two women drinking coffee
By Denise Schipani
When you hear that a close friend is divorcing, you want to be nothing but supportive. But when you combine the delicate subject matter with your own mixed feelings (Is she making the right choice? Is my marriage in trouble, too?), it's easy to end up blurting out the wrong thing. You may mean to say, "I'm worried for you," but you end up saying, "How will you take care of your family now?" "Friends try to be helpful, but their own fears and biases can make their comments backfire," says Monique Honaman, author of The High Road Has Less Traffic: Honest Advice on the Path through Love and Divorce. Here, eight things you should avoid saying to a divorcing friend, plus helpful words you should offer up instead. Photo by: Thinkstock
"I knew it would happen eventually!"
This comment, along with the ever-popular "You know, I never really liked him," comes across as pessimistic, and worse, dismissive of your friend's entire marriage, says Lisa Rene Reynolds, PhD, marital therapist and author of Parenting Through Divorce: Helping Your Kids Thrive During and After the Split. "She might think, 'Why didn't you tell me?'" Your friend may even suspect that you've never trusted her decisions. Not only that, but when you say anything like "I knew it," you're implying that you understand more than she does about her own relationship--which is a major insult, says Dr. Reynolds. Instead, if you mean "I'm on your side," say precisely that, says Honaman. That will keep the focus on her. You might also ask what you can do to help, such as offering to find a good therapist or attorney or taking her out for a drink so she can vent.
"But he seemed like such a nice guy!"
Or, as Maria* heard from a friend after her divorce, "I feel sorry for your ex-husband." While Maria knows that her friend didn't mean anything cruel, it took her aback. That's because a statement like this, again, can sound like you think you know more about the marriage than your friend does-and worse, that you're taking his side. Remember, even if they seemed like the perfect couple, or he seemed like a top-notch spouse, outsiders (which includes you!) never know the whole story. If you feel badly for her ex, don't lead with that. You might instead say, "I'm sad for both of you," but keep the focus on her, says Dr. Reynolds. It's fine to be supportive of the guy, especially if you're close to them both. Just express your support separately and keep it neutral. Stick to statements like, "I'm sorry you're going through this."
"I don't believe in divorce," or "Did you try hard enough?"
Christine* got this gut-punch from a friend when she and her husband split. "It made me feel as though I hadn't been devoted to my marriage, or hadn't made a big enough effort, which wasn't true," she says. And though you may think you're helping your friend weigh all of her options, there's almost no way to read this type of comment as anything other than judgmental, says Honaman. "You're foisting your own value system on your friend, which is insulting." What if the divorce wasn't her idea, it was an abusive relationship or she tried--but failed--to get her husband into couples therapy? Often, your own fear of divorce is behind comments like these, says Honaman. "It might be your way of saying, 'It won't happen to us because we don't believe in it!' or 'We'll keep trying.'" The only thing you can say instead is…nothing. Seriously, keep it to yourself.
"How are you going to take care of your family now?"
Margaret,* a divorced mother of four, heard a variation on this from friends. "One said, 'You can't complain that it's hard to be a single parent because you asked for this.'" What stings here is that you're saying your friend isn't "competent enough to go it alone," explains Dr. Reynolds. "Your friend is likely already worried about supporting her family," she adds. It's better to reframe your concerns in a softer way, says Honaman. Try: "Have you thought about the house? Will you be able to stay home with the kids, or do you need help finding a higher-paying job?" Be solution-oriented, and if you can, pitch in by babysitting her kids or revamping her resume.
"You ruined our annual holiday celebration!"
The truth is, divorce doesn't just pull apart spouses; it changes relationships with friends (like the other couples with whom you rented a ski house) and family dynamics (think complicated holiday schedules with grandparents). Still, this comment comes across as selfish, says Honaman. It's not like she should stay with her husband solely to keep your social life unruffled! It's fine to let her know that you're sad, too, but don't make her break-up about your woes. Instead, express willingness to be flexible. Say something like, "I guess we'll have to figure out what we're doing about our usual New Year's bash, huh?" suggests Dr. Reynolds.
"Good for you; men are useless anyway!"
One of Helen's* friends said exactly that, bitterly suggesting that they throw themselves a man-bashing party. "It was shocking. I wasn't happy with my ex, but I don't hate all men!" You may think a comment like this sounds sisterly and supportive, or even funny, but it may strike your friend--who could be feeling hopeful about her romantic future--as unbearably negative. If you're in a bad place in your own romantic life, keep that part under wraps for now, and simply tell her, "Listen, I've been out there for a while. Maybe the two of us could lean on each other." Expressing support is better than infecting her with anger, says Dr. Reynolds.
"It'll be tough to start over at your age."
While you may be trying to come across as understanding, this statement sounds like you think your friend has missed her moment and that no one wants to date an "old" divorcée like her. What's likely going on is that you're worried for your friend--and possibly yourself too. People tend to impose their own fears on outside situations: "What if it were me having to start all over again?!" But the last thing you want to do is be a downer or invoke panic in your friend, says Dr. Reynolds. There is a way to express your concerns tactfully--but only if she brings up the topic herself, says Dr. Reynolds. "You can say, 'It might be tough, but if you want to find a new relationship, I know you can.'"
"At least you didn't have kids!"
Sally* heard this from friends--and it stung. "It's like they were saying that my divorce was 'easier.' Plus, the statement made me feel like more of a failure because we weren't married long enough for children to be an issue." Though you're probably trying to put a positive spin on a bad situation, says Honaman, you're off the mark for two reasons. One, her divorce is undoubtedly painful to her, kids or no kids. And two, "You may be opening up a whole other wound if your friend had wanted kids and didn't have them before her marriage ended," says Dr. Reynolds. "Acknowledge her feelings, and later, if she seems ready, you can help her see the benefit of not having to deal with custody and co-parenting battles," says Honaman. But in the moment, keep it to yourself.
*Names have been changed.
Original article appeared on WomansDay.com.
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