Statistically, January is the heaviest month for breakups, primarily because nobody wants to inflict hurt or upset over the holidays. Whether this fact makes you more grateful for your own relationship or reminds you of how long you’ve been struggling yourself, you may be at a loss for words.
Consider the following recommendations of what NOT to say to someone close to you who is going through a divorce. Undoubtedly, you want to be helpful and you may be afraid you will unintentionally inflict hurt on an already vulnerable person. Nobody knows what’s going on inside a marriage better than the people in it. Try not make assumptions from the outside and hold people to a certain standard. Instead, offer loving support in the best way you can and resist the urge to judge or gossip, especially if approached by a third party.
1. “Divorce causes as many problems as it solves.”
Really? Even when the marriage is emotionally or physically abusive? Even when financial ruin or addiction is involved? Leaving any relationship takes courage. It means stepping out of your comfort zone into the unknown and trading a future you thought you had figured out for an uncertain one. And part of being a responsible adult means keeping yourself (and children, if you have them) safe. Life will always have problems and each individual has the right to choose how to deal with them. Resist using damaging idioms.
2. “Subsequent marriages are more likely to fail if you’ve been married once already.”
Okay, statistically somewhat true. But only if the individual makes the same hasty mistakes again and again. Sometimes that is the case but since you don’t have a crystal ball, your friend may be the exception. This discounts real change, hard work and counselling that focuses on breaking patterns and starting again which many people do. In addition, marriages later in life are less susceptible to religious and societal pressure that affect a younger demographic. When you know better, you do better.
3. “I envy you and don’t at the same time.”
This is a roundabout way of saying I’m jealous you’re almost single but you don’t know how hard it’s going to be. It's also a reminder that marriage is not easy for many people. Otherwise, who would envy a divorcee? Rather than assuming the future is fraught with difficulty, consider that many mature relationships succeed in finding great depth and meaning with partners who didn’t know such happiness could exist, especially the second time around.
4.“But you were the perfect family / so good together. What happened?”
Human beings are variables, not constants. It isn’t math class. Changes occur. Perfect couples & families don’t exist and voicing extreme ideals sets people up for failure. Every couple or family is real with triumphs and setbacks. The demise of any relationship relies on a many factors. "What happened?" is asking for a quick answer to a very complex question, possibly wherever you ran into them. Wait for an opportunity where they can open up privately without pressure.
5. “I haven’t spoken to you because I’m still mourning over your breakup.”
Wait. What? Somehow their breakup is negatively affecting you while they are facing single parenthood, lawyers, strained discussions with an ex, new finances and so many other things? This is completely insensitive and dare I say, selfish. It's not about you. They need your support. Don't make anyone feel responsible for the fact that you're uncomfortable.
6. “You’ll find someone again when you least expect it.”
But isn't this statement full of hope? Perhaps. But maybe your friend is finding themselves again. Maybe the thought of trying again is too much right now and they need time to process and heal. Maybe waking up alone is a relief rather than lonely. Remember that the goal is a healed, whole person finding another, not two halves finding a whole. Relationship success and compatibility relies on happy, healthy individuals who also enjoy autonomy, not dependance on others.
7. “I’m so sorry.”
This one is tricky. It is well-intentioned because you really genuinely feel sorry for anyone going through something this tough. But it can also imply failure or injury when sometimes it's actually a relief. For example, when I was a teenager, a friend of mine watched her parents struggle through infidelity, financial ruin, drug use and joblessness until her father decided to leave the marriage for his mistress. When someone said they were so sorry about her parent's divorce, she bravely responded,“Really? Because it’s the best thing that could have happened to our family.” Remember,thatwhile it may be difficult, it’s not always necessarily sad. And as a side note, my friend's family, post divorce, went on to thrive.
8. “I never liked him/her anyway.”
Try not to polarize people. Your friend chose that partner for all sorts of good qualities which may still exist! They may intend on being amicable. Don’t list somebody’s faults like you were stockpiling ammunition for when you could vent freely. This is bad form.
9.“The breakup of families is responsible for the moral decay of our time.”
No, it’s actually not. Selfishness, bad politicians, joblessness and intolerance affect our society much more. Two people being in a toxic relationship doesn’t bless society. There are no brownie points for suffering through a bad marriage or showing children a poor example.
10. Don't share insensitive quotes
Remember, some people die (physically, emotionally, spiritually and/or psychologically) trying to make things work when they can’t do it alone. It takes two. So the implication that they didn’t try hard enough is callous and unfair. Nobody wants to fail at anything. It is smug to wave the longevity of your relationship at someone while theirs crumbles.
Okay, what can you try instead?
I hope you’re okay. I sure understand.
I love you both. Relationships aren’t easy.
Is there a day we could go to lunch and chat?
Can I run somebody to lessons after school for you?
What would help you most right now?
I’ve seen a lot of strength in you. You can do this.
I know you don’t quit easily and this must have been a really hard decision.
The Gold Standard of replies:
As your friend, I know you tried everything you could.
It will get harder before it gets easier but things will improve.
It takes courage to do what you’ve done.
I admire the way you’ve navigated this.
My sister shared an especially poignant suggestion to me one day during my own divorce. She told me of a friend with divorced parents who dedicated themselves to getting along for the sake of their children. They managed to put their differences aside to the extent that they both came to every birthday party, school concert or award ceremony. Tension never rose to the surface. They simply accepted that they had made a family together and nobody would prescribe hatred to them. This may not always be possible and is a highly mature and diplomatic approach, relying on both parents cooperating. But if your ex stays in close proximity for the sake of the kids, it's worth a try. It's what is called Taking the high road. It might not come right away but later on, after a step back, serves as a reminder that it doesn't always have to be ugly.
You could also share what has helped you if you’ve been through something similar like school counsellors for children, support groups, reading materials or spiritual resources like nature, yoga or meditation.