How to Support a Friend Going Through a Divorce

Dec 7, 2023 8:37:29 PM

When someone you know is going through a divorce, one thing is certain: their reality is changing in a very big way. Think of impactful things that have happened in your life that have altered your reality. It could be the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a really big move, etc. Each of these situations, though different, has one thing in common. Your life, as you know it is changing. We often experience layers of grief when change happens, even if the change was planned. In situations where change comes as a surprise, the shock can be crushing, confusing, scary, unnerving–the list goes on and on. So how does one whose reality isn't changing support someone whose reality is changing?

There are different ways and times when support plays a key role, and I'll add that everyone experiences grief in their own way. What may work for one person may not work for another, so I'll share tips from my own experience.

Sudden Divorce

If the divorce wasn't on the horizon, or even a thought, by one of the spouses, then that spouse might experience shock and confusion initially. When someone is shocked and confused, there may be denial followed by a lot of tears. Often, you need to figure out who to turn to for help because you aren't even sure you understand what's happening in your marriage. If your spouse suddenly asks for a divorce or decides to leave the relationship, either by words or actions, this can leave a lot of wheels spinning, a quest to find answers, and may even lead to some unhealthy habits. It can be a rapid spiral downward trying to grasp what was and figuring out what now is. In my situation, support in this phase felt better when little to no words were said–simply just listening.

How You May Help

This is where someone may just want to feel validated and hear things like, "Yes, this sucks and you have every reason to feel the way you do." Trying to problem-solve at this time isn’t always helpful because you can’t take actionable steps when you’ve yet to wrap your mind around what even the next 24 hours will bring. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of all the decisions to be made and tasks to be done. Help someone remember that healing is not linear, but doing even one small thing for themself each day will move them forward. Break it down into small bites; take one small step, find your footing, and then take another.

Resource: Steps to Take After Your Divorce is Finalized

Mutual Divorce

You may notice a completely different set of emotions when a couple mutually decides to divorce or if the one planning to leave the marriage for a while has finally decided to move on. In those situations, there can be a feeling of freedom or even relief. They may not experience grief in the same way, but the same fear of the unknown may exist.

Avoidance Phase

As more time passes, you may notice what I call the "avoidance phase." This phase is where the running away starts. They don't want to sit in their grief, talk about their relationship status, or think about what's next for them in the long term. It's about filling time with fun distractions in the short term. It could be traveling, participating in new hobbies, asking for many dinner dates, reading many books, etc. This phase helps to pass time and delay hardships.

How You May Help

Supporting someone in this phase may mean occasionally participating in these things with them, being more available for spontaneous get-togethers or chats, or trying new things. This phase may be more of the "fun phase" for those wanting to leave their marriage, but the reactions are similar.

Acceptance Phase

Then there's the "acceptance phase." The divorce is happening or has happened, and the reality needs to be confronted. This phase can send someone back through some of the beginning layers of grief as they dip their toes back into what's unraveling around them. The beautiful thing about this phase is there are no more “unknowns” pertaining to your past relationship. Everything is generally out in the open by this time, and helps to give some certainty around this new “normal”. It helps the healing process begin so that planning for a new future can begin, and this phase may honestly take the longest. It's where healing really starts to happen, where living day-to-day may suddenly become week-to-week and even month-to-month. This phase is where time starts to work its magic. You're through the muck of denial and sadness and onto the start of a new life.

How You May Help

This time is when support in the form of encouragement is powerful. Help them see and design their new future, remember their potential, and remind them that life can only improve from here.

The bottom line is that you may not know how to best support a friend or a loved one experiencing a divorce. There may be times of silence, where they just need to sit with their grief, and that's ok–simply having a comforting presence around to make this time less lonely can make all the difference Having the ability to be flexible with their needs and be okay with occasional distance, while understanding that you may be getting to know a completely different person over these phases, and still accepting them, is how the support worked best for me. Divorce can certainly have an impact on many relationships and friendships, but the best thing you can do is offer grace and understanding and not take anything personally. It's simply out of their emotional control. Over time, some friendships and relationships may become stronger as a result, so don't give up on them! 

Lastly, gently encourage them to lean on or seek out professional help. As important as it is to be there for someone going through a divorce, there are just some things that an interpersonal support system can’t help with. Venting to loved ones can be incredibly healing, but seeing a therapist or psychiatrist can be instrumental in helping someone come to terms with their new normal, understand their feelings, and unpack any trauma. Of course, they should also consult with a lawyer and a financial planner who specializes in divorce to help them navigate the legal processes and separating of assets. If they're not ready to take action by reaching out quite yet, you could also lighten a little bit of the mental load by sending them resources for when they are ready to take this step.

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