Divorce. Even the word is enough to send shivers down the spine of newlyweds, or turn up the noses of the morally immune.
Divorce. Noun: A complete separation between two things.
The definition of the word doesn’t quite capture the intensity of deciding to surgically excise yourself from your partner, your plan and your dream.
Being young? That creates a unique situation and struggle. While your social circle swirls with weddings and new babies, you suddenly find yourself empathizing with legends like Typhoid Mary. You are a walking, talking manifestation of everyone’s worst nightmare; you are a ghost with a pulse.
Divorce is an ugly word.
I walked through mine at the age of 31, although walking might be overly optimistic. I crawled though, kicked and screamed through, sobbed and hid away in corners through my divorce.
I learned some incredible lessons about my own strengths and weaknesses, and also those of my friends. As the first divorcee in the family for multiple generations, I sort of just bashed my way through it, hoping each turn was the right direction.
A year and a half later, I have come to believe that those lessons only serve a greater good if I share them out loud. I heard painful words out of the mouths of the people I loved, I heard words of hope in the most unexpected places, and I heard such uncanny descriptions of how I felt from the mouths of strangers.
If one person who doesn’t know what to say to a loved one walking through a divorce reads this and finds the right words, I have served my purpose.
I want to start by saying that once the decision is made, the most horrifying prospect is wondering how people will react. I was in the red when it came to self-esteem. I was fragile, brittle and liable to shatter into a million pieces and then blow away like dust in a stiff breeze. Off-handed remarks broke me in half and sent me skittering into my apartment, not to emerge for days.
That is the power of words when a loved one is backed into a corner, eyes shifting from face to face looking for the allies and the enemies.
I quickly found allies in the most unexpected acquaintances, and the enemies were some people I loved fiercely. Relationships ended, or shifted, new ones grew up around me like a protective barrier. I wish I could tell you that I was completely surrounded by love and acceptance, but here is the thing about divorce: it’s the one deeply personal choice I have ever made that became fodder for others to chew on.
Let me be clear, someone’s divorce shouldn’t be discussed—ever. Not behind their back, and not to their face, unless it’s to listen. Your opinion has no relevance, and the sharing of your opinion only causes harm. Let me also be clear about the fact that conversations shaped as concern are still gossip.
The kindest words I heard still ring in my spirit. Three little sentences that made me feel completely loved, free and trusted:
“I can’t pretend to imagine what this feels like. You don’t have to explain a thing, but I am here if you need to talk. I trust this was the right decision, and I stand by it.”
When in doubt, go with this. Divorce has a ripple effect, and I am in no way disputing that the pain extends out into families and friendships. Of course you have the right to have feelings about it, you have the right to hurt. But you do not have the right to overly emote your disappointment or pain, because I can promise you one thing: No matter what you lost, it doesn’t touch the sides of the pain inflicted on your loved one.
By now you may be wondering, “So what shouldn’t I say?”
This is where my experience can hopefully help.
I have compiled a list of no-no’s, and the reasons why these questions or statements are so hurtful. I will also provide an alternative, more thoughtful way to address each statement, if in fact there is one.
1) “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me things were going so badly.”
I didn’t tell you because I didn’t know until I knew. The intense impact of the realization sucked the wind out of me. Divorce isn’t an option until it’s the only option. That being said, I understand the intention behind this statement. You are imagining your loved one walking through hell and wondering why they didn’t pick up the phone, or show up in tears on your door step. I can tell you why. Even in the worst moments, I had a bone-deep aching hope that any second the ship would right itself in the water and we would put all of this behind us. I didn’t want people to judge him, or myself for our lowest moments.
So try this instead: “I am sorry you had to walk through that alone, but you aren’t alone anymore. I am here if you need anything.”
2) “We really liked him.”
Of course you did. Clearly I also really liked him. What’s more, I loved him enough to get married. Do your friend a favor. Don’t take their divorce personally, because they didn’t make the decision to make you happy or sad. In fact, I bet they didn’t take your feelings into consideration at all. Would you really want a loved one to determine the course of the next 50 years based on how it might make you sad?
Here is the bottom line: This choice had absolutely nothing to do with you, or you feelings. Believe me, that is a good thing. I don’t have a viable replacement for this statement.
3) “I am so sorry!”
This is a tough one. On the surface, it seems like a statement of compassion. However, in my experience it felt like pity. Furthermore, by the time I shared it with people the worst was over. The most painful time during a divorce is before the decision is made; it’s sitting in the question, “Do I stay, or go?” Your loved one may even feel a sense of relief now that the storm is over.
Try this instead: “How are you feeling about it today?”
4) “What happened?”
When people would say this, the previous six months would flash before my eyes like a macabre slide show. I never knew how to respond, because there wasn’t a simple answer. How do you express the loss in a tidy one-sentence response? As time passed, I started to realize two things.
First, this is a very unfair question to ask. The majority of divorces, mine included, didn’t come down to a simple explanation or solitary event. The only way to honestly answer it would take an hour, and I would have to reveal deeply personal information.
Second, I realized what people were really asking: “Who is at fault here?” It’s natural to want to simplify the issue down into a villain and a victim, a winner and a loser. The reality is that the unraveling of a marriage is a bloody battlefield; canon shots were fired from all directions, and both sides suffered terrible losses. Both parties are hurting, angry, mourning. There isn’t a winner here, only a loss.
It’s normal to be curious, but for me, I wasn’t ready to discuss the details for almost six months. I first shared it with a girlfriend who was also divorced, after that was my sister, then my parents.
Try this instead: “This must be a lot to process, and you don’t have to talk about it. I am here for you, even if you just need to sit next to someone quietly.”
5) “Did you try to make it work? What about counseling?”
Divorce isn’t about an easy out, or quitting. Just like it takes strength to maintain a good marriage, it also takes incredible strength to walk away from a bad marriage. No one wants this, or even thinks it will happen. Even though the information is new to you, it’s been a long time coming. Trust me when I say that once it’s at the point of telling people, all options have been explored. Furthermore, I found it insulting that people would ask me to “try and make it work.” I dreamt of a marriage that fulfilled my dreams, and a partner that shared the same future ideals. What I heard when people said this: “Divorce is bad, and its better to settle for unhappiness.”
Try this instead: “I know you loved each other very much, and I trust that this was the right thing to do.”
6) “You shouldn’t be dating.” Or, “You should start dating.”
This topped my list for the rudest, most intrusive comments I ever heard. In my experience, I met a wonderful man smack in the middle of my divorce process. After months of fighting or long silences, finally leaving my marriage felt like coming up out of deep water and taking a ragged gasp of air. I was ready to move on with my life, and experience joy. Divorce is painful, even for the person who decided to leave. Simply put, it is inappropriate to be the proctor of anyone’s dating conduct. Whether your loved one starts dating right away or it takes years before they are ready, you don’t get to decide their timeline. It’s okay to worry, but the best thing you can do is sit back and stand ready to catch them if they fall.
Try this instead: “You deserve to be happy, and I am always in your corner.”
7) “At least you didn’t have kids yet.”
This one—this comment ripped my heart our through my throat every time. Without revealing the intimate details of my own personal story, I want to impart something very valuable here. One of the key components of my decision to walk away regarded a future family. I wanted, and still want children badly. Due to a particular set of circumstances, I became clear that I did not want my ex-husband to be the father of those children. The death of the family dream was a crushing blow, and the fact that I “didn’t have kids yet” was a source of indescribable loss.
Here is what I can promise you that you don’t know for certain: You don’t know if they were trying to conceive, you don’t know if they had suffered miscarriages, and you don’t know the intimate details of another person’s life. The implication that the divorce is any less tragic simply because no children are involved is cruel.
Try this instead: “This may feel very scary right now, but I promise that in time it will all make sense. You are going to make an incredible mother/father someday.”
8) “You weren’t married very long right?”
The length of a marriage doesn’t negate the feelings of loss. A divorce isn’t comparable to a breakup, even if it only lasted a year or two. I promised forever in front of family and friends. I put on the white dress, and walked down the aisle on the arm of my father. I danced a first dance, and signed legal contracts. Less than two years later, I sat on a curb outside a grim courthouse. I felt hollow, and words failed me. These sorts of events don’t take place unless you are married. It doesn’t matter how long you were married, I wouldn’t wish divorce court on my worst enemy.
Try this instead: “I am very proud of you for being brave enough to realize quickly that this wasn’t a good fit for you. You are very strong.”
Grief is a difficult thing to help a loved one through. I urge everyone to remember that you can become an incredible source of support to a loved one without understanding the details. It’s not meant for you to understand. Two years later, and even I don’t really understand what happened. Its sort of like the force of gravity; I couldn’t explain to you how it works or why, but that doesn’t mean I can’t feel it or trust it.
Losing my marriage has become a profound part of who I am, and it has changed everything about the way I approach all of my relationships.
I don’t entrust my personal life to others as easily anymore. Where an open book once stood proudly, there is now a vault. Today, I choose carefully whom I trust with a key. Maybe that’s good, or maybe its bad. All I know is that once your belly has been exposed to a crowd of opinions, you become more guarded in the future.
My life today is about the quality of my relationships, and the quantity has been cut in half. I wrote this to heal the holes in my spirit that were inflicted by people who simply didn’t know what to say.
To the woman who is newly divorced, who is scared and feels alone:
You are not broken, sweetheart; you are not unlovable. It is normal to feel incredibly happy, and deeply sad at the same time. Trust yourself enough to believe in your choice, and remember that opinions only carry as much weight as you give them.
Guard and protect your tender heart, and be brave enough to walk away from those that hurt you. Gather yourself up off the floor in those moments of intense grief, and realize that mourning the death of your dream doesn’t mean you question your choice.
I promise you that this moment right here, this is as bad as it gets. There is a sunrise waiting for you, and you are perfectly the right amount of messy right now.
“There is a crack in everything, that is how the light gets in.” ~ Leonard Cohen
Please Stay Out of My Divorce.
Author: Bree Giddings
Editor: Toby Israel
Image: Dahiana Candelo/Unsplash
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