There’s never a good time to tell people that your marriage is over. But, since my separation, I’ve mastered the perfect way to tell people I’m now a single father: I don’t. I don’t share the information unless specifically asked “how’s the family?” and even in those instances, I keep the explanations brief.
I’ve adopted this approach after months of fielding odd, awful, incredibly intrusive, and sometimes just flat out dumb questions about my separation. While I understand discussing the end of a marriage is awkward for some people, there’s a right and wrong way to address the situation. In my experience, here are some questions that should never come out of your mouth when talking to a newly separated or divorced dad.
Go to a movie theater today. Wait by the exit doors where people file out into the parking lot. Ask the first person you see, “What movie did you see and tell me about every single minute from beginning to end?” and take notice of the looks you’ll get from strangers.
The answer to this open-ended question is so complicated it would likely take hours to answer, and by this point, every separated dad is tired of talking about the situation. Especially right in front of the frozen foods.
My estranged wife and I talked for over a year about splitting up. After deciding it was for the best, we made plans on how to tell the kids, split costs, bills, and assets, arrange a visitation schedule and found a place for me to live. In none of this situations did I feel at all lucky. Frankly, they all sucked, even though I knew the end result was best for the entire family.
Calling a separated dad“lucky” because of his current situation is a way of minimizing a painful life change. While the person thinks they’re helping, minimizing the situation makes matters worse.
“It can be really uncomfortable to see a friend hurting,” explains Dr. Holly Parker, a psychologist and author who specializes in relationships issues. “It’s natural to want to help take their pain away. But sometimes this has the unintended consequence of leaving someone feeling like they don’t have a right to feel the way they do, which can increase their stress.”
“How’s your ex-wife taking the split?”
Of all the odd questions tossed my way as a single and newly separated dad, inquiries about my ex’s life are always the most baffling. I don’t know how she’s taking the breakup or anything about her life beyond the occasional small talk during drop-offs or conversations about the kids. Nor should I give a crap.
“It isn’t a good idea to ask about someone’s ex,” Dr. Parker admits, “and especially asking if she’s dating anyone. People who are trying to offer support should keep the focus on the man they’re talking to, not on his ex.”
If you’re interested in how the ex is doing, feel free to go ahead and ask her yourself.
“I bet you’re dating a lot.”
Maybe I’m going out every night. Perhaps I’m killing it on Tinder. There’s also a chance I’m dating a fantastic woman, and am incredibly happy. Full disclosure, it’s that the last one, but I’m only sharing this information by choice. Asking a separated dad about his love life is intruding, especially if the only reason for the line of questioning is to gather intel, spread gossip, or because your own relationship is mundane or nonexistent.
If the question is raised in a way that focuses on what he’s experiencing, that’s fine — e.g., ‘Are you feeling like you might want to start dating again, or is it hard to even imagine that right now?’, However, it’s inappropriate to ask about his dating life unless he brings it up.”
“You’ll probably never get married again.”
Sometimes friends and family share their own worries about what could happen, and this can also increase the strain of an already challenging situation. This is called catastrophizing.
“The opposite of minimizing,” adds Dr. Parker, “catastrophizing is another common reaction where well-meaning friends share their own worries about what could happen to a person in this new life role and increase the strain of an already challenging situation.”
At this point in life, I’ve learned never to say never and thinking that far into the future is a pointless endeavor but don’t assume a separated father won’t marry again, just because it didn’t work out the first time. Don’t expect the next relationship with go south just because this one didn’t work or hypothesizing that this experience has soured a person’s feelings about relationships forever.
“It’s a shame you couldn’t get it to work out.”
No one looks at an old car that’s days away from breaking down, one that’s been fixed hundreds of times, and comments “it’s a shame you can’t make it last forever.” Why? Because some things just stay broken.
Some marriages just need to end. Putting temporary fixes or duct tape over gaping holes isn’t going to make them last forever. It’s just delaying the inevitable.
“My marriage isn’t so great either.”
Stop right there. Please, just stop.
Opening up to a separated person about all the cracks in your own marriage doesn’t do either person any good. Frankly, he doesn’t give a crap. I’m sure on some level he’s sorry to hear that it’s not going well but only because he’s gone through this ordeal himself.
A separated dad isn’t your sounding board. He’s not there to extoll advice on how to fix your own issues or give clues to the warning signs that the marriage is ready to crumble. He’s working on his personal problems, he doesn’t need more to weigh him down.
With all these rules about what not to say to a separated dad, choosing not to say anything at all or pretending the elephant isn’t over in the corner, waving, just might be the worst reaction.
“Often, well-intentioned friends and loved ones hesitate to say anything about a major loss or stressful change concerned that they might cause the person to think about it and feel more upset,” explains Dr. Parker. “The truth is that they’re probably thinking about it already.”
Asking a single dad “Hey, how are you handling everything?” won’t guarantee that he’ll talk about it, but at least it opens the door to a conversation and assures him that he’s not alone and he can speak openly about the situation.
So, What Should You Say to a Recently Separated or Divorced Guy?
Since I’ve gone over all of the things a person shouldn’t say, I feel compelled to cover the one thing a person should say to a newly single dad. It’s simple, direct and the ball is in his court on where to go from that moment:“I heard about your marriage ending, and if you want to talk about it, I’m here.” Thanks man, I appreciate that.