When my husband and I separated and divorced, I felt entirely alone. Given 40-50% of all marriages end in divorce, statistics suggest I should have known someone in the same boat, but I didn’t. I was aware of some single parents and blended families, but they existed only on the sidelines of my life.
Filled with pain and guilt, and overwhelmed by navigating a process I knew nothing about, I turned to my friends for help. Most of them had no idea what to do. Their intentions were good, but our conversations left me feeling more alone.
My ride-or-die girlfriends helped most. Their kindness and love and unwavering support still stops me in my tracks, years after our divorce was final. My closest friends did five things for me during my divorce that moved me forward.
If your friend (guy or gal) is newly separated, or navigating a divorce, here’s what you can do to help:
1. Listen without judgment. Really.
You may think you are already doing this, but the truth is you’re probably not. If you are agreeing with what your friend is saying about his ex, you’re not doing this. If you’re “helping” your friend think about the effects of divorce on her children, you’re not doing it. Listen and acknowledge the feeling and stop talking.
Grief is a circular process. Decision-making can be circular too. People going through separations love their partners even as the relationship dies. In fact, no one loves or cares for her ex more than your friend. Those circular processes combined with that love means that your friend will want to stay one day and leave the next.
My best friends didn’t agree that Billy was an asshole. They didn’t agree that I should stay with him. Years later, I still don’t know what they thought I should do. That impartial stance made it easy to keep talking to them.
My friends simply listened. They comforted me in my sadness and helped lessen the load of my guilt. They encouraged me and shared their hope. They held space for me.
2. Be LOUD about your support.
This is a tricky one, because it has a caveat. Be loud about your support for your friend, not her decision (because it may change). Be loud about building her up, without tearing her ex down.
Here’s what that sounds like: You’re coping well. I support you. You’re a strong person and will get through this. I am here for you. You’re smart and capable and will handle anything that comes your way. I’ll help. You’re a good mom. You’re a loving father. In a year, this will feel better. What do you need? I love you.
Say those things almost too often. It should feel like you’re shouting. This is important because your friend has so much noise surrounding her that it will be hard to hear you, hard to remember your support. Text, call, write, talk. Show her you are unwaveringly on her team.
3. Recognize milestones.
Call on the anniversary. Call on Valentine’s Day. Increase your support around holidays. Don’t ignore the event hoping your friend will forget it; he won’t. His history is still his story, and has value.
My maid of honor called me on my first wedding anniversary after our separation. She asked how I was feeling, and we ended up talking about what a beautiful, fun day our wedding had been. I appreciated that call for months afterwards.
Recognize and celebrate the milestones in your relationship with your friend too. Remind her that she has a story and life outside of her marriage. My college roommates took me on Spring Break after Billy and I separated. We’d been steadfast Spring Break travel buddies in college, but hadn’t taken a trip together in years. Sitting under the palm trees with my girlfriends helped remind me who I was before I was Billy’s wife.
4. Share resources.
Begin collecting information for your friend. He’s navigating a new process, and there is a lot of information to learn. Connect him with other divorcees, pass on the name of a good divorce attorney you heard about, send an article about coparenting, share the Pinterest Kids + Divorce resource board you found.
Two tips on this one: first, wait for when your friend ready, don’t overwhelm him. That might take some time. Second, don’t share the information and what you think he should do with it. Just the facts, ma’am.
5. Include her.
Invite her out when she’s available, especially if she is adjusting to a new child custody schedule. Meet her at the movies on a Tuesday night. Spend a Saturday morning learning yoga with her. Take a cooking class. Fill up her newly free time with fun, distracting activities. She’ll be able to do this on her own in the coming months, but you can help in the beginning.
Include her in things you used to do with her as half of her marriage. This can be tricky, if you’re also close with her ex, but it can be done. One of my best friends invited Billy and I to game night at her house every Friday night. We kept showing up after our separation, we just rotated which Friday each of us attended. Don’t assume she won’t want to come to something just because she’s now single. Don’t assume it will be weird. Invite and allow her to make the decision.
What if you can’t do these things?
That’s okay. The most important thing is don’t pretend.
If your loyalties are truly torn, or you believe she is taking the wrong step, think carefully about whether or not to tell her. It may have serious implications to your friendship. If you must say something, be kind and honest and stand quietly by your truth. Don’t dwell in drama or make this about you: it isn’t your journey.
Be the friend she needs right now, and if you can’t, don’t.