If you're in your late twenties and early thirties, the chances are, unfortunately, that you're shifting from a summer full of extravagant wedding invitations to tearful conversations with couples who reveal their marriage is over. It's a natural part of adulthood; roughly a third of marriages will likely end in divorce, if we believe current trends. But it doesn't mean life is particularly easy for those caught in the crossfire, even if the split is somehow delightful and everybody goes partying together afterwards. Divorce is a fraught process that requires proper support, and friendship networks play a large role in making that happen.
The overall rules for navigating a friend's divorce are obvious: be kind, don't cause trouble, and don't get involved in things you don't understand. But there are more subtle bits of advice to follow if you want to get through this with your friendship intact. Your instincts to get them "back in the dating pool"? Resist them for a bit. Your well-meaning advice to get ferocious over custody agreements and be suspicious of his or her phone calls? Not helping. Working with a fundamental life change in circumstances can be tricky, but you guys can work it out, even if the marriage can't.
And here's the cardinal rule: if you make things worse accidentally, apologize. Beyond that, here are seven pointers on how to help friends who are divorcing.
1. Don't Give Advice Unless You're A Divorce Lawyer Or A Divorcee
The overwhelming opinion of divorced women in particular appears to be that advice in general is not welcomed. Love? Yes. Support? Definitely. But well-meaning advice on how to maintain their equilibrium in an almighty legal and romantic mess might not go well, unless you yourself are coming from a position of experience, either as a legal adviser, a divorcee, or both.
XOJane has an entire list of things that divorcing people do not want advice about; much of it is nebulous stuff about "getting back into it" or "coping". The exception to this is specific, practical advice about immediate issues: hiring moving vans, good apartment rental sites, excellent babysitters and the like. Think like Tripadvisor. Beyond that, butt out.
2. Boost Their Self-Confidence
One of the most powerful feelings created by divorce is the sensation of rejection, and as I've covered elsewhere, we react to social rejection by those we love with physical, serious pain. The Huffington Post names a large number of negative emotions that accompany the rejecting experience of divorce, from anger and sadness to self-criticism and guilt. At root, though, the experience of rejection rocks our sense of self-worth and attractiveness, so as friends it's a damn good idea to compliment as much as possible. Get them a red lipstick or a massage. Tell them they look awesome.
3. Allow Them To Discuss Other Things
Divorce may seem like an all-consuming disaster, but one of the most helpful things for friends to do at any point in the process is to allow divorcing couples to be involved in other areas. You do not, by definition, become The Divorcing Person to the detriment of all other interests and concerns in a divorce. Writer Penney Berryman shared that one of the most helpful things done by friends during her divorce was the intrusion of the everyday: "Don’t worry about complaining about your life, stress, jobs, and amusing moments. I want to hear about your struggles and realize that your life isn’t perfect either. Just try not to one-up us on horrible divorce stories."
4. Don't Contribute To A Fearful Atmosphere
The tone of your contribution to divorce discussions matters. Sam Margulies, discussing the matter in Psychology Today, explores what he calls the "Greek Chorus Effect," in which onlookers, friends, and family unconsciously encourage the divorcing spouses to be aggressive and fearful of one another. The overall message of the Greek chorus, for Margulies, is "you're going to get hurt," whether they're telling the spouse to get a decent lawyer in case of an (unlikely) court case, bad-mouthing the ex, or sharing divorce stories that went miserably badly. Divorce rarely induces positivity, but it's up to you to make them feel as if what they're doing isn't a terrifying thing that leaves them vulnerable.
5. Include Them In Your Social Plans
The divorced or divorcing person is not contagious. Even if they're sad, even if you think they're a bit of a mess, it's still kind and respectful to include them in your social plans; they may decline, which is their prerogative, but it's valuable for them to feel like they're not pariahs. The psychology author Gretchen Rubin advises that including divorcing friends in social events "makes [them] feel included and supported," at a time when their overall feeling may be rejection and worthlessness.
6. Be Frank About Your Relationship With Their Ex
Friends divorcing is hard. When you're friends with both parties, it's likely even harder; you've got to be diplomatic as hell so as not to cause unnecessary difficulty. Ultimately, though, the priority is honesty, not making sure nobody gets their feelings hurt; sorting out friendships post-split will inevitably involve a bit of pain, for you and for them. But you shouldn't try to conceal your links with either partner, even if you don't flaunt them "It'll only make things worse in the long run if you try to hide it," as Women's Health puts it. "That said, if your friend flat-out asks you to choose sides in the divorce, you may have to think about whether or not you can realistically stay friends with both people."
7. Don't Let It Come Home To You
The phenomenon of a friend divorce's as a destabilizing influence on your own relationship is a known one; WebMD, of all places, points out that patterns in other relationships close to yours can prompt reactions in your own, from suspicion about infidelity to worry about arguments that, in the divorcing couple, seemed to lead to a relationship implosion. The ability to separate the private relationship struggles of others from those of your own intimacy is a difficult one to develop. But Redbook has a good outline of behaviors you can develop in this situation, from showing your partner that you have faith in your relationship to avoiding bringing all the divorce gossip home to them. Be conscious and sensible, and you won't have to fend off two relationship dramas at the same time.
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