Dr. Barbara Greenberg, Clinical Psychologist

It looks like my friend is getting divorced. What can I possibly say to make her feel better?

Dear Barbara,

I just had a friend say that she and her husband have been arguing a lot and were even talking about divorce. This is a shock, even though they have had their share of troubles, because they’ve been together for years and seemed to be still in love. She wants to get together sometime soon to talk about it. I feel nervous: How can I be supportive while not blundering and saying the wrong thing? 

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Dear correspondent,

Thank you for asking about how to support your friend during this difficult time. Divorce can send shock waves through a community of friends, and it is often hard to know how to best respond. Since divorce is so common, I’ve written about this issue before and wanted to share some of those thoughts:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hundreds of thousands of individuals in the U.S. get divorced each year. It is therefore very likely that at least one of your friends will disclose that she is getting a divorce. This will be a painful moment. This is likely the last thing that your friend hoped to be disclosing. In this moment, she is opening up about her very private life and making the private public. She is taking a risk and hoping that you will respond in a helpful manner. This is no easy task.

Consider the following conversation, which we can call Scenario 1:

Your friend asks to meet for coffee. You are aware that she has seemed stressed and a bit avoidant lately but you are not quite sure why. At the beginning of the conversation, your friend leans in toward you and says that she has something to tell you. She begins to get teary. She discloses that her husband is leaving her and she didn’t see this coming. You are shocked and furious. You tell your friend that you never liked her husband and that he is a selfish jerk. You want to give her hope, so you tell her that she can do better and can replace him quickly with someone who deserves her.

Now let’s consider a different approach, which I’ll call Scenario 2: 

You meet your friend for early morning coffee. She discloses what you sensed. She and her partner of many years are divorcing. Your friend looks devastated and seems eager to talk. You listen and let her speak while refraining from judging her partner. You sit back quietly and let her discuss her thoughts and fears while reassuring her that you are and will continue to be there for her. You take her hand and let her know that she will get through this with your help.

Both of these sorts of scenarios or variants of them happen several times a day at all sorts of venues. Clearly, Scenario 1 is problematic. The listener is talking way too much when she should be listening quietly. Despite good intentions, the listener is devaluing the partner and in turn is implying that her friend has chosen badly. She is also suggesting that her friend will find a new partner quickly when that is likely the last thing on her friend’s mind at this moment. In addition, should the husband reconsider and decide to stay married, your judgment may be relayed to him and undermine your future social relationship with him.

In Scenario 2, the listener really nails it. She allows her friend to speak without judgment. She expresses unwavering support. This is beautifully done.

There is no playbook for how to handle friends’ disclosures of the breakdown of a marriage. As a result, I am offering up some suggestions of what to say and what not to say:

To start with, your friend has entrusted you with a lot of very personal and heartbreaking information. Treat it as such. Do a lot of listening. Your friend has a lot to unload. Stay away from any judgmental comments despite what you may be dying to say. Keep your emotional level down. The emotions expressed here should be your friend’s, not yours. Reassure your friend that you are available to listen and help. Ask her what she needs. And, tell her that you will help her get through this. Check in on her frequently. Do not reassure her that she will find a new and improved version of the partner that she is losing. She is not interested in that. That is a problematic comment because it makes it seem like she is merely making an exchange at a retail store.

Elaborate on the type of support that you would like to offer. Perhaps you can offer to watch your friend’s kids so that she can have a few hours to herself. Or offer to take care of an errand for her so that her plate becomes just a little bit lighter. Before parting, thank your friend for trusting you and tell her that you will not share this information with anyone else. After all, this is your friend’s story to tell, not yours. And then, leave that meeting with the determination to be a good and solid friend.

I hope this helps.

Best,

Barbara

About the author: Barbara Greenberg, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of adolescents and their well-intentioned but exhausted parents. She also has a column on teens and mental health in other digital publications, where some of her advice here has appeared in different forms. Send your questions to her at info@mindsitenews.org.