We all know someone who’s divorced or divorcing or thinking about it. When we hear a couple is splitting, we feel a momentary sadness for them and then move on to our next task. Why? Because divorce isn’t shocking anymore. It’s become an unfortunate rite of passage for nearly 50 percent of us. But the numbers mean little to the people who have gone — or are going — through the process. The strength in numbers thing doesn’t apply to divorce because each and every divorce is uniquely decimating.
So, be mindful. Know that divorced folks are hurting in ways that may never resolve despite their best efforts to move on. Here are some tips for not shooting yourself in the foot around those who’ve dismantled their marriages and lives.
1. Being divorced isn’t a character flaw. Recently, I heard some friends discussing a male acquaintance. They didn’t have very many kind things to say about the guy. One friend chimed in while simultaneously rolling her eyes, “Well, he’s divorced so…” What the heck does that mean? That the ending of his marriage proves that he’s not of sound mind or character? Being divorced means his marriage didn’t work out and that’s it.
2. Being divorced doesn’t mean they can’t complain about the fallout. Even those in favor of ending their marriages may not be prepared for the emotional and financial consequences of doing so. Life is entirely pulled to pieces after a divorce. It’s a tough and lonely struggle. So, when your divorced friend complains she’s having a hard time making ends meet, your response should not be, “Well, this is what you wanted, isn’t it?”
3. Divorce doesn’t go away. Divorce is something you do that forever becomes something you are. It becomes part of the fabric of your being. Don’t dismiss someone’s divorce with, “Oh, that was ages ago! You must have completely moved on by now!” That’s not how it works. The long-reaching implications of divorce — emotional, financial, psychological — may never completely resolve.
4. Divorce isn’t always the reason kids screw up. Heck, doesn’t everyone’s kids screw up at some point? To assign a child’s behavior to his parent’s divorce isn’t entirely fair. Do kids sometimes act out as a result of divorce? Sure. But there may be something deeper going on that warrants a closer look. “Oh, well, you know his parents are divorcing,” is dismissive and unfairly judgmental.
5. Their next relationship isn’t a cure-all. So, your divorced friend is now in a good relationship. And you’re so happy for him. It seems this time around he’s really found Mr. or Ms. Right. But these new relationships are far more complex. Perhaps there are stepkids involved. Or angry, vindictive exes to deal with. Be patient with your friend as he navigates this often sticky road of second marriage.
6. Divorce changes friendships. When folks re-partner, there are a lot of traditions to merge. You may have spent the last 20 years celebrating every July 4th with your divorced friend, but now she has a partner who has spent the last 20 years celebrating it differently. Now your friend must make choices and compromises. Although it shakes up your expectations, be compassionate with her as she makes the hard decisions in order to keep her new relationship on track.
7. Don’t flaunt your intact family. Of course, you’re thrilled you’re celebrating your 20th wedding anniversary or gleefully planning the trip of a lifetime with your spouse, but be mindful to whom you’re speaking. There’s nothing wrong with telling your divorced friend about your plans, but be sure you’re not flaunting hurtful circumstances your friend has little chance of ever duplicating. Would you gush about parenting and pregnancy to someone who’s struggling with infertility? Of course not. So same goes for life’s milestones your divorced friend may never get to celebrate.
8. Don’t say you know what they’re going through. Because if you haven’t gone through it, you don’t. Divorce is a loss that shakes up one’s life on every conceivable level. And there are far and few other circumstances you can say the same about. Better to say, “I might not understand everything you’re going through, but you can always count on me to listen.”
9. Be ready to choose sides. This is a tough one you may swear you’ll never do but then life with your divorced friend proves to be complicated. Perhaps his new wife is at constant odds with your friend, his ex. Turns out that inviting them both to your daughter’s wedding may prove disastrous. Ask yourself which one was your true friend before their divorce. If that’s crystal clear, your decision has been made. If both partners were your true friends, speak with them about how to handle these uncomfortable situations. They will be better at guiding you because they’re living it every day.
10. Don’t disappear. Your friend needs you now more than ever. Get comfortable with divorce if you’re not. Your friend is not a social pariah, she’s a wounded puppy. She feels helpless and hopeless at times, regardless of how her life looks from the outside. Help her walk this difficult path knowing you play an intrinsic and irreplaceable part in her healing process.