When my good friend confided last August that her husband had been hiring prostitutes and had a sex addiction, I launched into fighter mode. I berated everything about him — his judgment, his narcissism (my diagnosis, not a professional’s), his cowardice and his abdication of fatherly duties.
My friend nodded as if on autopilot. She was depressed, yes. But I also assumed she was in crisis mode and needing a rescue. So I tried to rescue her. I cooked meals, pitched in for a house cleaner, set up informational interviews between her and prospective employers.
In the months following her discovery of his addiction, she decided to file for divorce. As one of her sounding boards, I reacted with shock or fury each time he hurt her. I opined on her divorce settlements, urged her to put her kids in therapy and often circled back to what a jerk her ex was.
I thought I was being a good friend.
But when two more friends told me of their pending divorces, I had a reaction that embarrasses me: exhaustion. Even though their situations were not about me, I had no idea how I’d summon the energy to help them fight as I had for my other pal.
Once I stepped back, I understood that no one had asked me to fight the good fight; I’d ascribed myself that role thinking it was what a good friend would do. That reaction is common but not necessarily helpful, says Irene Lee, a therapist in Colorado who works with individuals, couples and families.
“People tend to make situations about themselves, so a well-meaning person will start doling out advice without knowing all the facts and circumstances,” Lee says. “Emotional situations can trigger our own feelings and prejudices, and we project that onto the scenario presented to us.”
My response probably stemmed from unresolved issues regarding my own divorced parents and, later, a stepfamily. But that’s my problem. And their situation, I realized, was not an appropriate time for me to work out my own issues.
So what’s a better reaction than telling your friend her ex is a loser who never deserved her? Listen. People going through divorce are bound to feel a world of emotions — sometimes all within 10 minutes — and a good friend listens to them and validates their feelings with empathy, not pity.
My divorcing friends are doing better now. They generously shared with me what was most — and least — helpful from their friends. Here’s what they had to say:
Don’t denigrate their spouse. Sure, they may be furious, and you’re welcome to affirm their emotions. But even when someone divorces over infidelity or abuse, they may still hold positive feelings for their partner. Often, an ex-spouse is still a co-parent, so it’s not helpful to label him a lazy jerk when your pal will be forever linked to this person. Lee advises focusing on your friend — not their spouse — and what your friend might need in the moment.
Don’t offer uneducated advice. Unless you’ve been through it, you probably don’t know what your state’s divorce laws are or what a fair settlement would be. “We tend to problem-solve,” Lee says. “It makes us feel better to be useful, but we often ‘solve’ a problem that hasn’t yet been declared a problem, which isn’t ours to fix anyway.” Better to listen to your friend and if there are areas where you might be able to help — such as a job search or finding an attorney — ask if she’d like help before diving in.
Don’t insist on silver linings. You might think losing that dude who’s been dragging her down for years is going to be the best thing ever, but your friend doesn’t need a Pollyanna. Meet her wherever she is emotionally. If she’s feeling hopeful that divorce is the right step, support her decision and praise her for taking positive action. If she’s apoplectic at her soon-to-be-ex, give her space to vent. If she’s struggling and negative, accept those emotions and assure her that you love her and will be there for her. Remember: This is her experience, not yours.
Don’t make vague offers of help. When she’s eyeball-deep in unraveling her life, it’s not helpful to say, “If you need anything, I’m here.” Instead offer concrete assistance. Tell her you’d love to watch her kids on Saturday to give her a break, or ask what day of the week would be good to drop by with dinner for her and her family.
Don’t tell them about someone else you know going through divorce. It may seem helpful to make your friend not feel like they’re alone. But, Lee says, they are. “Their situation is unique to them, and they don’t necessarily want to hear about someone else’s problems,” she says.
As for myself, I’ve always been feisty. Put me in a stressful situation, and chances are I’ll fight, not flee. And I want to protect my friends. But watching girlfriends go through divorce and land on their feet (without me orchestrating it!), I’ve come to an important conclusion: Most people going through a major life change simply want to be heard. More often than not, that means putting aside the boxing gloves and reaching out to hold a hand.