When people close to you are divorcing, what can you do to help? There are some very simple rules for what to say or do, as well as some ideas about what you should not do.
First, no matter how much you want to agree with your friend in describing his soon-to-be ex as a horrible, terrible person, don’t do it. (You don’t have to disagree, just don’t jump in and agree.) Don’t be the one who says, “I always wondered what you were doing with such an #*#**!” Your friend chose this person. If there are children, your friend’s children are genetically half of that person. An attack on the ex is an attack on your friend’s judgment and on half of what makes their children who they are.
This is a hard one to resist, since your friend may be filled with words much stronger than “horrible” and “terrible” in describing his or her ex. But listening sympathetically is better than chiming in. (Also, as you may know from painful experience, the angriest partners sometimes do reconcile and then you become the person your friend rejects.) Your safest thing to say is something like, “I can see how you’d feel that way,” or something that acknowledges your friend’s pain.
On the other hand, saying something like, “I feel for you but I feel for him/her, too. I just want to extend my caring to both of you” is a waste of your energy. Your friend will feel undermined and adrift. You can only say something like that if you’re primarily friends with the other spouse; then it’s a positive thing to do.
It is also not helpful to tell other people’s tragic divorce stories. Your friend is too wrapped up in his or her own suffering to want to hear about other people’s misery, and certainly won’t be helped by hearing about bad outcomes. Similarly, it is not helpful to share how much the children of divorce suffer, or how finances can deteriorate during divorce. Don’t bring more bad news. It will become evident soon enough, and even though you may be accurate, it isn’t helpful.
That said, if you have positive suggestions, do share them. For example, not everyone knows good financial advisors or good lawyers. These are professionals that people won’t seek out until they really need them. And, if you feel your friend is over the top distressed or confused, do recommend counseling. It’s no shame to get counseling in any circumstances, and particularly under the kind of stress that comes with divorce. And, of course, many people still choose the traditional adversarial system for getting a divorce, because they don’t know, in time, about mediation, collaborative law, and other non-adversarial processes. If you can provide information about less heated, less stressful, less expensive ways of going through the process, by all means, offer that information.
Finally, don’t get in the soup with your friend. That means don’t get attached to your friend accepting your suggestions and don’t take up your friend’s cause as your own. Don’t get wrought up about how your friend decides to proceed, or whether your friend reconciles or doesn’t, or whether your friend’s ex gets what comin’ to him or her. You can only be supportive if you maintain your own life and priorities. Your greatest value to your friend is your own stability, in the midst of your friend’s upheaval. Unless your friend is threatened or in such denial that you fear for him or her, you need to be an island of calm.
I once saw a greeting card that said something like “A friend is someone who remembers your song when you’ve forgotten the tune.” That’s your main role: remind your friend of his or her own history and of your belief in overcoming these hard times. Remind them of their song.