A friend recently confessed to me that she never knows what to do when someone tells her they’re getting divorced. Should she admit that she always hated the soon-to-be-ex-spouse? (NO.) Should she bring over a hot-cooked meal? (YES!) Can she ever again talk about her own happy marriage to the divorced friend? (IT DEPENDS.)
She joked that she needs a divorce etiquette book. I disagreed. I told her that she already knows the basics: Say you’re sorry, show empathy, offer to help. And follow through with the help. Be WITH your friend.
It got me thinking. What are the most valuable things that we can offer to a friend going through a divorce, or a similarly difficult time? What kind of support does a single mom need most? What has helped keep me going over the past two years?
And so here are my Top Twelve Rules for Helping a Friend Through Divorce.
Can you remember back to high school when you got dumped by your boyfriend and couldn’t stop talking about it? Well, divorce is like this, but magnified a gazillion times. The most important thing you can do is to be there for your friend, and to listen to her. She’s going to talk a lot. You may not agree with all of it. She won’t always make sense. And sometimes she’ll probably even piss you off. Please be patient with her. She’s on a terrible emotional roller coaster and sometimes she hardly knows what she’s saying.
You don’t need to have all the answers. You just need to be there to listen and support her. Nothing is more important.
2. Show empathy, not pity.
A neighbor cornered me after I first got separated and said, “It must be terrible. Not that I can really imagine it.” I still feel a a wave of shame when I think of this remark. She basically said that I deserved her pity because my situation could never happen to someone like HER.
Brene Brown defines empathy as “the ability to tap into our own experiences in order to connect with an experience someone is relating to us.” I’ve received empathy from the most unexpected sources: bank tellers, nurses, insurance brokers, and teachers. Some friends told me stories about their parents’ divorces; others shared different types of disappointments and heartbreaks. None of them judged me. They left me feeling understood and connected to them in a new way. This is empathy.
3. Do not tell her what to do. (And this is not the time for pep talks!)
It’s tempting to offer unsolicited advice. We want to help our friends and fix all their problems. But this is not the time to do it. Legal advice, in particular, is dangerous. Everyone’s divorce is different, and what worked for your cousin in another state might not work for your friend.
Along those lines, your friend is going to feel absolutely miserable sometimes. No pep talk with make her feel better, especially if it involves setting her up on a date if she’s not ready. You never even want to hint that she should be moving forward with her life and “getting over” her ex-husband or the pain of the divorce. Everyone’s timeline for healing is different. Even a year after the divorce, your friend might not feel good some days, and an overly enthusiastic pep talk might just put her over the edge.
4. Ask how SHE wants you to act.
Ask your friend if she wants you to ask her about the divorce every time you see her. Or maybe she would prefer for you to treat her normally until she brings it up. I’m in the second camp. I hate to walk into a room and know that everyone there feels obligated to check in to see how I’m doing today. (Besides, what if I only have bad news? I hate to drag people down with me.) I would rather just walk in like everyone else and enjoy the moment. And then when I feel bad or worried, I call a close friend.
But that’s just me. Everyone is different. So ask!
5. Check in regularly.
It’s easy for single moms and women going through divorce to feel alone and isolated from their old married friends. Short frequent phone calls are ideal, according to the experts. But even if you don’t have time for a conversation, send a text or email. I can’t tell you how touched I’ve been by the occasional text showing me that someone out there cares about me and is thinking about me.
6. Bring food! And wine. (Or at least coffee.)
This is pretty self-explanatory. Divorce is so stressful that it’s hard to care enough to cook a decent meal. I ate nothing but Pepperidge Farm goldfish for a month. A friend of mine survived on water and an occasional cracker. And cooking for children is even harder because it means you need to prepare three well-balanced meals a day when all you want to do is crawl back into bed. So sending over a meal is both thoughtful and practical – even if it’s just a pizza.
Even better, bring a pizza, a bottle of wine, and yourself over to your friend’s house. She could probably use the company. And if you think that’s too much, just buy her a cup of coffee. For at least six months after I announced my separation, people bought me coffee wherever I went. I thought it was sort of funny, but I was so touched and thankful too.
7. Help out with the kids.
Host a play date at your house, drive her children to sporting events and birthday parties so she has a few hours to herself, invite her children over for a sleepover. Ask her and the kids to over one night so that she doesn’t have to cook and can enjoy a glass of wine while all the kids play. Remind her of school and sporting events that she might otherwise forget. Offer to meet her at the park so that the kids can play and you can catch up with her. Don’t let her – or her kids – get isolated.
8. Help out with everything and anything.
Figure out how you can help. Share your talents and offer your services. Are you handy? Then offer to be on call if a toilet breaks or the roof starts leaking. A good connector? Put your newly separated friend in touch with other divorced moms.
I have a friend whose son works at a car dealership. I can bring my car there anytime. Her husband is great at researching cars online, so he has looked up several models for me. Her daughter babysits for my children, for free. They invite us to their beach and out on their boat. And she calls me up and invites me to go walking with her because she knows I can use the fresh air and companionship. She understands that everyone has something special to offer; she finds happiness in helping others; and, she is teaching her children this same gratitude. Without people like her, I could not have made it this far.
9. Don’t hide the happy moments in your life. But use some judgement.
Yes, of course I want to hear about your second honeymoon to Bora Bora. You are my friend, and I love you and your husband. I want you to be happy, and I am happy for you. By sharing the good moments of your married life, you give me hope that someday I’ll have have that too.
But if you are furious that your husband worked late once, and you feel like you’re falling apart because he wasn’t home to help put your kids to bed one night, maybe you should share this story with someone other than me. Divorce can make you mean sometimes. (See Rule No. 11.)
10. Remind her that she’s absolutely awesome.
Divorce batters your soul and your self-esteem. It pounds you down to the ground. But you have the power to build your friend back up. During my divorce, one kind word has had the power to bring me to tears. Happy tears. I certainly don’t want anyone to lie and say my hair looks great when it really looks lousy, but it is nice to hear a genuine and kind word about myself or my children. When people point out that I’m a great mom, for example, I know it’s true, and I melt with gratitude. Look at your friend, think about all the things that make her awesome, and point them out to her. She will return the favor someday, I promise.
11. Treat her with compassion.
I admit it. Sometimes when I’ve felt really awful during my divorce, like when the support check doesn’t arrive and I’m afraid of losing my home, I’ve been known to snap at the best of friends. I’m really really sorry! And yet I know in my heart that I’ll probably do it again before this is all over. Please please please understand and forgive me. And I will try to do better, be stronger.
12. Don’t forget her!
I had to add a twelfth rule here. Some divorces, like mine, drag on and on and on. People forget. They assume it’s over, all fixed. They move on. And I know, it’s hard to feel sympathy for someone for multiple years. But these are the friends who need your sympathy the most. There is nothing more soul-sucking and life-draining than a long, drawn-out contentious divorce. The truest of friends keep supporting me, even though I know it must be exhausting to them. I thank them from the bottom of my heart.
One last thought: No human being could do all of these things, much less perfectly! I know that, and your divorcing friend will know that too. Like so many other important things in life, it takes a village.