It never fails. When I hear a couple has separated or filed for divorce, my first response is "Oh no!" My heart sinks.
Then I feel like a hypocrite. After all, I've been divorced, and I feel like divorce opened a door to a better life -- for both me and my ex (as well as for my new husband and his ex).
But the "Oh no!" response is natural and justified. On a human level, we are wired to have hope that difficult things can get better and to mourn something when it ends. Culturally, we understand the messiness divorce causes in our communities, our extended families, our friendships and the lives of our kids. Even if we suspect the decision is ultimately for the best, we still brace ourselves for the aftershocks that are sure to come.
On a personal level, I hate hearing such news because I know first-hand the pain of the experience -- certainly the months and years of pain leading up to the decision to divorce, as well as the pain of the process itself. And no matter how mutual and civil the divorce is, there is residual pain, too, in the form of broken friendships, missed holidays and milestones with your kids, and the undercurrent of loss that comes with breaking such a deep bond.
For the person going through the divorce, the ways people respond can either aid in the healing process or serve as the last straw your fragile psyche can bear. Unfortunately, the doses of hurt coming out of people's mouths seem to be more frequent than doses of help and healing.
The hurtful responses tend to fall into categories:
On one end of the spectrum, you have the "What We Don't Talk About Doesn't Actually Exist" crowd. They believe denial is the best way to deal with a problem or anything really sad. While they're at it, they're busy teaching their kids this handy technique, too. Unfortunately, this method is known for causing more problems than it prevents in the life of the person in denial.
Then you have the "A Dose of Your Drama Adds Spice to My Life" people. They like to hear about a divorce from someone other than the divorcee, shake their heads sadly in an overly-dramatized fashion, feel sorry for the poor, poor children, and then spread the news as dramatically and widely as they can.
As a Christian who has been divorced, I get especially worked up about the range of responses from other believers. Christians certainly make themselves at home in the two categories I mentioned above, but they also introduce a new category: the "That Would Never Happen To Me" approach, in two flavors -- Judgmental and Enlightened.
Sadly, everyone's probably familiar with the Judgmental take: "You clearly screwed up in some big way, therefore you deserve this misery and shame, which shall serve as an example to all other wayward folks who are headed down that path."
The Enlightened perspective is, not surprisingly, more subtle. These folks are not afraid to look divorce in the eye or even to utter the D-word. They often even have "hurting hearts" for all you're going through. They only wish they could have shared their wisdom with you in a timely manner, because guess what? They know how to prevent divorce, and it's not even that difficult! The collection of over-simplified methods includes, but is not limited to, these: "Love isn't a feeling, it's a decision." "Just remove the word 'divorce' completely from your vocabulary." "Divorce won't happen if Christ is at the center of your marriage." The clear implication, if you do get a divorce? You must be a shallow, flippant, heathen.
So what's a never-been-divorced person supposed to say to a friend or relative going through the experience?
I realize it's awkward and nearly impossible to know what to say to someone who is going through something difficult you haven't experienced first hand. I can, however, share some insight about responses that were helpful and even healing for me.
- Acknowledge the general experience of divorce for what it is: a very painful, sad process with effects that ripple out and lap up against people for years. It's true -- divorce sucks.
- Don't over-simplify the situation or expect an easy explanation. In fact, don't even ask "Why?" unless you're invested enough to spend many hours listening to both sides. Everyone's marriage, healthy or dying, is infinitely more complex than anyone else can imagine. Even if you thought the marriage seemed healthy from the outside, leave room for the possibility that it could have been a genuine wreck from the inside.
- Give both members of the couple the benefit of the doubt and compassion, rather than a sermon or advice. Treating someone who's going through a divorce with respect and compassion need not imply that you are pro-divorce. It only implies that you are capable of withholding judgment and showing kindness to a fellow human being.
- Take what they're going through seriously, while keeping in mind that divorce is not the end of the world. Often, in fact, it can surprise us by offering opportunities for important beginnings. The messes we make can be redeemed, and turned into something good -- even beautiful.