As relationship dynamics have changed over time, separation and divorce have become increasingly more commonplace. In the past, divorce only happened under the most extreme circumstances and was filled with animosity. Today, the process of separation and divorce is still a tumultuous time for a family, but it’s becoming increasingly more thoughtful and amicable. If someone you love shares with you that they’re going through this transition in their relationship, here’s some suggestions on how to (and how not to) react.
#1 – What not to say: “I’m so sorry this is happening to you” or anything that might be construed as pity.
Although well-meaning, responding in this way makes the assumption that their divorce is traumatic or unwanted, but that isn’t always the case. While all endings involve a certain amount of grieving, sometimes the ending is bittersweet but wanted and has come after a great deal of soul searching. Instead, try asking questions such as “how are you doing?”, “how have things been going?” or “How do you feel about your separation?” Asking questions shows that you’re interested and care about their experience and how it’s affecting them. Learning more will help you to react in a way that’s supportive.
#2 – What not to say: “Have you thought about how this will affect the kids?”
You can be assured that your friend or loved one has agonized over how this family change will affect their children. It is even likely that they’ve stayed in the relationship much longer than they would have otherwise because they were afraid of the pain it might cause their kids. If you have kids of your own, you probably know how easy it is to let the gremlins in your head make you question yourself and believe you’re a bad parent. The truth is, when asked, over 80% of kids aged 14-22 who have gone through it report that they would rather their parents divorce than remain in an unhappy relationship. Instead, try saying “I know you’ll do what’s best for you and your family. What can I do to help?” What they need most is your support and to know they have someone they can turn to when they’re overwhelmed.
#3 – What not to say: “I never really thought you were a good fit.”
When partners who have been seriously romantically involved decide to separate or divorce, it turns their worlds upside down. At one point they were very much in love and thought they would be together forever. It’s not kind nor is it supportive to share that you never thought the relationship would last, to let them know that you never liked their partner, or that you saw their divorce coming a mile away. What should you say instead? Nothing, just listen. When someone you love is going through a rough time in their life the best thing you can do is to hold space for them. Show up and keep showing up, they’re going to talk in circles for a while, it’s really helpful and is how we offload our grief.
#4 – What not to say: Anything that makes their separation/divorce about you.
If you’re close to the couple that are separating, you’ll also feel some loss at the ending of their relationship. You’ll have questions about how it’ll affect your relationship with one or both of the partners, how it might change traditions they were a part of, leave you wondering if you’ll have to choose a side, and bring any number of other thoughts or feelings bubbling to the surface. It’s understandable that you’ll need to process all of this but be sure to find someone outside of the separating couple to do it with.
#5 – What not to say: “Are you sure?”
While a lot of things can happen in the heat of the moment, it’s never a good idea to assume that your friend or loved one is making a rash decision. Although we earlier recommended that you ask questions in lieu of making assumptions, make sure that the questions you ask are curious and non-judgmental. If they’ve made the decision to start announcing their separation to the people in their life, then they are sure enough.
#6 – What not to say: “I didn’t think you’d be up for going out.”
There’s a cyclone of feelings that happens when going through the process of uncoupling. The longer the couple has been together the more complicated the separation is. Some of those feelings might be shame or embarrassment over the ending of their relationship and it’s those feelings that can often cause us to isolate ourselves out of fear that people are judging us. What to say instead: “Would you like some company” or “I’d love it if you’d come along with me to…” Your friend might be pulling away but keep inviting them, even if they turn you down. They need time to heal right now, but they still need to know that you’re there.
In our society, we tend to only consider a relationship to be successful if it lasts until “death do us part,” but we need to re-examine the way we define relationships and their endings. During the course of a relationship, partners may put one another other through school, supported each other through lost jobs, started a family together, took care of each other through a major illness or the passing of a parent, just to name a few. Separating shouldn’t (and doesn’t) erase everything that they accomplished together.
It is becoming increasingly likely that that most of us will have more than one significant relationship in our lives. As those numbers have increased with each passing generation, how partners are handling the process of uncoupling has also changed. Even in the chaos of emotions that goes hand-in-hand with ending a significant relationship, partners are becoming more thoughtful of how they want the ending of their relationship to be, especially when they have children. This is all to say that the days of assuming a separation is unwanted or filled with animosity are over. The key is to be curious about how your friend or loved one thinks and feels about his/her separation, don’t try to fix things for them, offer a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on (if needed), and be supportive. Whether they end up getting back together with their partner or ultimately get divorced, they’ll always remember how those closest to them reacted in one of their most difficult moments.
If you’re going through a separation or are struggling with the separation of a friend and could use some support, we are here to help. We offer both individual and relationship coaching and are happy to offer a free phone consultation.