Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say. In the past I have looked up the best words to say to those who’ve miscarried, or had a loved one commit suicide – and also what not to say. I want to speak honestly, say that I don’t understand fully but I’m beside them. To say that I’m sorry, but that I don’t really know how to express that.
I’m really grateful to all those who have cared enough to tell me that they cared when I was in the midst of separation and divorce, even if they didn’t know quite what to say, or weren’t able to say quite what they meant. I was grateful when they bought me a book they thought might help, or reached out in the simplest of ways.
The words of advice I’ve written here are because it can be hard to know what to say in any situation. I’ve been on the receiving end of some corkers, yet these are the words I found most helpful. These ideas aren’t exclusive, nor have I had all these conversations personally, but they’re a start point because we don’t always know how to react, yet we want to do so in the best way possible.
It can also be hard to know how to practically support your friend, so here are ten practical ways to support a separated friend.
For a further practical way to support your friend, my book, Surviving Separation and Divorce, offers strategies and guidance to those experiencing relationship breakdown. It’s the book I wanted to read when everything was alien, which might also help your friend or family member to know there is hope, even in the midst of despair.
1. I’m so sorry to hear that.
Thank you for expressing how sad you are about the situation, because regardless of circumstance, it’s a sad thing to happen. Thank you for not saying that our marriage is ‘failing’, because the connotations on us personally can be immense, even if you don’t mean that. ‘I’m sorry’ seems an inadequate way to express empathy, but it’s a good place to start. But while you’re sorry it’s happened, please don’t pity. Divorce and separation are sad situations, but conversely it might be the best thing at that time too.
2. Whatever you’re feeling is perfectly okay*.
Angry? Devastated? Relieved? Excited for the future? There’s not going to be one emotion all of the time, but divorce has a unusual and complicated mix of ‘finally, I can move on now’ and ‘this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me’. Be led by your friend. Some of the hardest conversations I had were reacting to other people’s emotions projected onto me… ‘You must be heartbroken?’ – Actually, right now, I’m pretty content with life – ask me again in a few hours time. ‘Well it’s good that’s over!’ – Er, no it’s not. I never wanted it to be over. I get what you mean – it is now done and dusted, but no, it’s not good.
I’ve written about a number of emotions we might experience while divorcing, such as regret, jealousy, hope and failure. These might help you to find out how your friend is feeling, or encourage them that they are not alone in feeling these ways.
*If your friend has decided dastardly revenge is the way forward, maybe this isn’t the sentence…
3. I’ve been there. (But only if you have been!)
Divorce seems to be one of the last taboos. The number of people in your life you realise have been divorced once you announce your own situation is staggering. Like with any life situation, someone who has been in the exact situation just ‘gets it’ that little bit more. We might not want to talk about it, but it’s encouraging to know that you were there, and you’re still standing, and are happy. We might come and find you with weird questions too, just to warn you. Either way…
4. Have you got people you can talk to? If you ever need a listening ear…
We know you want it to work out well for us and we’re so grateful. When the problems started we probably spent time googling ways forward and seeking advice. But it’s too painful to talk about in depth with most people. In fact, talking about it superficially is really hard work. There’s probably only a few people we can bear to speak to currently. So chances are we don’t want to talk about it – but please don’t be offended – it’s not you, it’s the subject – thank you for offering, because we know that you care.
5. I can recommend a counsellor if you’d like one, although I know it’s not for everyone.
I personally found counselling was helpful, but then I like talking. I wanted to find some way to get through the fog and knowing there was someone there, who would let me say whatever I needed and give me strategies and new ways to see the situation – that was invaluable. The caveat is important though. Much as you might think counselling would be a saviour to the marriage, there’s no way you can make someone talk if they don’t want to. And even if they do, it doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. But a recommendation is definitely handy.
6. Here, have some food.
This could have been Number 1. Everyone has to eat, even when they don’t want to. Divorce can be incredibly lonely, and it’s physically exhausting. Cooking a meal for one holds no appeal. Drop off some healthy (and unhealthy) food that they can’t be bothered to make themselves and keep them functioning until the day they invite you for dinner instead.
7. How’s work?
It’s so nice to talk about something different! I didn’t find work to be a comfort that took my mind of things; my colleagues, yes, the job, no. Others finds work to be a solace and a refuge from the turmoil. Either way, thank you for suggesting a different topic of conversation and for not avoiding us because you’re not sure what to say – it’s actually fine to ignore the elephant in the room, we’ll bring it up if we want to.
8. Have you watched this boxset? I loved it, and I’d be very happy to watch it again.
Boxsets came to me on the recommendation of a divorced friend, and my word it was helpful. Something, anything, to take the mind off what’s going on, no need to talk unless it’s discussing the plot line. Also a glass of wine can be legitimately involved, without fearing you’re becoming an alcoholic on top of everything else. Whether they take the boxset off you and watch it alone, or want you snuggled up on the other end of the sofa under a blanket to take the edge of the loneliness, several series of a good box set is exactly what we need, good call. (The same applies to books.)
9. Would you like a hug?
Regular physical contact with another person is missing now, and I’m not just talking about sex, although that’s gone too. I’m talking about a hug when you walk in the door, or in the evening, or just when you’re feeling down, which is now a lot of the time. Offer your friend or colleague a hug. The best hugs were (and still are) the people who hug you for ages, and only let you go once you want to. Have you seen the statement that a 20 second hug releases endorphins? Give it a go – heaven knows your friend could probably use some happy hormones too.
10. Come round and eat some food. (Feel free to eat then leave, or sit on our sofa and cry.)
Going back to 4…we might want to eat, but we might not be able to converse, so our declining isn’t personal, it’s practical. If you’re met with a refusal, try 6. I consider eating a social activity, therefore eating alone would often be more about an obligation to survive than an enjoyable experience. Sharing a meal with friends who don’t mind you crying over the spaghetti – those are good friends.
11. You are attractive.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt less attractive and less lovable than I did when we separated. But the only time I’ve heard I was beautiful more than during this time was my wedding day. Compliment your friend and boost that self esteem that, truth be told, is probably pretty low.
12. I love you.
Chances are this hasn’t been heard in a while either. It warms the heart, so do away with your British reserve and tell them!
13. God loves you.
I didn’t think God stopped loving me because I got divorced, but others might and it’s always good to be reminded someone loves you (see 12). God doesn’t want to condemn you – He’s all about redemption and forgiveness. So don’t judge actions that may have gone on, just accept the people involved, just as He has accepted us.
14. Would you like to go…
to the cinema? For a walk? Out to dinner? Going alone to these places can feel very strange, and even though one day it might feel fine to go it alone, at the moment it doesn’t. I sometimes felt vulnerable or lonely going for a walk by myself, but I wanted to go out. So please, even though I’m probably rubbish company, ask me to come along – I’d love to come with you, and even if I decline, it feels good to be asked and wanted.
15. I’m praying for you and your marriage.
Chances are, they haven’t stopped praying and if they weren’t praying before, they may well be now. Challenging times tend to be the moments we either throw ourselves on the mercy and magnificence of God, or shy away and retreat into thinking we can do it ourselves. They are probably praying for their spouse, for themselves, for their marriage, and everything in between. Prayer changes things. Prayer does not mean you get what you want.
To know that someone else is praying for your marriage too is a relief. I likened it many times to Moses’ arms being held up by Aaron and Hur in Exodus 18. When Moses arms were held up in prayer, they were winning, once they dropped, they were losing. So once Moses got tired, Aaron and Hur stood and held his arms up for him. Fighting for your marriage is exhausting, and having your metaphorical arms held up is an infinite blessing, thank you.
16. Divorce must be so hard.
It is. Thank you for acknowledging that and recognising how hard it is. It’s exhausting. Yes please, I’d love a hug.
17. I’m always up at…
4am with my crying baby. 1am because I don’t go to bed till the early hours. The middle of the night can be horrible. Everyone’s asleep and the loneliness of the situation is magnified in hours of darkness, I’m not sure why. So if you’re regularly awake at an unusual hour, tell your friend. I went over to people’s houses in the early days at midnight, because I knew they’d be up – and they were, welcoming me, giving me a hug and praying for me.
18. It won’t always be like this.
Maybe this isn’t the first thing you say. I hated how things had changed over the preceding year, then two years, then three. When I looked back it was hard to see how it had happened. But it reminded me of something important. Look how much has happened. I may not like it, but I can see things don’t stay the same forever, so this won’t either, but sometimes it takes other people to help you see the truth in a dark situation.
Looking for a book to help your friend? Surviving Separation and Divorce does just that, giving ideas, stories and strategies for people going through this tumultuous life event.
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