5 Things Your Divorcing/Divorced Loved One Wants You to Know But Can’t Say
I have worked with and known many divorcing or divorced people. Men and women. I’ve also been through two myself. They are brutal. Life changing doesn’t come close to describing it.
I am releasing a short series about the experience of it all. From multiple angles. This is the first installment.
In this article, I am walking through the ‘behind the scenes’ and in the mind of countless divorcing and divorced people. Culling through the things I’ve been told with the caveat “I can’t say this to anyone.” Or “No one understands.” Or “ I wish they could read my mind.” Here are 5 things they wish you understood but can’t voice out loud to you.
- Divorce feels AS bad as how someone describes his or her grief of a loved one dying.
I’ve heard this numerous times. Felt it some myself. I’ll be clear on this one. It IS different. I know that. They know it. But the FEELING of it seems similar.
I’ve actually had quite a few people say they think it is worse than a death of a loved one because the relationship ended but they still have to interact with the person so there isn’t closure. Nor the public ritual. Nor the public support.
When someone dies or has a diagnosis of a serious illness, meal trains are formed, people rally together, prayer circles are formed. But when someone announces a divorce, those things rarely happen. There are apologies and ‘we are here for you’s’ but it isn’t the same. But the need for ALL those things IS there.
I know this sentiment may offend some. I do get it. I’ve experienced both death of someone who was the love of my life as well as divorce. They were different. For sure. The details and whys of the hardness and grief were different.
But the level? Same.
Some things cut deeper with the death experience and some cut harder with the divorce. The journey of recovery was also different but each required a solo walk that shaped me, stretched me and challenged me in ways it is still hard to articulate.
What they REALLY REALLY can’t say.
“I’m pissed and resentful that there is so much support surrounding death and serious illness but little galvanizing, public, ‘we are here with you through this’ kind of support for divorce.”
“Why don’t people do meal trains for you when you go through a divorce?”
“Support for divorcing/divorced people is private but death and illness support is so public—WHY IS THERE A DIFFERENCE?”
“It is a hundred times worse than watching my dad die. It is hard to describe what it feels like and means to have the white board of your future erased. Quickly. It was and is brutal. Losing my kids on a full time basis and losing my identity has brought me to the lowest levels of grief unimaginable. After literally watching my father die tragically in front of me, I didn’t think I could experience such despair and helplessness. We had casserole after casserole and multiple wakes and lots of meaningful rituals even 10 years later. For my divorce? Nothing. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so isolated and shunned by family and friends. And the divorce wasn’t even ‘my fault’ or something I wanted. “ 42 male, 2 years divorced.
People have expressed to me quiet but intense resentment that there isn’t a deep and expected level for support for the divorce process. The lack of societal ritual for it and the lack of galvanizing, public support adds to the shame, isolation and heartache during the divorce journey.
What can you do?
Understand this is an unwanted event. Have compassion that even when divorce is ‘chosen’, it really isn’t CHOSEN. On either side of this, have compassion. It isn’t a competition and it demands compassion on all sides. Listen. Listen to the why. Look for ways to understand and how to help-especially if this statement seems baffling or untrue to you.
Create a ritual of support and grief like there is with illness and death. Cards, meal trains, prayer circles, a coming together, a grieving, a celebrating, a rite of passage to the other side. A Blessingway for the end of the relationship rather than a celebration bringing a life into the world. I had someone describe they had a celebration that two people had the courage to partner up and the bravery to end it so they blessed it. A prayer circle for healing. A contemplative celebration that the couple had the courage to create a union with hope and love and the bravery to end it when it no longer served the individuals’ greater good. Another person described to me gathering a group of friends and they burned wedding pictures and she danced around in her wedding gown until it felt time to take it off and burn it too. The details are different but the intent of witnessing that something has happened that was BIG is what truly matters.
Acknowledgment. Something sad and awful feeling has happened.
Let your person know they aren’t alone or judged or wrong or all the bad things.
Think of ways to gather friends and family to lend support.
ASK what your person needs, what would help. Is it a meal train because they are too depressed to cook? Is it money because they weren’t the breadwinner and already gone through savings because this wasn’t expected? Help with childcare? Help with finding a good lawyer? Answering calls that are 80% crying 10% yelling and 10% despair for the 10thtime?
Each person will need something different. They might not know what they need. Ask and guess. If your intent is loving, the effort will be incredibly helpful.
Do things for them: Help them get a therapist or life coach. Bring dinners. Help with childcare. Socialize with them…..and remember at social gatherings that ‘being the only single’ is hard, harder than you know. Help lessen the awkwardness and loneliness. Offer to go to church together. Offer to go to their child’s dance recital. School event. Sporting game. Send funny texts. Send loving cards. Drop off surprise gifts.
Help your loved one see that you KNOW this event is a big deal and nothing to be ashamed of and something that it is normal to require support to get through.
- Family (If your family is close) and Friends… you are going through the divorce too but it doesn’t mean you call the shots.
Just like in the beginning, the marriage brings families and groups of friends together intertwining lives and creating new relationships, a divorce often detangles those relationships and halts memory making. For some people and relationships this process is easy, for others the process causes chaos and strife. For all involved.
In divorce, family and friends are not privy to the ins and outs of the relationship. Even if you think you are and do actually know a lot, you don’t know everything. Nor can you understand the nuances and the emotional destruction that your divorcing/divorced loved one is experiencing.
Thusly, trust them. Trust they know what they need.
This next sentiment may not be popular to some but I hear it a lot and in most cases agree…the divorcing/divorced person calls the shots. Especially with family relationships with the ex and the ex’s family. If the motive is pure (the ex was abusive, manipulating, not showing healthy behaviors, acting disrespectfully, causing drama, etc….) and the divorcing person asks for family to not interact with the ex spouse or to interact in a specific way for a period of time, they want it followed. And typically have good reasons and sound proof that this boundary is what is needed to get through that time period. In some instances, the boundary is permanent but for most it is temporary to get through the transition.
For some divorcing families, the divorcing spouse gives boundaries in the opposite direction…”Everyone MUST be nice to the ex”. Some circumstances are such that your loved one has moved on from the relationship or the harm done by the ex but the family has not. They want nothing to do with the ex or they want to show contempt to the ex making a point. If the divorcing spouse says “Be nice”….then as family and friends– be nice.
What you REALLY REALLY can’t say
Don’t, don’t, don’t, ignore the wishes of your loved ones thinking you know better. You don’t.
Your life is going to change too. You will need to play your part in it. You marry a family. You divorce one too. It’s about you and it isn’t about you.
Deal with your grief of course but also (in most cases) let the divorcing person call the shots and back off of advice giving and rule setting.
I hear divorcing people often say in these situations “Where is their loyalty?” “Where is their support when I need it most?” “I can’t believe behind my back they invited So and So over to their house!”
I hear this the most from divorcing dads where his family plays nice with the ex to get time with grandkids/nieces or nephews and doesn’t think to help empower the father and ask him to do that activity or event with them instead of the ex.
“Family made the first few years of holidays with the kids and ex awful. If I want to have Thanksgiving or Christmas with my kids, without my ex, I get to. Or If I want to include my ex or accept an invitation from my ex, I get to. Without judgment and gossip. There were no solutions that felt right. I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t know how to balance what felt right for me, what seemed best for the kids and what would make the least amount of conflict with my ex. My family interfered, went behind my back with my ex and made the holidays feel so awkward and shitty, I didn’t want to share it with them the following year.” 32, female, 3 years divorced.
What do you do?
Let your loved one decide. Ask how you can help. But seriously, it isn’t your call.
I’ve seen and heard of a lot of stories of well meaning family members who think they know better, think if they do a certain thing or say a specific thing to the ex that it will help the process but invariably it doesn’t.
Perhaps the most damaging thing a family member can do is align with the ex giving the appearance of a family coups. I see this most with very strong personalities and the family is afraid of the damage to children or the ex/parent cutting off ties with the family and the children. It is a tragic dynamic but real. And usually doesn’t work. What the divorcing/divorced person needs most is support. And belief in them.
Of course, I have seen this in reverse when the divorcing person is just being petty and wanting to punish or teach a lesson to the ex and their boundaries do not have healthy motives. In those circumstances, loving talks and supportive measures can be attempted to help the divorcing person grow into a new space.
If you know beyond doubt that your loved one is acting horribly and it very much in the wrong, figure out a way to help them see the light. Kind conversations, paying for therapy, finding support groups, getting a different lawyer or researching ideas for him or her. Have compassion, know you don’t know.
If you don’t agree or have ideas of other ways to handle things, ask if your thoughts are wanted. Be kind and have deference and don’t take the power away from the divorcing party. They need empowerment and love and insight.
Last, allow yourself to grieve too. For many families and friends of divorcing couples, they grieve too. And don’t know what to do about it. Respect your own process, know things won’t ever be the same but allow yourself to believe things can and will get better. Allow space for this divorce to end negative things and to re establish new relationships, roles, memories and experiences. And remember that what you are feeling, your loved one feels times ten.
- The divorcing/divorced person feels on display. Judged. In the worst way at such a vulnerable time.
Unlike some other big life stressors, going through a divorce puts your life on display. Your choices. Your shortcomings. People judge. People have opinions about ‘fault’. People assign fault. People want to know what happened, who wanted it or why the marriage ended.
And all of this finger pointing and gossiping is happening when their world is falling apart and an unrecognizable and a jumbled up, shattered mess. The spotlight shins brightest when they have the least access to their coping skills, they are a raw, vulnerable heap and are somewhat unhinged emotionally and having difficulty making decisions.
What you REALLY REALLY can’t say
“You aren’t perfect either. You aren’t divorced not because you better than me or made better life choices, it is because of luck, it just hasn’t happened yet, you are fortunate, or you/your partner are just choosing to stay together, miserably. I feel judged enough. I KNOW I made a mistake in marrying the wrong person. Your judgment doesn’t help, it just makes me want to isolate more, feel worse, give up home. “ 56 woman, separating.
“ I can’t stand being around some of my married friends. Some of them act so righteous that their marriage has lasted-because they are a better person, or followed their religion better or would ‘NEVER’ get a divorce. I choose to not be miserable the rest of my life. It doesn’t make the transition out of the marriage any easier, but it also doesn’t make you better than me. “ 29, male, separated 6 months.
“I was at my lowest. Crying all the time. Couldn’t remember dates or make deadlines. Always late. Eating terribly, hardly sleeping and generally not caring for myself at all. I knew everyone was talking about our divorce. Had opinions. Some judged him for cheating on me and some judged me for being someone my husband would cheat on. Some days I wanted to hide, other days I wanted to scream and yell and a few days I wanted to throw his stuff on the front lawn and plaster what he did all over Facebook. I wanted to scream ‘I know the kids are what matters but this happened to me too!’. I wanted people to know I was barely hanging on. I was barely surviving but then I thought, who really would care?” 35, woman, divorced 1 year.
What do you do?
Don’t confuse the person with the process. Let them be messy. And put together. Support their struggle and shut down judgey, gossipy people who aren’t helping in the least.
Let them still be who they are.
Know they need extra love. Extra affirmations. Give them reminders you SEE them and know who they are. Do things with them. Normal things. Talk about your life too. About the things you have in common and the things going wrong in your life too. Ask how they are doing. Don’t take ‘fine’ as the answer. Ask, listen and ask again.
Remind them they WILL get on the other side of this and that a new chapter can be beautiful and peaceful and joyful. Hold their hands and hearts when they don’t believe them at all. Help them find the balance of the stages of grief but also gently nudge them into the direction of hope and happiness in the new chapter.
For most, the limbo part of the divorce process is the hardest. The time period of “We are divorcing” to “It is all signed and done” is a limbo land often filled with stress and anxiety and deep despair. Then the next phase is rebuilding and regrouping with what is left emotionally, financially and logistically. This can also be a rough and unpredictable time too.
In short, although there are trends, this messy time period is also quite unpredictable. Help them normalize all of it.
- Divorcing doesn’t mean you don’t take marriage or the commitment to marriage seriously.
I’ve lost track how many times divorcing or divorced people have said to me that they fear people think they weren’t committed to marriage or won’t ever be or gave up too easily. It is VERY rare for a divorce to happen because someone didn’t care about the actual commitment or doesn’t believe in the sanctity of the commitment they made. Divorce is never easy. Getting to the decision of divorce is rarely easy and there are many heartache journeys along the way upon arrival of it and subsequently.
In short: even if they wanted it. They don’t want it.
What they REALLY REALLY can’t say
“I’m devastated, embarrassed, shocked…. (insert awful feeling in here).” I can’t go to church, I feel guilty and unclean and like I have a scarlet letter on my chest and I didn’t even want the divorce or see it coming. I feel like a statistic. Like a failure. “ Woman, 35, divorced 3 months
“I failed at the one thing I wanted most in life.” 42, woman, divorced twice.
And if this is their second or third divorce? Complete and utter shame and embarrassment. And a desperate longing for people to know they really do believe in marriage and don’t want people to think multiple divorces mean lack of commitment and disregard for marriage.
What do you do?
If you hear hints of this worry, dispel it for them. If you hear other people saying it “It is his SECOND divorce!!” with eyes raised and roll—stop them. Stop the gossip and insensitivity. In most cases, the divorcing person, heaps enough self-doubt and angst and beat themselves up enough for a lifetime. Countering it to them directly or when others say it, can be immensely healing, helpful and protective.
When you hear words like ‘failure’ or ‘failed marriage’….nip it. Replace it with words like ‘completed’ and sentiments like ‘It is okay/understandable/healthy you all decided to not keep your relationship a lifetime. “
- Stop with the thoughts on dating.
There is NO set rule on when someone is ready to date during the divorce process or after divorce. Some of the timing is related to law and circumstances that matter in the divorce process but when thinking of the emotional availability and readiness of a person—there is NO RULE. No set time. No “right” or “it is okay now” time.
Trust the person knows what they are doing. YOU DON’T know what they need or can handle. If you’ve never been divorced then you really can’t know. The loneliness. The feeling that you haven’t ‘dated in years’ so doesn’t feel like ‘right after’ or ‘too soon or the feeling of jailbreak from a bad marriage.
Some people wait ‘too long’, others ‘just need to learn to be okay being alone for awhile’, some just jump from one dating app to another’. Lots of sitting back knowing what is right.
What they REALLY REALLY can’t say
“ When my divorce was happening, I thought I wouldn’t date ever. No interest. Felt terrible about myself. Then when the papers were signed, he told me he was dating someone and something snapped and I wanted to date too. So I went on all those apps. At first it was fun and a great ego boost and I learned a lot but I got so sick of hearing from family members that I needed to stay off the apps or find someone from church or focus on the kids and not on dating. I was so fed up with being told what to do and finally free of a husband who told me what to do that I wasn’t about to let anyone in my new chapter dictate it. Still, I wished they hadn’t been so judgmental and opinionated because when it got hard and when I was overwhelmed, I felt like I couldn’t tell them or ask for advice because I was going against their advice in the first place.” 54, divorced 4 years.
“ I started seeing a therapist who talked me through the dating process. I am an ‘all in’ kind of guy and that is what got me into the situation of marrying the wrong person to begin with. I told my family I wasn’t open to their opinions on dating and I opened up to my therapist and let her guide me through it. Family wanted me to wait a few years and friends wanted me on the town chasing tail. I know I’d be lost and angry and making the same mistakes if I listened to all my friends and family thought. I should be doing. “ 42, male, divorced 1 year.
What do you do
If you are wanting to set them up, be mindful about whom you choose. I have seen a lot of people try to set up the divorced person up with who THEY would like to be set up with. Not who is right for the person for the divorcing person. So find out what the person is looking for—is it practice? Casual friendships? Companionship? A sexual partner only? Someone ready to commit to dating? Someone completely opposite from their ex or has similar qualities? Ask. Listen. Offer thoughts if welcomed.
And know this process may be messy too. Someone can work on themselves for years and feel healed and ready and okay and as soon as they start dating all their old stuff bubbles up because some healing and some skill learning can only be done within relationships with other and by interacting with others. So it will happen. Perfectly or imperfectly. And guess what? You don’t decide that—the divorcing person gets to.
Help them see it as fun. Practice. Curious lesson learning. Laugh at the hilarious stories. Be their safety buddy for first time dates. Help them keep hope that love is possible and worth investing in again.
In the End
There isn’t anything you can really do to make the divorce better ( fix or solve it) but there are a lot of little things you can do to help the person be stronger, more capable, better able to handle the personal issues.
Divorcing and divorce is messy. Like give a toddler a cup of ketchup, a melting ice cream cone and muddy boots on white carpet messy. As many divorced people we have in our country, you would think we would get it more. But we don’t. There aren’t any real rulebooks that help the messy mess parts. No cultural norms to follow. Because each relationship is unique, each relationship’s undoing is individual and because each divorce process unfolds in its own way. So we wing it. We try. Both those going through the divorce and those supporting the divorcing person.
It is messier for most than is spoken. There are a lot of private, hard moments that get swallowed and pushed down. The grief process of divorce is individual for each one but it is real. Divorce is an end to a relationship that was once important and is the signaling of an unwinding and disentangling that took years to form.
The number one element I hear from divorced people that helped them most was having at least one person who let them say the awful things, let them be a mess, let them find happiness and helped them find it on their own terms.