By Sarah-Jane Dalby
“Good friends help you to find important things when you have lost them…your smile, your hope and your courage.” ~Doe Zantamata
Divorce or the end of a long-term relationship is one of hardest, if the not the hardest, trial you might be faced with in life. Unfortunately, unless you’ve experienced it firsthand, it’s very hard to believe this statement.
For most of my fifteen-year relationship, I didn’t believe it. Sure, I commiserated with friends who were suffering through breakups, but I did so with a superiority complex, a judgment about how they got themselves into that situation through relationship neglect.
Thankfully, I kept thoughts such as this one to myself: “Wow, get over it already. It’s been a year, and it’s not like he died!”
Since separating from my husband (and childhood sweetheart) a year ago, I’ve learned some incredibly humbling lessons about love, people, grief, and healing, and I feel compelled to pass some of this wisdom on, specifically my insight into how to be a good friend to someone who’s relationship is ending.
Below, I share three hurtful comments that well-meaning friends said to me during my separation, and three things that I was lucky enough to hear from other friends that I still treasure to this day.
1. Aren’t you over that yet?
WHAT NOT TO SAY:
“I thought it was you who ended it, so why are you still moping about?”
“It’s been six months and you’re still sad. Why don’t you see a therapist and get some pills or something?”
“You were much more fun before all of this happened.”
“You’re sobbing quite loudly, and people are looking…”
I get it. Friends are more fun when they’re not crying into their warm Mimosas at brunch. You naturally want your friends to be happy and to feel better soon, but the timeframe of “soon” is different for everyone.
Sadness, anger, denial, and depression are all very normal and healthy stages of the grieving process, and healing may take weeks or, more commonly, years.
We want and need to feel supported and accepted, regardless of our mood. Being around people (especially friends) who are unhappy can be unsettling, but please know that we don’t need you to fix us or even cheer us up. We just want someone to hold our hand now and then.
The grieving process takes different lengths of time for everyone. Please respect that whatever you consider the right amount of time to be, even if it was right for you, might not be right for me.
WHAT TO SAY:
“You’re dear to me whether you mourn for the next ten years or if you get married again tomorrow. Regardless, I’ll be there to share your journey. Here’s a tissue.”
2. It’s contagious!
WHAT NOT TO SAY:
“I can’t imagine being single again at our age.”
“My partner and I are very secure. We haven’t missed Friday date night in four years.”
“I didn’t invite you, as it’s only going to be other couples. I don’t want you to feel weird or left out.”
“Don’t try and put any crazy ideas into my partner’s head. Keep your tantalizing dating tales to yourself please.”
Divorce/separation can’t be caught like a cold or an STD. This might seem blindingly obvious, but when announcing the end of your relationship to your married/committed friends, their defensive or threatened reactions can make it seem so.
When we swallow our grief and be vulnerable enough to share with you that our relationships have ended, we are not suggesting that you should do the same. It is not your cue to defend your relationship or the merits of long-term partnerships in general.
We are not actively seeking new single-friend recruits to hit the club with, and we don’t want you to drink the divorce-spiked Kool-aid.
Equally, we are not trying to seduce your significant other and steal him as an oftentimes flabbier and more hygiene-challenged version of our ex.
Everyone’s relationships are different. Some work and others don’t for an equally innumerable amount of reasons. Your friend needs a shoulder to sob against not one with a chip on it.
WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD:
“You’ll never be a third wheel, and regardless of your relationship status, you’re our friend. Let me know how I can best support you.”
3. The devil is in the details.
WHAT NOT TO SAY:
“What went wrong? Tell me everything!”
“Did he cheat on you? Did you cheat on him???”
“Are you getting the house, the car, the kids?”
“I think I saw your ex yesterday at the store; he’s lost weight, hasn’t he? I wondered what he was doing with that beautiful blonde twenty-something…”
Events as painful as separation can provoke extreme behaviors and reactions. Destruction of property, custody battles, wars over friendships or property, or beloved pets.
I have been guilty of watching ‘car-crash’ TV too; however, most of us recently separated are not auditioning for the cast of the next Real Housewives!
We’re not looking to relive the often heart-breaking drama for anyone’s amusement, so please don’t ask for all the gory details or even for an explanation. There’s never just one, easy-to-define reason a relationship ends; there’s rarely a neat single-sentence summary.
It’s never black and white; instead, it’s grey and messy, and oftentimes the justification and reasoning is not even clear in your own head, let alone trying to justify or explain it to someone else.
In the same way, you wouldn’t hammer a recent widower for all the juicy details, please show a little restrain when talking with the newly separated.
WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD:
“I’m so sorry you are going through this sad time. I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you. If you need a martini and a non-judgmental ear to natter to, I’m here, with no questions asked.”
A quick note; like me, this article is intentionally a little cheeky and exaggerated in parts, but even if you’re guilty of some of the friendship crimes I’ve listed, fear not! This is not intended as persecution.
As someone who slipped up in the past, I know first-hand that there is very little guidance for those closest to those experiencing the end of a relationship.
Know that it’s never too late, though. Reaching out today with the right words can make a real difference.
The past twelve months have been the most challenging in my life, and I’m very blessed and happy to say that I was (mostly) surrounded by loving and supportive friends.
There were times when I feared I would never get my mojo back, never feel joy or love again, but I’m starting to laugh more and cry less, and am finally finding my feet again.
Now, I look forward to being a supportive, caring, and nonjudgmental friend for others experiencing this long and tiring transition.
For those just starting the process of separation or a little way down this path, know that you will get through this, little by little, day by day. Don’t try and rush your healing. Give yourself the gift of time and respect as you work through the muddy waters of heartache.
No matter how dark and lost you feel, please take my word that eventually, at the right time for you, you will find happiness again. And the support from your friends along the way will be a reminder of how worthy of love you truly are.
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1 thought on “What Not to Say to Someone Who’s Going Through a Breakup or Divorce”
We are not all the same and that’s exactly how it is normal to be. Everyone needs a different amount of time to get over whatever happened in their lives. One need to be left alone and mourn by their own, the other need to talk about it over and over again. A real friend will know what to say and what you need