Of course divorce can be destabilizing, even if the split was Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin-levels of amicable, and reasons for the split were seemingly benign. And if you're watching a loved one cycle through the typical emotions associated with this trying chapter—grief, fear, anger, and frustration—not to mention lengthy legal proceedings, it's easy to feel helpless or concerned that you'll say the wrong thing.
The words, "Don't worry, you're better off without them," don't always cut it—or even come close to soothing a very complicated situation. And, while gifting them a book on divorce that could say it better than you can yourself, is a place to start, it may not speak to what they're going through, specifically. Also, urging them to "get back out there" right away might not be the best tact, either. What matters most, however, is that you try, according to experts, who share their tips here on how to support friends and family who are going through a divorce.
Keep inviting them out, even if they often decline.
“Many people report that once they're divorced, they are ‘outed’ from the marital friend group,” says licensed clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go? Not only that, your loved one may be lonely.
“People who were used to spending time with their ex or with their family on a regular basis can find it unsettling when they're suddenly alone instead,” says David Klow, licensed family therapist and author of You Are Not Crazy: Letters From Your Therapist. Even if they can't quite muster the energy to socialize, continue to include them in plans so they stay connected, or at the very least, feel wanted.
If they’re moving, help them pack.
Another crummy downside of divorce: relocating. “Tasks like packing for a move can be hot button triggers for many difficult emotions,” says Manhattan-based licensed clinical psychologist Joseph Cilona, PsyD.
The simple act of putting old sweaters in a box can represent the deeper losses and pain commonly experienced by those going through divorce, he adds. You being there to help them sort through their things and do some pre-move Marie Kondo-ing, can provide much-needed distraction and comfort.
Yes, you’re probably going to talk in circles for a while, but know this: It’s actually really helpful. “Let your friend talk it out,” Durvasula says. “It may start to sound repetitive, and that's okay. That's how we off-load grief.”
Most people don't need advice. They need to know they're not alone.
Don’t feel pressure to have the answers, either. “Most people don't need advice during a divorce, they just need to know that they're not alone and that people care,” Klow says.
However tempting, don’t trash their ex.
This one is tricky, especially if they’re bashing their former spouse. But try to resist the urge to join in. “Oftentimes emotions can vacillate quickly, frequently, and intensely,” Cilona explains. “One day your friend might be feeling and saying aggressively negative things; another day quite the opposite.”
If you do end up adding your err, two cents, your friend might not feel comfortable sharing with you if their sentiments change to something more positive. “Instead, focus on listening and validating your friend's emotions without emphasizing your own judgments or opinions,” Cilona says.
Help out with partner-like things.
That means offering to watch their kids when they need to go to the doctor, dog sitting when they travel for work, or suggesting you'll pick up groceries when you’re already going to be at the store. Basically, try to help with the things that their ex theoretically would have done in the past. “Filling in—or at least trying to—will help them remember that even though they lost their spouse, they still have a partner,” Klow says.
Show up with a meal.
Cooking dinner can be a chore under the best of circumstances, but doing it after a divorce is often a painful reminder that there will be one less person at the table. So, prep something for your loved one and drop it off at their place.
When in doubt, bring over a pizza.
“Food goes a long way towards saying that you care during a time of loss and transition,” Klow says. (By the way: Takeout also works if cooking isn’t exactly your forte.)
And maybe even some laundry detergent.
Hear us out. While folding their socks might be beyond your BFF-depths, helping your divorced friend means giving them as much routine and support as possible, Durvasula says.
Don’t press for details.
Checking in to see if your friend wants to talk is helpful, Cilona says. Pumping them for details isn’t. “If you're met with resistance, avoid putting pressure of any kind on your friend to talk,” he says. You’ll also want to avoid mentioning anything that suggests you’re judging their preference to keep quiet, he adds. Everyone copes with grief differently, and your friend just may not be ready to open up yet. Or, they may prefer a distraction. So if they're not particularly chatty, send them an Oprah meme, or an uplifting video.
Be accepting of their dating life.
“Oftentimes friends want to help solve a divorced person's love life,” Klow says. “Instead of offering them advice on what to do, it can help instead to let them know that you're here for them and that you care about their wellbeing.” And you're willing to take them out for a glass (or three) of wine if and when they're ready to discuss any dates they've been on.
Ask what they need.
You know your loved one well, but they probably have needs right now that you haven’t thought of. So, ask. “Although there are common feelings associated with the challenges of divorce, the experience can obviously vary,” Cilona says. “One of the best ways to help is to be direct and ask specifically and frequently what helps and what doesn't.”
That can even mean asking if they felt that the meal you brought over was helpful. “Let them know that you won't be hurt or insulted or think they are unappreciative if they don't find something useful,” Cilona says. “Be clear that supporting them is your top priority.”
Be there for the long-term, not just until the dust settles.
This is a huge one, Klow says: “People often get attention when they're first breaking up. Yet over time, they end up feeling alone."
Ultimately, you can’t fix the underlying problem. But you can show up and keep showing up—and that can make all the difference to someone going through a divorce.
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