A while back, I read a New York magazine article by Katie Roiphe, "The Great Escape", in which Roiphe discusses her friends' reaction to the news of her divorce. Bottom line: she's annoyed that they're acting as though she's going through some terrible tragedy, when in fact, she feels fine -- if anything, she feels freed and relieved.
It's an interesting article on many levels, but the thing that struck me was - zoikes! If I were her friend, I'm sure I'd be saying all the wrong things, too.
So what's the right thing to say?
I asked some people I know who are divorced, or who are getting divorced, about what kinds of comments are helpful or, more important, unhelpful. How should a thoughtful friend react?
It's clear that there aren't many hard and fast rules. One friend was reassured when people told him he'd be dating in no time, another friend felt angry at the suggestion that a fifteen-year marriage could be brushed aside so easily. Here's what I learned:
Helpful things to say:
"You're going to get through this."
"However this turns out, I hope it all works out for the best."
"I'm here for you."
"Just take it one day at a time."
-- Remind your friend that he or she will get through this period. "Not to be melodramatic," my friend told me, "but a divorce can feel like dying. Life, as you know it, is coming to an end. Reminding a person that there is life, and even happiness, after the divorce is reassuring."
-- Be careful about how you talk about other people's divorces in front of the divorcing folks. "While I was getting divorced, a friend described a bully in our school as 'from a broken home,'" a friend told me. "I hated hearing things like that. For me, the biggest worry was how the divorce would affect my kids." "Someone gleefully told a story about how his brother was going to screw his ex-wife in the divorce settlement," another friend recalled. "It was very distasteful to hear that kind of talk, given my situation."
-- Include divorcing friends in your plans. "Divorce changes everything about your social life," someone said. "It really helps if friends ask you to do things. It makes you feel included and supported."
-- Argue hard for your friend to take one course or another. You can't know what's right for someone else.
-- Be judgmental. "People judge themselves harshly for getting divorced," a friend told me. "Don't add to it." Along the same lines, try not to say too many bad things about the other spouse. "When we first separated, I wanted to hear people criticize my ex-wife," a friend said, "but it's really not good to have those kinds of conversations. After all, I did marry her, and we have kids together, so I don't need to know that everyone really didn't like her for all those years."
-- Assume that you know who is "right" or "wrong." It's impossible, from the outside, to understand someone else's relationship. "Technically, I left my husband," a friend told me, "but I thought he was the one who abandoned our marriage. I didn't appreciate being viewed as the one who wasn't willing to do any work to keep it going."
-- Insist on being given a reason. People can't always sum up their reasons neatly, and they may want to keep their reasons private. Don't probe for explanations or pry for details.
What are some other things to say -- or not to say? What am I overlooking?