less advising. Mostly, through your words and actions, it’s letting your buddy know that you’re not going anywhere.
Maintain Your Dynamic
There’s a lot to be said for being present, because his world is a question mark. “The guy is seeing how friendships are shaking out,” says Carl Hindy, clinical psychologist in Newmarket, New Hampshire and author of If This is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure? Couples are taking sides. He has to deal with lawyers. And his divorce kicks up anxiety in everyone else.
People are looking at their marriages with, “Not us. No way,” or, “Am I really happy? Should I consider it?” Whatever the reaction, the common move is to pull back under the guise of neutrality, when it’s really fear talking.
There’s also this. “Your friend is worried about what is being said about him to his kids, and wondering if his kids will be angry and unavailable to him,” says Nina K. Thomas, psychologist in New York City and Morristown, New Jersey. There’s nothing to do or counter-balance that. It just falls into the Something to Be Aware Of category.
But you still want to do something. The best thing is to maintain your dynamic. If you take runs, talk baseball, or give each other a hard time, then continue on. It’s normalcy, something he doesn’t have a ton of at the moment, and it says, “I’m here,” without saying the words.
You can also say those exact works, and throw in, “I’m loyal to you.” And while you want to keep things the same, they’re not. You’re going to have to gin up patience, because divorce is a slog, and it’s not unlike a death, Abrams notes. Your buddy needs to grieve and go through all the firsts: birthdays, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, recitals. Eventually, there will be fewer, but there’s no shortcutting the process.
No, You Shouldn’t Be There All The Time
That thing you said about, “I’m here for you,” is true but comes with the unspoken addendum of, “just not all the time.” You can’t be, or it would burn you out. Plus, it wouldn’t help him. It’s like with your kids where you want to swoop in at the first sign of pain, but they need to struggle in order to become resilient. It’s the same for your friend, Abrams says.
It’s as important to take care of yourself by doing things and being with people “that don’t focus on what’s wrong with a relationship,” Thomas says. When you’re with him, you’ll want to take his side, but it’s good to not jump at that because you can never know every detail. He’ll express anger and then love for his ex, making you want to jump even more. But …
“Forget whatever opinions you may have had about his spouse and just plain listen,” she says. “No one in the midst of unraveling a relationship feels only one way about a person.”
Offering advice seems obvious, especially since you have something really, really insightful. One problem. “Nobody wants advice,” Hindy says. For one, it carries the undertone of, “How did you not know that?” It can also make him feel guilty if he doesn’t heed your words, and your friend has enough negative energy running through him.
All he wants is to be understood. That comes from giving him the floor. If you see an opening for advice, couch it with, “You know what works for me? …” Abrams says. Hindy adds to follow whatever you share with, “Is it like that?”
Thomas says that you can also just ask, “Are you looking for suggestions?” It beats guessing every time and gives him control he hasn’t been feeling. If he says “yes”, still walk, don’t barge in, by starting with, “I’m no expert but here are some thoughts,” she says. Your goal is to not take over the situation but instead identify with him.
Slaying the Proverbial Elephant
Anger towards his ex might be below or right on top of the surface, making things uncomfortable. This is especially true if your kids remain friends and you have regular contact. It’s a fair conversation to initiate, Abrams says. Repeat your loyalty but ask, “How should I interact with your ex?,” adding, “I understand the tension and don’t want to inflame things, but I care about your kids and this is their parent.”
It’s a two-fold “solution”. You don’t have to worry about seeing or avoiding someone. You’re also getting your friend to think about what he wants. It’s no sudden transformation, but it introduces that a future with his former partner needs to exist in some form.
If you get your friend to move a little, consider it a bonus. But at the end of the day, remember, you’re not his therapist or coach. You’re a friend, one who doesn’t have to be an expert on anything. It’s good to get that out early with, “I’ll try to help but I don’t know if I have the right answers.” That gives you cover if you have to walk something back, but it also shows vulnerability that he might be feeling but can’t muster up yet. “It’s modeling coping,” Abrams says. “It gives permission to make mistakes.”