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What Not To Say To Your Newly Divorced Friend

It doesn’t take much effort to avoid these topics for a little while — and it can mean a lot to the person you care about.

Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Shutterstock
The Divorce Issue

I’m not an easily offended person. I have a pretty easy time not taking things personally or shrugging off things that I could decide to brood over. But I was more than a little surprised by some of the things people said to me in the year after my divorce. And the event was such a painful, raw chapter in my life that I fully admit some of the comments cut deep even if they were not meant to be mean and even if they were just said in passing.

The ones that hurt most? Comments that made assumptions about my family, my feelings, or relationship; comments about their intact marriages and families; and comments that made me feel alienated and (even more) alone.

I’m sure that I said some of the following things to my divorced friends before I got divorced and saw things from their perspective. And now I’m here to let everyone else avoid the same thing, especially with friends and family members who you love and value.

“My husband is on a work trip, so I’m single parenting!”

This is, I think, the number-one offender for me. You are not “single parenting” when your partner is away for work or pleasure — for a lot of reasons. You still have two incomes (if you both work). You still usually have a helping hand, it’s just busy at the moment. And you’re not struggling with a lot of the ongoing landmines and barriers that your single and divorced friends face — 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks out of the year.

Not to mention: Even when your spouse is gone, you still have emotional support. Someone who cares about you even when they’re far away, someone to text if you have a problem or need to hear a loving voice, someone you can complain to.

A better thing to say: “I think I am getting the smallest idea of what you’re going through while my partner is away. Even doing what you do for a week is really hard.”

Or you can say, “I am solo parenting and it is hard!” Solo parenting is, I think, a great way to say you are parenting without help for a period of time, but you’re not single and you’re not alone.

Or you can just complain to your other married friends about it and talk to me about something else.

“You’re so lucky you get alone time away from your kids.”

I have a 50/50 custody split with my ex-husband, so I have my kids every other week. There are some things that are very nice about this: I have alone time to clean my house and prepare meals for my week with the kids. I have some peace and quiet. I can read a book uninterrupted for more than five minutes. I can go out without a babysitter and experience a bit more freedom.

But none of these perks come close to the heartache and despair that comes with the fact that I’m losing out on time with my kids. Time that I can’t get back. Days and months and years of time that already goes too fast. Sending my kids away is the most painful moment of my week and by far the most painful part of my divorce. Nothing is going to make that feel better, but it especially feels crappy if someone tries to make it sound like a good thing. I’m not lucky. The dream of what I wanted my life to look like was taken away.

A better thing to say: “Let me know if you need company when your kids are away.” Or, “I am really sorry you are missing time with your kids.”

“I know I can complain about my husband to you!”

Possibly the weirdest and most unexpected aspect of my divorce is that my married friends now see me as the go-to person to complain to about their spouse. And they tell me the wildest stuff that you would not believe — one friend confessed their stay-at-home husband was sleeping with the cleaning lady. Others just want to tell me about a husband who doesn’t help, a husband who is physically or emotionally absent, a husband who doesn’t love them anymore.

I think this happens because they see me as a person who also had a screwed-up marriage with problems, and therefore I can relate. I think it also happens because they want to keep their “I’m totally happy with my husband” facade intact for everyone else in the world. I also feel like they don’t really know what to say to me, so they think complaining about their own marriage will give us something to bond over.

But the bottom line is that it feels like you are complaining about something that you have — a marriage — that I don’t have. It also makes me want to yell at you, “If you hate him, you can leave!”

A better thing to say: Save your deep, dark relationship confessions for someone else unless we are very close.

“The holidays are so busy/The holidays suck.”

As you likely know, the holidays are notoriously hard for parents with split custody. Many of us switch off holidays, which means that every other Christmas and Thanksgiving is spent without our kids. Again, this could not be more painful and isolating, and for most people I know, it’s the worst part of their divorce. People like me, who don’t live near family, face holidays alone or with friends (although being alone is sometimes better than feeling on the edges of someone else’s happy holiday).

So, it’s really tough when friends choose to complain to me about their hard aspects of their holidays: seeing too much family, feeling overwhelmed with obligations, not getting alone time. I 100% understand that these are real problems and their feelings are completely valid. But also I am just not the right person to hear about it at this time. I would swap with you in a nanosecond.

A better thing to say: Invite me to your weird holiday get-together. Drop off a plate of food on my front stoop (you don’t even have to ring the bell). Ask if I want to run the Turkey Trot with you. Send me a little text on Christmas morning. It means way more than you think.

“I would get a divorce, too, but...”

So many things on this list are said by people who want to say the right thing but just go a little sideways — and this is the best example. People want to relate to me and how I’m feeling. Some people might even want to tell me about how much pain they are in when it comes to their marriage and see me as a way to get help.

It’s the but here that really hurts to hear.

“I want to get divorced, but I know it would hurt my children.”

“I want to get divorced, but I don’t want to put myself in that financial situation.”

“I want to get divorced, but I don’t want to go back to dating.”

All of these statements feel like judgments to me. It’s you telling me, in a roundabout way, about why you disagree with my decision. That you feel I hurt my kids, or made a bad money choice.

A better thing to say: “I understand why you would get divorced, and I support you.”

And if you really are seriously thinking about divorce, you can tell me that and I can help you with all of the logistical information and all of the emotional support, to the end of the world.

“It’s so exciting you get to date again!”

I have no words for this. Anyone who says this does not know what online dating is like for a woman in her 40s. It’s a living nightmare that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. Please just never, ever say this.

A better thing to say: Anything else. Just anything.

“I know how you feel.”

You get to say this if you’ve been divorced before and gone through child custody stuff. In fact, if you’ve been through this before, I want to talk to you at length and often.

But if you haven’t, please don’t try to relate to me. I don’t care if the breakup with your college boyfriend was really bad, or if you saw a documentary or read a novel that really made you realize what divorce is like.

Some people assume I’m really sad about my divorce, when the reality is that I’m overall happier than when I was married. Some people go the other direction and assume that everything is perfect now that I am out of a relationship that wasn’t working. Both are sort of wrong. It’s complicated.

A better thing to say: “How are you feeling?”

I couldn’t have navigated my divorce without a huge support system of friends. And 95% of the time, they said exactly the right thing to me. They spoke from their hearts, were sincere, and cut out all the bullsh*t. They also often spoke in small actions: giving me a call, giving me a hug, acknowledging my experience, making sure I’m not alone on hard days.

It’s often the off-hand comments from acquaintances or the “well-meaning” support from people I didn’t know so well that really hurt. And it often hurts because they 1) make assumptions, 2) try too hard to relate, or 3) don’t take a minute to think about my experience. Those things are really easy to avoid.

When I first got divorced I told one friend, who also was recently divorced, that I had decided to end my marriage. She gave me a big hug and said, “Congratulations and I’m sorry.”

It was the most right thing to say.