So I got divorced this year. It was a change I initiated as part of my coming out as gay, and though it feels right to be out, creating a new normal for my family — none of whom expected or wanted that new normal — was still indescribably hard. Being honest with myself and everyone else meant I had to hurt people, and there’s no way around the pain in that. There were days I fantasized about putting myself to bed until everything was over. And though my situation is a bit unique, all divorces are painful in their own way. All divorces have the power to bring you to your knees.
One thing about this process I couldn’t have predicted until I went through it is that people don’t know what to say when you tell them you’re getting a divorce. Very few people I told had seen it coming, so the initial reaction was usually shock (in my case, double shock: I’m getting divorced… because I’m gay), followed by a scramble to recover and say the “right” thing.
Most people were perfectly lovely, but I found myself thinking many times that I wish I could write a brief how-to guide to give people an idea of the kinds of reactions people going through a divorce do and don’t want to hear. Honestly, I could have used it myself. There were times prior to my own separation that a friend told me they were going through a divorce, and now, in retrospect, I know I responded the wrong way. So, gathered from my own experience and the experiences of friends going through divorce, this is my how-to guide for what to say and not say and do and not do when an acquaintance, friend, or loved one tells you they’re getting a divorce:
Unless you’re super close, don’t offer a ton of sympathy.
A couple of times, I told someone I barely knew that I was getting a divorce, and their reaction was as if I’d told them I was dying, like, tomorrow. It was too much. Too much “I’m sorry” and “Is there anything I can do?!”
I was already overwhelmed and didn’t want to hold their vicarious pain and comfort them… about my divorce. My divorced and divorcing friends have confirmed: we don’t want to have to add comforting and reassuring an acquaintance to our already heavy load of emotional baggage.
So what do you do? Well, on one evening out with new friends a few years ago, prior to my own divorce, one of the women who was kind of new to the group announced she was divorcing her husband. My other friend held up her hand for a high five and said, “Awesome. Next round’s on me.” It was the perfect response for the moment. It lightened the mood, and as the night went on, our new friend shared more, but my other friend’s response was exactly the you-do-you tone needed for that particular situation.
Another great response from an acquaintance: “Oh man, divorce is so hard. So… do you have updated contact info for me? Do you need help moving?” No sorries, just “What do I need to know?” and “Need some help?”
It might just be me, but I don’t like when people say they’re “sorry” about my divorce. Unless you know all the reasons behind a person’s separation, please don’t say this. When people said “sorry” to me, it almost felt like they were invalidating my need to get a divorce. I’m gay; I really had to leave my heterosexual marriage. I’m not sorry about it. I’m extremely sorry I hurt people, but I’m not sorry for doing what needed to be done.
And despite the guilt I feel for causing my loved ones pain, I also feel liberated. And I don’t feel sorry for that either. And, again, though my situation is unique in its own way, plenty of people get divorced for really good reasons and would rather you didn’t feel “sorry” for them. So, sure, acknowledge divorce is hard, but don’t harp on being “sorry” about it.
For close friends getting divorced, you can (and should) do more.
That said, it’s obviously different if a really close friend tells you they’re getting a divorce. You may have known it was coming, or it may be a surprise. Many people in the months leading up to separation will appear to have a great relationship. They’re quieter on social media as they sort through hard feelings and decisions together, or they’re working on their marriage and putting on a good front as part of that effort, or they’re not ready to tell their kids yet and have agreed not to share with any friends to ensure the kids don’t find out. Whatever the reason, divorce is often an intensely private process, so don’t be offended if you’re surprised by the news that someone you consider a very close friend tells you they’re getting a divorce and you had absolutely no idea.
How to respond? In my experience, mirroring is the best response. Empathize with whatever your friend is feeling without exacerbating the feeling or attempting to “talk them down.” Ask about logistics — where will they be living, what’s the plan for the kids, are they safe? Don’t talk shit about their ex unless you know with 100% certainty that they need that affirmation. But also don’t defend the ex. Just listen to what your friend is saying and mirror their feelings. Just be there.
And once the divorce is underway — remember, this process can take literally years — offer to help with their kids, do a chore for them, or bring them a meal. If your friend is suddenly a single parent, they are probably overwhelmed between work, childcare, and divorce paperwork. The stress of all of this can sometimes feel so heavy that the person going through it can be reduced to near incapacity. For me, there were days I had deadlines and I just could not make my brain work the way I needed. I was fortunate that my bosses and co-workers were understanding and granted me extensions. Having good friends around to help was a godsend.
Which brings me to the last thing: Act like nothing has changed. I had a few friends who acted like everything was normal and invited me to social functions and kept inviting me even when I said no over and over at first because I was either too busy or too emotionally drained or felt too awkward at that moment. Because yes, some days, the last thing a person going through divorce wants is to deal with other people. But other days, other people — friends — are exactly what they need.
So keep inviting your friend who’s going through a divorce, even if they keep saying no. They need to maintain this connection to normalcy so that when the dust finally settles, they don’t look up from the debris and realize they are all alone.