Five years ago, one of my best friends got divorced. Her husband met another woman and left her and their two small boys. Heartbroken and alone, she and her kids moved in with my family while she tried to get her bearings. Oh, did I mention the jerk who left her was my brother?
Until then, I had never seen divorce up close and personal. Most of the people I knew were in seemingly healthy marriages. When my sister-in-law moved in, I honestly imagined that home-cooked meals, some pretty new clothes, a bedroom makeover in feminine florals and oodles of babysitting would get her right back up on her feet. After all, “she’d be better off without him after what he did to her.” She was smart, young and pretty. Why was she moping around? “Shake it off.” I thought. “Get over it and move on.”
But for months, she couldn’t eat, sleep or digest what was happening to her. Not only had she lost her husband, she had lost her home, her role as a stay-at-home mom and her confidence.
As the months passed, I grew impatient with her. I wanted her to face life with more courage. When she took a job with a local school district and moved into a new condo with my nephews, I thought, “Wow, it’s been almost a year. I hope she snaps out of this soon.” But now that I’m divorced, I finally understand how wrong I’d been all along.
Here are some of the stupid things I said, and things that people have said to me that serve no purpose to the newly broken-hearted:
1. “Get over it and move on!” I shamefully admit that I said this to people who were in the “first trimester” of the divorce process. As I’ve since learned, it takes time to adjust to divorce. “Getting over it” is a lot easier said than done. Divorce is not the common cold, the symptoms don’t clear up in a week or two.
2. “You think you’ve got it bad? You should hear what my ex did.” This is rather like saying, “Well dear, you do look fat in that dress, but not nearly as blubbery as my friend Millie looked last week.” Divorce hurts. Your friend needs your compassion, not your comparisons.
3. “What’s the other woman like?” What’s she going to say? “Actually, she’s a very lovely woman”? Dredging up her pain helps no one. Don’t ask personal and hurtful questions.
4. “What you need is a new hair-do!” A “quick fix” like that won’t boost your friend’s spirits for more than just a few hours. Instead, offer her the long-term emotional support she truly needs.
5. “Did your lawyer take him for all he’s worth?” Steer clear of questions about your friend’s alimony payments, sex life, or plans for selling or keeping the house. That’s not your business, anyway.
6. “Oh, c’mon now…don’t you remember all the times he made you nuts.” You’ve just insinuated that if your friend were more tolerant or kind, she might have avoided divorce. Don’t play the blame game.
7. “There are two sides to every story.” True enough, but your job is to be a comforting friend, not to morph into Judge Judy.
8. “When are you going to start dating again?” Your friend needs some time to heal. I concur with Dr. Joy Browne that a person needs a good year to sort through the fall out of a broken relationship before she jumps headlong into the next one. Don’t pressure a friend to take on the added stress of dating.
Are you working along side someone who is divorcing? Be mindful of all the “no-no’s” above, and then, be conscious that, as a colleague, you truly need to be professional and steer clear of stepping into an emotional minefield. Here are some tips that might help you navigate:
1. “Should I offer condolences or congratulations?” A particularly handy phrase if you are not acquainted with someone’s personal life.
2. Don’t jump to conclusions. Perhaps Gertrude is a pain in the neck, but maybe she’s a pain because she has been married to a passive aggressive twit — don’t assume that her husband left her because she is difficult. You may see a new improved version of Gertrude in the months to come.
3. Suggest counseling if job performance continues to decline month in and month out. Some folks throw themselves into their work to escape upset and anxiety. Others will use the “divorce” to excuse shoddy performance. After a respectable interval, it's wise to encourage an unproductive employee to seek help with a mental health professional.Click the following to return to the Divorce Resource Directory.