The first time I attended the wedding of a friend, I knew exactly what to do. I brought a gift, set it on the gift table, and sat on the bride's side of the aisle. I took advantage of the open bar, and joined the other guests in celebrating the couple.
Later, I'd learn you have a year to give a gift, and never to expect the cake to be moist. By the time I got married, I'd been in so many weddings I could have filled the role of bridesmaid blindfolded with my hands bound behind my back. I was a pro when it came to helping friends tie the knot.
But when it came to helping friends through divorce, I was as comfortable as a seventh grader at a school dance.
For years, I'd known how to help my bestie through any crisis. I'd functioned as wingman, fashion advisor, therapist, career counselor, and dog sitter. I was there when she met her now ex-husband, and I was there to soothe her nerves the first time she met his parents. I knew not to bother talking her out of chocolate pudding for breakfast or running alone at night. Yet, I didn't know exactly how to help when she got divorced.
If, like me, for most of your adult life, the full extent of your knowledge of how to help a friend navigate a divorce consists of snippets from a grown-up conversation you overheard in the 80's, read on. The following tips are based on the experiences of friends of have been through divorce and were kind enough to share their stories with me.
When you ask questions about how the split happened, you might think you're expressing interest or concern, but it doesn't necessarily come off that way. As one of my friends recalled over a decade after the fact, “Many people had a million nosy, judgy questions that just made me cry even harder. Like I was supposed to explain to them how it came about." Remember, the vibe you're going for is Friends, not CSI.
You might have your own ideas about why the marriage didn't last, but that is not what your friend wants to hear right now (or maybe ever). Comments like “Of course your marriage didn't work out because you're too…" are helpful only if they end with “too good for him/her." Unless your friend specifically asks you what you think went wrong, keep it to yourself. Said one friend, “The people who were just completely accepting and supportive were the best."
Divorce has essentially flipped your friend's whole life upside down. Regardless of the circumstances, the process can be scary, disorienting, and overwhelming, which can cause him or her to second guess the decision. One friend described, “going blank" at times, like you would during trauma. She recalled how important it was for friends to remind her of the details of why she made the choice to leave and all the actions she took to try to save the marriage.
Be a Haven
When your friend is going through a divorce, she may not know where she fits in anymore, especially if she's separated (emotionally or geographically) from family. An invitation to dinner, especially at the holidays, goes a long way.
If dinner isn't your jam, give your friend liquid nutrition and laughs. One friend remembered, in the tender weeks following her divorce, “the best person just made time to let me crash on her couch after her kids went to bed and we drank beer and watched the kind of trashy shows that make you feel like your life is pretty together."
Give a Gift
It doesn't have to be fancy or expensive to show you care. One friend, recalling her long-ago divorce, mentioned a simple fridge magnet with a heart on it that a friend sent her. “Every time I opened the refrigerator I knew she was thinking of me."
Do a task
It's nice to say, “Let me know if there's anything I can do," but what really helps is rolling up your sleeves and working. One friend recalled being grateful when someone cleaned out her fridge without being asked, when another friend helped reset all her bank passwords, and for the people who took on housework and childcare.
And keep showing up, over and over. Said one friend, in the wake of her divorce, she was grateful for a handful of friends who kept showing up, extending invitations to coffee, and “continuing to call, even when I was at the point where I 'should' be okay but I wasn't, and asking how I was, then not flinching when I gave an honest response."
Be a cheerleader
Let your friend know you believe in them. One friend described the wrenching decision to leave his partner just one month prior to the wedding and how powerful it was to receive a letter from a family member. “[She wrote that] I made the most difficult decision of my life.
Plenty of people would have gone through with [the wedding]. I carry that card in my bag every day. It meant the world to me when I felt like I was the worst type of human being." Other friends recalled appreciating advice to go out, have experiences, and figure out who you are without him, and to be selfish for a while.
It turns out, being a friend through a divorce isn't much different than being a friend through the rest of life's messes. As my best friend recalled, while she and her ex were splitting up, I did better than I thought I did, as a friend. “You didn't give advice and you listened, and that's the best you can do for someone."