If I’ve learned anything at all about divorce, it’s that it doesn’t always look the way you expect it to. For all the people who publicly change their status on social media or who are pretty quickly seen dating someone new, there are lots of others who suffer in silence for a time – sometimes a really long time – before they say anything.
There’s a lot of reasons for it. There’s fear, of course – both of the unknown and what will happen to them post-divorce, but also of the reactions of family and friends. Whether I like it or not, there’s still some stigma associated with divorce. People who have only ever known happy marriages are some of the worst people to talk to about a divorce, too, because they just see how ‘sad’ the situation is, without seeing all of the things that have gone on behind the scenes.
Even when it comes to people you know and know well, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that you probably haven’t been privy to. It’s not that your divorcing friends don’t want to share it, but there’s a period of build up before a divorce or separation, and that’s a time when a lot of people tend to hold their cards close to their chest. Some feel like they won’t be believed. Some feel they won’t receive the support that they need to be able to go through with it without feeling worse. Others aren’t sure that things really are over, and they don’t want to let a friend or family member see the chinks in the marriage when they aren’t sure yet that they’re prepared to leave it.
There’s also the challenge of dealing with mutual friends. It’s especially hard when you know both divorcing parties. There’s the sense that friends and family will take sides, or that certain people ‘belong’ to one spouse or the other in the breakup. It can be a really isolating time.
When you combine that with a more serious issue (as in, not just that we have ‘irreconcilable’ differences or that the parties grew apart over time rather than together) like a narcissistic personality, mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction, adultery, or domestic violence (just to name a few – there could be about a million others), there’s even more stigma and pain involved.
In fact, I’m writing this article today in response to a conversation I just had with a friend of mine who is getting a divorce. As you can probably imagine, this happens to me with some frequency – but it’s always a challenging conversation to have. I’m not talking about a professional conversation, either; I’m taking about a friend-to-friend conversation discussing a divorce.
There are a lot of things we do when we talk with divorcing women that can be unhelpful, and that can reinforce the feelings of isolation and judgment that they’re experiencing. Most people really do want to get it right but, at the same time, struggle with what to say, which is why I’ve written this guide in the hopes that it will help you have a productive conversation where you show your friend that you are a safe place for her to share her thoughts.
Remember: an unhappy, abusive, unfulfilling or dishonest marriage ending may be ‘sad’, but don’t confuse your feelings about ending a happy marriage with the feelings a woman might have ending her unhappy marriage.
That’s a typical response – ‘oh my gosh, how sad’ – and, I won’t lie, I’ve said it myself. And divorce is sort of sad, in some ways – especially when you consider the loss of the shared future that the couple used to imagine. It’s definitely a restructuring.
But you know what’s really sad? STAYING when it’s a bad marriage. So, even though the ending of a marriage is sad, and the feelings that your friend is feeling probably have a lot of sadness in them, divorce isn’t the saddest thing that can happen. Divorce, in a lot of ways, is an opportunity to reach out for better. Keep this in mind during your conversations, and feel free to gently remind her that, if the marriage isn’t what it was represented to be, that she’ll have the opportunity to find something (not necessarily just love, but anything) more meaningful, supportive, and heathy for her long term.
She may need encouragement to seek professional support.
You always have to be delicate when you approach a discussion about mental health, but it can be important. Girlfriends have their place, but they don’t always give the best advice. In my opinion, advice should be carefully calculated to help support healthy recovery and the development of coping mechanisms that will serve your friend well over the long term. Martini nights can be helpful and cathartic, but, overall, they don’t represent the healthiest coping mechanisms when taken to excess. And, if your advice is (even jokingly) to go all Carrie Underwood on him, or to suggest hiring a hitman, or even a casual ‘maybe he’ll die’ joke (which, let’s be honest, can have it’s place), it may not be helping your friend develop positive coping mechanisms that’ll serve her well long term.
Don’t get me wrong; you’re doing the right things, even if you do crack a death joke now and again. But you could also really be helpful her if you coach her to see a therapist or even to get some medication for any anxiety, depression, insomnia or other issues she’s facing during this difficult time.
Understand that she’s going to need to follow her own path – even if it’s not the path you think she should take.
If your friend confides in you about something so deeply personal as the health of her marriage, understand what a huge vote of confidence that is.
Understand, too, that each divorcing person has to take her own path. Just because something has happened that, to you, is an obvious deal breaker doesn’t mean that your friend is ready to throw in the towel just yet. You can probably accept that in a lot of situations, but it’s also true even in cases where there’s pretty extreme physical and/or emotional abuse. That can be hard, as a friend, to stomach.
At the same time, though, she’s an adult. You can’t MAKE her end her marriage or leave her husband – and, if you push her too hard to take the path you think she should take when you think she should take it, she might stop confiding in you entirely.
If she’s not talking to you, you might lose your ability to help. You might not be the person she calls if/when she finds herself really feeling unsafe. You jeopardize the strength of the friendship.
Every divorcing woman takes her own path, and part of that comes from feeling, at the end of the day, that she’s done everything she needed to do to try to save the marriage before she ended it. She needs that peace of mind. She needs to take her own path.
She needs you, too. But she needs you to be supportive and understanding. She can probably handle some tough love, but you need to temper it with true compassion and a willingness to help her in the way that SHE needs to be helped, not in the way you might wish to help.
It’s not an easy place to be in, but if you find a way to juggle her needs and help show her the way forward, you’ll be an instrumental part in an otherwise really difficult journey. Women definitely need friends as they go through the divorce process, and the fact that you’re here, reading this, says a lot about your devotion to your friend.
For more information or to request a copy of our divorce book, give us a call at 757-425-5200 or visit our website at hoflaw.com.