Age 17 to age 30. Those are a lot of formative adult years to spend with another human. In a sense we grew up together, and because we grew up fast we beat our friends to a lot of the milestones. We were the first of our friends to get engaged. In fact, it wasn’t a thing yet to have it captured on camera so he proposed in the middle of the woods on his birthday.
We were still in college and full of anticipation, juggling classes and full time jobs and planning honeymoons and playfully arguing over hypothetical baby names for our future kids. And then we were the first to marry. I’ll never forget the funny memories we had as the result of an open bar, a great DJ and a close knit group of friends. And with the birth of our sweet daughter, we were the first to become parents. Actually, we had two kids before any of our other friends had one. We bought the house and checked off that box. Sold the house, checked off that box. And now, just as most of our friends start to settle down and get married, we are the first to get divorced.
Talk about a gut punch. I wish I had a profound ways to describe it. It sucks. Much like there are so many unique aspects to being the first to go through anything, it definitely complicates divorce, which is difficult as a standalone process. Everyone has a different lens through which they experience a situation, and here is mine.
For one, nobody knows what to say, so most people say nothing at all. I have a couple of friends who I know through work and both of my older sisters have been through it, so I’m forever thankful for them because they know how isolating this can be. A couple of people sent some “thinking of you” messages in those first couple of weeks when news spread of our separation. It was helpful at the time, but I was so in a fog I could barely take in what was happening around me. I was living in minute-tight compartments and reminding myself to eat and breathe. Now that the dust has settled, those who were friends with us have largely disengaged with me, and it’s incredibly painful.
Notice I said friends with “us?” Right along with that is another complicated piece: those friends you mostly hung out with as a couple. Who gets custody of them? How do you share them? I know those sentences read weird, but people who have been through it know what I’m talking about. Much like splitting up and sorting out money, custody arrangements, belongings, and expenses, there is this unspoken awkward pressure to sort your friends list out, too.
Of course, it is possible to still be friends with both people through a divorce, and given that he and I are amicable, we wouldn’t ever ask anyone to pick a side. But here’s the thing—people just sort of do anyways. Even if it isn’t a side or a stance, they reflexively connect or stay in touch with one person more than the other. Or if one person in a couple pulls back, so does the spouse. Early on it was too painful for me to process this, and so I just shut people out. I still sometimes do. I’d rather make the decision for people than to face rejection or pain of losing something else I love. It isn’t a healthy coping mechanism, and the collateral damage is that I’ve lost some people in the process. Unfriend, unfollow, put a Band-Aid on it and hope it heals.
It’s bizarre to watch people start brand new chapters of their lives when you’re closing your book. Sometimes I want to protect people who I see making the same mistakes I did. Then there are other times I’m envious of people who lived out their 20s in a typical fashion and settled down later, maybe with a better chance of “success” in a relationship than we did. I know in my heart of hearts I would never want to re-do anything because our history was beautiful even if it’s excruciating to relive right now. Often I feel like an old soul living in a young person’s body. I cannot relate to anybody my own age.
I never like to pose a problem I don’t have some solutions to, so what can you say and do for your friend going through a divorce? This advice really goes for anyone, but especially if they are the first out of your inner circle.
1. Be a listening ear, but don’t get sucked into the gossip.
Ideally, your friends are seeing counselors to work through this difficult time, but even then, they likely will feel the need to vent about their frustrations through this painful process. When emotions are raw, the things coming out of their mouths are not without bias and subjectivity. It’s okay to be the listening ear, but please don’t be the person who goes and spreads the gossip. There is no good that can come of it, it certainly won’t help your friends, and it’s not your place. Even if you and your spouse are both friends with the couple and one wants to trash the other, end it before it gets started. If you truly love your friends, you won’t do this.
2. Reach out to your friend who has fallen off the grid.
Like I mentioned earlier, to me it was easier to shut people out or just hibernate than it was to face possible rejection from friends through this process. Is that cool of me to do? No. But the intentions behind it are rooted in self-preservation, not malice. We don’t want to stop being friends with you, we just don’t have anything left in the tank. There is a solid chance that person is dealing with some serious depression, which really cancels out the person’s ability to reach out for help. You don’t have to have all of the right things to say, but just letting someone know you are there for them and still love them means everything.
3. They may say no. Invite them anyways.
Too often friends feel like they have to be the referees when drawing up invites to events. You are taking on a role you don’t have to do. It’s the responsibility of the couple who are divorcing to decide at what point they can tolerate events together, who should go if they can’t, who has the kids, and all the other factors. It’s painful and lonely and isolating to not be a part of all the things that have been so much of your life.
4. Treasure your friends who go through things first.
Truly appreciate that they are the trailblazers for the celebrations, grief, plateaus, and everything in between. They are the ones who will be there for you when you go through the same things. It can be a scary path to be on when nobody has told you how to get through it or how to do it.
Divorce is hard on its own. Be kind. Don’t be a jerk. Offer yourself, even if it’s just saying that you’re still there. Reach out. Don’t judge. Show empathy and be the person you would want to show up. And do just that—show up! Things may never feel back to the normal that you knew, but a new normal can be beautiful when you care enough to preserve love in the lives of those around you.