How to Help People Going Through a Divorce
Navigating the death of a marriage.
Divorce is not something new to me. As I think back through my childhood, I clearly remember many of my friends’ parents getting divorced. In my mid-20s, two of my best friends, married for almost 10 years, split (as did each of their siblings, who were also friends of mine). Then two more friends … and two more.
I never thought my marriage would end. And while the news is still fairly fresh in the public eye, being separated and divorced is a reality I’ve been walking through for almost a year.
Because we chose to keep our private life private as we traveled that journey, only a small group of friends, people in our church, counselors and a few colleagues and pastors knew what we were going through. Reflecting over the last several months has awakened my analytical mind, and I’ve been intentionally processing how many of our relationships have changed, what’s added to the pain and what’s helped relieve it.
Some questions and comments I’ve frequently heard are:
“What advice do you have for friends going through a divorce?”
“Are there any resources you’ve found that have helped you, or that you’d recommend for me to help my friends?”
“I just don’t know what to do or what to say to them.”
“I don’t want to get in their business.”
Because these remarks occur on a daily basis, I thought it’d be best to share two thoughts with you—one on things that helped me and one on things that hurt.
Keep in mind, these are unique to me and every relationship is different, so please don’t assume I’m an expert by any stretch of the imagination.
WHAT TO DO:
Just because you don’t know what to say doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say anything. In fact, most of the time it’s better you don’t say anything at all except to acknowledge what your friend is feeling is real (and is usually pretty rotten).
Here’s the catch: When a relationship is ending, especially a marriage, it physically feels as if your soul has been ripped out of your body. People going through this change will likely not have the strength to reach out to you. We will feel we’re a burden or that the only thing we have to talk about is how sad, angry, lonely or afraid we are. Most of us don’t want to be Debbie Downers, but we feel as if we epitomize that character in a season like this.
Not only do we not want to bring people down with us, we don’t have the strength to engage with others.
This is why it’s so important you reach out constantly to your friends. I’m an introvert and I tend to isolate myself when I’m going through a hard time. During the worst six months, I had friends texting, calling or emailing daily and at times willing to drive through snowstorms to pick me up and take me to the only open café in town with no agenda at all but to be with me. Sometimes we talked about the situation. Other times, we talked about music, or watched TV, or we didn’t even talk at all.
Knowing our friends are pursuing us helps remove the weight of loneliness that haunts us. And don’t worry; if you think you may be intruding or being overbearing, if we really need some time alone, we’ll let you know.
WHAT NOT TO DO:
Don’t disappear or blow Jesus smoke.
Don’t ignore the situation. If someone reaches out to you to even make you aware of what’s happening, even if you have nothing to say back, just say you’re sorry. That is enough.
When I sent an email out to an expanded (but still small) group of friends and acquaintances, about 90 percent of the 50 or so people responded. The 10 percent who didn’t were people I had traveled with, shared stages with, signed books with, who had endorsed my books or I endorsed theirs. After no response from the email, or from the blog post that followed, or any acknowledgment whatsoever that they even received the information, I reevaluated my relationship with them. Sadly, many of the friendships I thought were based on mutual respect weren’t. They were simply relationships of benefit and circumstance. Coming to that realization hurt, and I had to make changes in the way I view those relationships now.
There is a medical term called body dysmorphic disorder that essentially means you believe something about your body image that isn’t true. For example, many people who struggle with eating disorders literally see their bodies as being significantly larger than they are in reality. For me, this has translated into an emotional association. I realize I don’t have actual leprosy, but I often feel like a leper; that I’m contagious, or unclean. I feel people need to stay on the other side of the road. And when friends disappear, it adds to this misconception.
Please don’t disappear.
Also, don’t assume that “ministry” or cliché “Christianese” will stitch up our bleeding hearts. Be Jesus. Don’t just talk about Him.
I recently received an email from a pastor who shared about a friend currently in the middle of a divorce: “My prayer is that he will wake up to this hurting world around him and engage,” he wrote.
I can only hope this pastor’s heart is in the right place, however, I wrote him back and explained to him the last thing we can do when we are this broken is to jump back into the world and “wake up and engage” and care for others—especially when our own pain is so new.
This is one of the times the church needs to “reach in and engage with the people around them who are hurting,” not the other way around as this pastor indicated.
Please keep in mind I don’t think this implies people going through a divorce should expect to be waited on hand and foot and maintain a completely selfish existence. By making our health and recovery a priority, we will naturally emerge back into a place where we can serve out of abundance—not pressure.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
Be there for your friends. Grieve with them. Celebrate with them. Give them meals and hugs and hold them tightly. Don’t worry about having nothing to say. Pursue them. Pray for them. Love them. Constantly let them know you have their back.
Don’t fall off the face of the earth. Yes, it’s uncomfortable—for both us and you.
Anne Jackson is the author of Permission to Speak Freely: Essays and Art on Fear, Confession and Grace and Mad Church Disease: Overcoming the Burnout Epidemic and a frequent blogger.