Many people have struggled with the awkwardness of not quite knowing how to be a friend to someone who is battling cancer, and much has been written about that topic. But what about the issue of how to be a friend to a person who is going through a divorce? This can be an equally tricky road to navigate. Well-meaning friends struggle with what to say or do, and this uncertainty often leads them to avoid their friend at a time when being there can mean the most.
The days of doubt and uncertainty are over. Follow the eight easy steps below and you will go from AWOL to A-1 friend to your friend in need.
1. Respect your Rank. A good friend once told me, “Friends help you move. Real friends help you move bodies.” In keeping with this sentiment, friends can be sorted into the following categories: A list friends, B list friends, and acquaintances.
2. Tragedy Junkies Need Not Apply. Everyone knows someone who just loves to inject themselves in the middle of someone else’s grief. I’m talking about the person who has an acquaintance who just lost a loved one, and suddenly that person appoints herself as the bereaved’s new best friend. She’s the first to the house with a casserole…only she doesn’t leave it on the front porch with a card and go home, respecting the bereaved’s privacy. Rather, she posts up at the house, acting as the volunteer gatekeeper for all who want to offer their support—even those who are a lot closer to the bereaved.
Divorce seems to bring out the same type of person. So, while genuine support is generally welcome, take a minute to examine your motives to make sure your desire to be there for your friend comes from the right place, and is not motivated by your need to feed off of someone else’s hardship, or your desire to be the one with the inside scoop.
3. Keep your word. Be there if you can. But don’t say you’re going to be there, then not follow through. Here’s a scenario that happens all too often: Sally, a friend of Jane’s, has not been in contact with Jane since the split. Maybe it’s because Sally felt awkward and didn’t know what to do or say. Maybe it was because Sally was really busy. Maybe it is because Sally and Jane were simply acquaintances. The reason is not important. Then, Sally runs into Jane somewhere and after chatting for a while, Sally says to Jane, “We definitely need to get together.” And then Sally proceeds to tell Jane how she is going to rally the troops in the next week or two and organize a night when a group of friends can all go to dinner. Jane tells Sally that that sounds like a great idea, and that she’s in for sure. Then, Sally completely fails to follow through.
In regular life, this sort of thing happens a lot among friends, and it’s no big deal. People intend to do things, but daily life gets in the way. The problem with saying that to Jane at
a time when she’s in the wake of a recent split is that at that moment, Jane doesn’t really have an established daily life to get in the way of things. A giant A-bomb just went off in Jane’s life, and she is scrambling to put things back together so that she can once again have a normal routine. Dinner with Sally and the gang was going to be part of that effort. So, if you think there’s a chance that you won’t follow through with your plan, don’t throw it out there.
Similarly, if you in fact make a plan with Jane to do something—either at your initiation or hers—don’t cancel at the last minute. Again, canceling plans with friends who are not in the middle of a major life crisis is not a big deal. But in Jane’s case, having positive things to do to keep busy is really important right now. Her nights without her kids can either be viewed as a coveted break or a daunting block of time to soldier through—or both. Having plans fall through at the last minute can be really depressing. Especially if the reason is something like, “I just really need a night at home with my husband and kids.” An excuse like that might be completely understandable among friends who are also married. But to someone who is going through a divorce, that sort of statement can be like telling the homeless shelter that you are not going to show up for your shift at the shelter’s Thanksgiving dinner because you simply have too much delicious food to prepare for your family’s personal Thanksgiving feast.
4. Don’t be a double agent. There is a difference between providing support and picking sides. But having said that, it is nonetheless true that friends generally get divided up during a divorce. Some go with him, so go with her. And that’s okay, because each spouse needs a circle of support that he or she can trust. If you were formerly close with Jane and her ex, but you ended up on the ex’s team, when you run into Jane, you can still be friendly, but keep the conversation generally short and stick to topics that don’t cross any boundaries and make anyone uncomfortable. Do say: “Hey, Jane. Good to see you.” Don’t say, “Hey, Jane. Is there anyone new in your life?” On the other hand, if you are a friend that ended up in Jane’s camp and you run into her ex, be polite, but don’t disclose any information that might be sensitive—even if you think doing so puts Jane in a good light. Do say, “How’s it going?” Don’t say, “Jane is more popular than ever. Since she joined Match.com, it’s raining men at her house.” And above all, try to remember to recap the conversation to Jane the next time you see her, so she doesn’t hear about it in some round about way (“I saw Sally chatting with your ex at the car wash on Tuesday”), and be left to wonder if you are a friend she can confide in, or if you might be playing both sides of the sympathy fence.
5. Be a friend, not a judge. One of the differences between divorce and cancer is that divorce is juicy. Because of this, people love to talk about other people’s divorces. We’ve all done this. The obvious reason is it’s just plain good gossip. But the bigger reason is divorce is terrifying, and people think that if you can identify the reasons and assign the corresponding blame, you might have some control over making sure that your marriage will not meet the same fate. He had an affair. She was impossibly demanding. As long as we don’t do those things we should be okay.
This exercise actually has value to a point. Learning from other people’s mistakes can be a good thing. But make sure you don’t do the inventory of fault and meting out of blame in front of your friend. This is work for you to do for your own benefit—in private or at least not in the company of Jane. What’s done is done in her marriage, and your role is to be there for her now, where she is now; not to be the judge of things that happened in the past.
Think of it this way: If you have a friend that has gained thirty pounds, you can be sure that she already knows she’s fat. Being a friend to her doesn’t involve lecturing her about being fat. But it also doesn’t mean telling her she’s perfect. Your role as friend would involve inviting her to do things that won’t exacerbate her weight problem. Talk about it if she wants to talk about it—but don’t do it over a half-gallon of Ben & Jerry’s.
Similarly, if your friend is partying too much, do make time in your schedule to spend an evening catching up with her, but don’t go with her to singles bar to meet up with her new friends Ben and Jerry.
6. Don’t guess at feelings (or read into settlements). A common pitfall people make when talking to someone who is going through a divorce is to assume you know what he or she is feeling. It is for your friend to tell you whether she is devastated by the divorce or if she is actually kicking up her heels at the prospect of finally being rid of the jerk. And the truth is her answer can change from day to day, if not hour by hour. So, rather than guessing, a better approach is to simply ask how things are going, but be careful to get your tone and facial expressions right. Avoid tones of extreme happiness (“Hey!! How the heck are you?!?” as if she just won the lottery), or unimaginable sadness (“How are you coping in the midst of all of this?” as if a loved-one just died). Your inquiry into her well-being should be genuine—a real invitation for her to say how she’s doing at that moment should she be in the mood to talk about it.
Another similar pitfall is to guess at who “won” and who “lost” when it comes to divorce settlements. Who got the house... Who got what car… How much time the kids spend at whose house... These are things people love to talk about and then use as support of their declarations of who emerged victorious in the divorce. And in this analysis, there always has to be a winner and a loser. There can never be two losers—or worse yet, two winners. That wouldn’t be nearly as juicy to talk about.
People who have been through divorce—Wait. Let me start that sentence over. Mature people who are not plagued with insecurities who have themselves been through divorce know that it is not a tennis match that will produce a winner and a loser. It is a process, both legal and personal, that results in separating two lives and redefining a family. In fact, I would submit that people who speculate about settlement details and make assumptions about who won and who lost fail to understand the fundamentals of constructive human relationships, and are as a result prime candidates to be the next to fall victim to divorce. And if you are one of those people who is inclined to ruminate and label, make sure you would be comfortable with making these declarations to your divorced friend’s face, because you can be assured that your statements will make their way back to her. After all, you are not the only one who loves to talk about other people’s divorces.
7. Caddy stories welcome! If you run into her ex at a restaurant and he had some lettuce in his teeth when he said hi to you, send her a quick text. If you see him on a date with a woman dressed in a breezy burlap frock who is one short buggy ride away from being mistaken for an Amish wife, be sure to call her up and share the hilarity. And all those times you thought he was an insufferable boob when they were married but you had to keep your thoughts to yourself for the sake of your friendship? Well, now is the time for you to completely unburden yourself. Stories like these are pure therapeutic gold to Jane right now. The more, the merrier.
8. Friends don’t let friends make idiots of themselves. Hard times can bring out bizarre behavior in people. If you are an A-list friend, and Jane is acting in a way that is likely to make her look like an idiot, or if she doing something that you feel is detrimental to herself or, more importantly, her children, you have a duty to speak up.
If you’re not comfortable talking to Jane about your concerns directly, offer her the following trick to evaluate her own behavior: Tell her to take whatever it is she’s thinking about doing, then imagine the worst happens while she’s doing it, and then frame it all in the form of a news paper headline. For example, let’s say Jane planned to leave her kids home alone while she went out to have a glass of wine with some friends. If the house were to catch fire while she was out, this is how it might look as a newspaper headline the next day: “Fire Destroys Home. Mom Out Drinking While Kids Left Alone.” If Jane wouldn’t be comfortable with the headline, she should get a sitter or better yet, stay home.
If you follow the advice outlined above, and you will succeed in being a real friend at a time when friends are needed the most. That, in itself, is its own reward. But being there for your friends has an added advantage, too: Should you ever find yourself in the position of needing a real friend, you will find yourself surrounded by friends who are ready to repay you in kind for your genuine support. Hopefully, you’ll never need it. But if statistics are any guide, there’s a fifty-fifty chance you will; and knowing it’s there in the event you do can provide a lot of peace of mind.