How to Comfort (and Not Comfort) Someone Going Through a Divorce

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Only two kinds of people could help me feel better during my first year of coping with, adjusting to, and healing from my divorce.

The first kind of person was a friend or family member who knew me before I was married. My relationship with them lived independent of my marriage. My identity—for them—wasn’t intertwined with me being married.

My ex-wife and I were together about 13 years in total, married for nine. And the majority of people in my daily adult life met me and knew me as her husband or us as a couple. So when I spent time with them as a frightened, depressed, embarrassed divorced guy during those initial weeks and months, being with them only amplified all of my fear, sadness, and shame—through no fault of their own.

People who knew me BEFORE I was married had a personal relationship with me as an individual. Was I still ashamed, sad, and afraid? Yes. But one of the biggest parts of healing after divorce is readjusting from a WE to a ME. From an Us to being an individual again. It doesn’t happen overnight.

It hurts when everything feels wrong. It’s hard to not feel like yourself. But O.G. friends and family make you feel like yourself automatically because it’s not weird or different to be an individual with them.

The second kind of person who could help me was someone who had experienced divorce or an ultra-significant breakup of a long-term relationship where the emotional and logistical loss is essentially the same.

The second kind of person could be a total stranger, but if they knew what I knew, being with them and talking with them was more cathartic than some of my best friends and other people who loved me could ever be.

People who understood—I mean, really got it down in their core—were people whose lived experiences were similar to mine. And people with shared life experiences are best equipped to offer one another the thing people in crisis need: empathy.

Let’s roll with a good, old-fashioned Do’s and Don’ts (<— that can’t be grammatically correct) list.

Let’s start with the Don’ts.

Things You Should Never Do or Say to Someone Getting Divorced

1. Don’t say “You’re going to be fine! Divorce is the best thing that ever happened to [insert you or whoever here].”

Not all marriages, divorces, families, nor the humans that comprise those things are the same. Divorce IS totally great for people who escaped abusive situations, or for people who WANTED the divorce, or for people who don’t have children and profited from the situation.

For some people, divorce doesn’t make them a social pariah in their neighborhoods, families, churches, social groups, workplace, etc. But for others, it does. For others, they’re mostly sad because of their children. And for others still, divorce was literally the #1 thing in their entire lives they didn’t want to have happen.

Dismissing it as some rad thing they’ll grow to appreciate later makes you a tone-deaf asshole.

[Side Note: You can learn how to be less of an asshole in life and relationships here.]

2. Don’t say “You know what you need? To get laid,” or try to manufacture a party or night out at the bars where that happens.

I promise that sexual beings will have sex when they feel like it. So you don’t need to encourage them, unless YOU are someone they are potentially sexually attracted to and feel like propositioning them.

Few things in life have insulted me more than when a few guys I knew thought me hooking up with some drunken rando at a bar would be beneficial or somehow right things that were wrong.

Does copious amounts of alcohol-driven euphoria and intense orgasmic ecstasy generally feel good? Sure. If you eliminate anything mental, emotional, or spiritual from the conversation, yes. But when people are suffering from divorce, the problem IS mental, emotional, and spiritual. Tying one on and climaxing a few times (or probably just once) with someone you’re never going to see again is infinitely more likely to make someone feel worse than better. Please encourage your loved ones to NOT do that.

3. Don’t say mean things about their ex as a method of offering support.

If you’re just talking out of your ass and don’t really mean it, then you’re being a ridiculous asshole and telling your friend/family member/colleague that they were stupid to marry and share resources (and possibly children) with such a substandard human being. You’re tearing down and verbally desecrating the good, sacred, beautiful thing the sufferer is grieving the loss of, and you’re doing it from a place of nonsense where you don’t actually know or believe what you’re saying.

And if you ACTUALLY do mean it and believe it? Then you’re doing those same things intentionally. Don’t.

Things You Should Say or Do For Someone Going Through a Divorce

1. Make yourself available to listen. Not to speak. Just to be there.

Make yourself available to share space with them and be prepared to do nothing except sit there, still, listening. If you have lived a similar experience, it will be easy to respond in affirming, supportive ways. If you have not, there’s NOTHING you can say to make it better, but you BEING THERE is making it better. That’s the gift you’re giving, and it’s a powerful one.

The greatest lesson I learned from my divorce (or rather my reflections on my failed marriage) is that we MUST—if we desire a happy, healthy, peaceful, mutually beneficial relationship—allow people to care about whatever they care about. Maybe that’s horse racing, maybe it’s knitting, maybe it’s yoga, maybe it’s I just got divorced and I feel like I want to die. Everyone has their own unique list of things that are meaningful to them, whether it be something deeply personal and emotional, or something mentally stimulating like a hobby or entertainment pursuit.

One of the most valuable things we can give someone is the gift of respecting, honoring, sharing interest in the things that matter to them. There is no agenda. There is no natural interest or pleasure, necessarily. Just a very basic: That person really cares about this. I really care about them. So I’m going to behave as if I care about this too out of love and respect for them.

That applies to all relationships, no matter what. It’s also particularly useful when supporting someone who is grieving a loss and trying to heal a personal trauma.

2. Encourage them to take all the time they need.

Don’t abandon them or stop inviting them to social get-togethers because they’re not “over” their divorce or break-up as fast as you would like, because you feel like they’re not as fun as they used to be.

If you’re truly interested in helping them heal, then remind them that there’s no blueprint or How-To manual for any of this.

I have had a variety of coaching clients talk to me about feelings of shame stemming from their swirling intense emotions, or from their impatience with themselves for feeling like they haven’t moved on.

And I always remind them that divorce is hard, and if they weren’t totally freaking out I’d be way more worried about them—especially if they’ve lost time with, and influence over, their children’s lives. It’s NORMAL to spaz out big-time when your entire life is disrupted and you lose things that are most precious and meaningful to you. It’s all of the people who bounce back in a day or two that scare the shit out of me.

Remind them that it’s hard and they’re responding in a way totally consistent with something excruciatingly difficult. Encourage them to be patient with themselves. Encourage them to be kind to themselves. Our primary job as people moving past something difficult is to breathe. To stay alive for one more minute, one more hour, one more day, one more week, one more month, one more year.

When you do that long enough, you eventually arrive at a year, month, week, day, hour, or moment where everything is okay. Where you get to be you again.

Where something amazingly good and beautiful happens. Something that could have, and would have, never happened unless every day before that one had happened exactly as it did.

People deserve to have something to look forward to. And when we stay alive long enough, that moment inevitably arrives.

To stay alive, all that’s required is that we keep breathing. Kindly, remind them.

There is nothing we can specifically do to heal the individual trauma suffered by another.

We can simply be the friend or supportive family member/colleague that creates an environment where grieving people can heal on their own terms.

You don’t need to fix anyone. You shouldn’t try to save anyone.

Just love them. No matter what. And, if they choose healthy things, time will do what time always does.

It’s simple, but it’s not easy.

It almost seems as if nothing happens, but everything happens.

If we’re not careful, it can sound trite. Maybe even cheap. But it’s true and important, and I like to remind people as often as possible in the most empathetic and encouraging way I can, and I would encourage you to remind everyone that you care about:

Just breathe.

Everything is going to be okay.

12 thoughts on “How to Comfort (and Not Comfort) Someone Going Through a Divorce”

  1. Matt..this brings up haunting images of a time, thankfully so long ago , when we were seemingly coming apart . We’d been through all the shit shows and for my part I was trying to get it back together and Anne wanted out. People , old friends , relatives , co-workers , former flames came out with outlandish misrepresentations about each of us to the other . Dragging into the foray our childhoods our families of origin and hosts of manufactured unfounded bilge about each of us and presented to the other as gospel . I at one point had to back off a few more militant members of this “healteam” . My heart wanted to do what ever necessary to get us to at least be civil at best become whole again . None of the folks that came forward with this nonsense ever thought about how it pained me to know the things people were assuming and how I saw them as derailers . I needed good honest loving support . brothers from high school were the only ones who listened cared and knew that I was hurting and stayed with me like spotters on a bench press . They sought me out they didn’t judge they didn’t spread hurtful gossip they made sure I was staying healthy and was eating and exercising . The kept me grounded . Soon after many more true friends came to check up on me offer encouragement talked to Anne and showed her care. There were a number of vile characters that seemed to get their jollys from our pain but they were not successful in driving their wedges . We made it . ..the story was from 30 years ago we just celebrated our 35 th anniversary this past April . We are strong and genuine and hopelessly in love . The detractors and fabricators . …they have no place in our lives…but those that stood by and kept us from falling over the edge are forever in our hearts and family .

  2. the thing people in crisis need: empathy

    Agreed. Overall, however, I mostly found that never-divorced people wanted to avoid the subject at all costs. Divorced men, on the other hand, were much more open to the discussion.

    1. True. The reverse of this article is what a terrible job I did of NOT discussing it with people who never asked.

      I don’t think people are obligated to comfort anyone. I just think a bunch of people want to, and many of them accidentally do it less tactfully and effectively than they could.

      My crime was dumping on people in social situations. I knew I was making it weird as I did. I didn’t have full control of myself then.

      1. I doubt many who want to keep the marriage are in full control of themselves when divorce happens. In my case, I think it was worse as I was blindsided.

  3. Matt, you hit home once again.

    I haven’t commented in a while, but I’ve been reading. All of the entries, the comments, particularly the shitty husband letters.

    I filed for divorce last month. My husband sat expression-less and emotion-less as I told him that he was the only person who could stop me from doing it. He told me “I don’t know what you want me to do” when I told him he was the only person who needed to fix it between us.

    We are now in “cool down” mode, the clock ticking until our first appointment (3 months from today).

    I’m so tired of people telling me to find a F-Boy to play around with. It’ll only make it worse for me. My heart doesn’t want the divorce. I love him. But the man he has become is no one I would have given a first date to.

    The stress of it all is killing my immune system. I’ve missed more work in the last quarter than I have in the last 5 years combined.

    My friends tell me “oh 2.5 years later, I’m better off, you will be too” and I hate hearing it. I just want someone to listen to me on all my days, both good and bad.

    Thank you for sharing this post, and for giving hope to those of us who need it.

    1. Thank you for sharing something honest and painful and personal, Mary.

      I’m sorry this is happening. For both of you. Divorce is the only horrible thing I’ve ever encountered that almost no one actually wants but reluctantly agrees to do anyway.

      Rooting for you.

  4. Pingback: How to Comfort (and Not Comfort) Someone Going Through a Divorce – Single Dad, Parents Article – Parents Blog

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Matt Fray

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