The ending of a marriage marks the beginning of a journey with grief and loss. Marriage vows are sacred, and no one who enters marriage with true respect and recognition of this sacredness would ever imagine that one day, they would break their vows.
Divorce is complex and confusing, and no matter where your convictions land on breaking the vow of marriage, supporting a friend through a divorce is a time to practice empathy and love, not condemnation. If our empathy and love don’t reach as deeply as our convictions, we are in danger of casting unfair judgment—and the last thing a suffering friend needs during a divorce is our judgment. Many of those going through divorce are already experiencing enough self-judging and self-criticizing on their own.
Even if your personal experience with divorce is limited, everyone can relate to hurt, disappointment, uncertainty, shame, despair, fear and loss. By offering respect, support and kindness, you can give an incredible gift to a loved one who is hurting deeply.
An important reminder: Marriages end for a number of reasons. However, a marriage that previously looked perfect from the outside could have been suffering deeply in private in many ways, without anyone knowing. Physical or emotional domestic abuse, abandonment and neglect can happen behind closed doors without even close friends knowing. Therefore, one of the most important things to keep in mind when you hear about a marriage ending is this: you don’t know the story unless it is disclosed to you firsthand, in detail. Therefore, it is not your job to place judgment, but rather to offer privacy, respect and support.
With that in mind, here are some do’s and don’t to consider when a loved one is going through a divorce:
Unhelpful: “What happened?”
Wanting to know the details of someone’s divorce story is not something you should expect, even if you feel that you are a close friend. Chances are, they are already feeling pressure from their family and social circle to explain at every turn, which can be overwhelming and difficult.
Helpful: “You don’t have to share anything with me, but I’m here if you want to.”
Offering a listening ear without expectation for them to take you up on it is the best way to show a friend that you are truly there for them, not for the sake of hearing the details of a juicy story.
Unhelpful: “Why don’t you just try…?” or “My spouse and I did this and it worked…”
Trying to fix a friend’s problem often comes from a place of love, but can be unwelcomed and painful during the divorce process. If a friend comes to you asking for advice, that is your green light to offer your perspective and insight. However, if they have not asked for it, refrain from trying to fix the problem.
Your friend has most likely put in a lot of time and energy to mend their relationship, and making further suggestions can make them feel even more like they have failed, or not done due diligence to their marriage. Often, you don’t know all the details of their story, and comparing it to your own or someone else’s is unfair.
Helpful: “I know that this is such a painful time for you, and I’m so sorry.”
One of the most helpful words you can say to a friend going through a divorce is “I’m so sorry.” As they grieve and process, acknowledging their pain and offering your love will often be more meaningful than anything.
Unhelpful: “I always knew something was off…”
It’s hard not to take sides when it comes to divorce, especially if you feel protective over a loved one. Even if you did have concerns or reservations about a friend’s partner while they were married, it is not helpful to bring it up during a divorce. While it might be meant to come across as solidarity, it can instead make them feel like people were judging them from the start.
Again, if they ask your opinion or for you to confirm a shared concern, they are giving you the green light to share—in which case, do so gently and with love.
Helpful: “Come with us/me to….“
A friend going through a divorce does not need to hear your thoughts on their marriage or former partner (unless they have explicitly asked). What they truly need is companionship and love. Invite them to dinner, the movies, coffee, a walk… anything that might bring them into a place of support from loved ones and make them feel like they are still part of the crowd.
Sometimes out of awkwardness, those going through divorce are isolated from their previous social circles because people don’t know how to act around them or feel uncomfortable. Make an effort to invite both single friends and couple friends to parties, outings or dinners
Always Helpful: “Just checking in!”
No matter what painful experience a loved one is going through, getting a text or call from a friend simply to chat is one of the best ways to show love.