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4 Things to Say to a Friend Who Tells You They’re Getting Divorced (And The #1 Thing Not To Say)

One of the most surprising things for me while going through divorce was the responses of family and friends to the news that my ex and I were divorcing. Sometimes, people I expected to be totally supportive weren’t; other times, acquaintances I hardly knew showed up for me with a card or a kind text and a bottle of wine. Friends I thought I could count on not to take sides between me and my ex took sides. Friends who I expected to side with my ex showed up for me and supported both me and my ex and our kids. 

If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that you can’t always predict how the news of divorce will affect other people or how their reaction will land on you – the person who is actually going through the divorce

When people hear “divorce” they make all kinds of assumptions based on their own experiences (or lack thereof) with marriage, divorce, and our culture that perpetuates ideas about divorce always being “bad” and staying married always being “good”. News of divorce can be triggering for people who experienced traumatic divorces in their lives as children, or who are in unhappy marriages but are “sticking it out” for whatever reason. News of divorce can make people feel destabilized in their own choices and lives; it can leave them feeling anxious and insecure. For others, news of divorce doesn’t push any triggers, and they are able to respond with kindness, attunement and lack of judgement. In my experience, there were many surprises from family and friends whom I expected would react one way, but actually responded in another.

But perhaps most of all, people simply don’t know what to say. They feel awkward and uncertain. They aren’t sure of the right way to respond. I often found myself in the position of needing to state clearly to friends and family what I needed – what was and wasn’t helpful from them during this difficult time. 

If you find yourself wanting a script to give to family members and friends about what is (and isn’t) helpful, here’s a friendly list you can forward on to them (or keep in mind and express to them out loud).

Good Thing to Say #1:

“Wow, how are you feeling about that?”

This is perhaps the best possible way to react to someone who has just told you they’re divorcing. Because the truth is, you don’t know what this person’s divorce means to them until they tell you. So a great response is to simply ask. And then listen.

Good Thing to Say #2:

“I can imagine this has been a big and difficult decision. What do you need from me right now?

What a relief it can be to have the difficulty of the decision to divorce acknowledged! No matter if the decision to divorce was a long time coming or more sudden, the fact is it’s not a decision that anyone takes lightly, if for no other reason than getting divorced is a pain in the ass. Following up that acknowledgement with “what do you need from me right now?” is a thoughtful way to give the divorcing person space to tell you exactly what they need. Maybe they’ll tell you they need a cup of coffee with you and some space to vent. Maybe they’ll need your encouragement and cheerleading for the divorce procedures ahead. Maybe they’ll just need to know you’re thinking of them and sending your love. Whatever it is, they’ll know what to do because you asked.

Good Thing to Say #3:

“I know getting divorced can be like having another full time job! Can I watch your kids for you sometime? Or bring over some dinner on Tuesday?”

Even in the most amicable of divorces, the process of divorcing is time consuming and exhausting. A great way to be a good friend of family member to a divorcing person is to pitch in and help with their life! Bringing them a meal or taking their kids to the park or the zoo some Saturday afternoon might be very helpful. At the very least, making this offer lets the divorcing person know they can count on you when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

Good Thing to Say #4:

“I realize that no one really knows what goes on in a marriage except for the two people who are in it. I will never judge you and you can count on me to be here for you.”

People who are going through divorce often feel judged by others – because, well, often they are being judged by others! If you can genuinely say that you aren’t judging them, then say that. And if you realize you are actually having a hard time not being judgemental about their decision to divorce, recognize that this is about you and not about them and that perhaps you aren’t the best person to offer them support right now. It’s okay to say, “This news is hard for me because of my own stuff, and I’m sorry but I can’t be there for you right now.” Divorcing people will appreciate the directness, and your owning the fact that your judgmentalness is your own issue and not about them.

And the #1 Thing Not to Say:

“Oh, that’s terrible news! This must just be devastating for your kids.”

There is literally no divorcing person with children who isn’t thinking about how this decision will affect their kids. (Unless they are a narcissistic sociopath. In which case, you can say anything to them you want, because it won’t matter.) No divorcing person needs you to tell them their decision will have an impact on the lives of their kids. And the assumption that staying in a marriage “for the sake of the kids” is a better decision than divorcing is not backed up by any real data. For the person who is divorcing, the divorce may or may not be “terrible news.” It might, in fact, be great news for them. It’s best to check your assumptions and ask questions before offering commentary, value judgements and opinions.

What were some of the responses you found most helpful from friends and family when you first told them you were getting divorced? What are some things people said that were not helpful?


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