By Jeremy Masys
When a friend is going through the first days/weeks/months of a separation heading towards divorce, you might be asking yourself how you can be a good friend to that person. And if you’re not – well, you really should be, as the beginning stages of a divorce is when a person needs positive friendship in their life the most.
After all, not only is this person grieving what has been lost (even if pursuing divorce is an incontrovertibly wise decision, that’s obviously not what they thought when they got married, and that loss is still deeply felt when the separation starts), but also quite possibly figuring out how to navigate the world on their own without a companion for the first time in a long time.
Among other things, they may be figuring out what friendship even looks like as a single person.
If you’ve read this far, then that probably means you have positive intentions of helping this person out through your friendship. Which is fantastic. But positive intentions don’t always lead to positive outcomes, and what you think might be helpful could be not that great for the other person. Conversely, what you think might be minor and insignificant could mean the world to that person and be a forever positive memory in their time of darkness.
I’m no therapist or life coach (thankfully), but I’ve worked with and been friends with loads of men and women as they go through the first stages of separation and divorce, and I went through all of it myself as a young thirty-something shortly after I moved to a city where I knew no one. So I’ve gained some unscientific insights along the way about what seems to be helpful and what is not.
Everyone’s different in myriad ways (now there’s an insight, huh?) so none of this is one-size fit all, but here are some “maybe” do’s and don’ts of being a good friend to someone in the first days, weeks, and months of separation/divorce:
Tell your friend that “marriage is hard.” Yes, it’s a true statement. But is it a helpful statement in this moment? I really don’t think so. I can’t tell you how many times I heard this when I was first separated. If there’s one person that knows that marriage is hard, it’s the person who just realized they’re getting divorced. Telling them that probably doesn’t make it easier, but instead states the obvious of what’s already in their brain 24/7 from the moment they open their eyes in the morning til the moment they finally get themself to sleep. Saying it doesn’t give them any hope to hang onto. And worse, it just kind of suggests they didn’t try hard enough and so it’s on them. This is especially true if you as the great messenger of this truism are married. It’s basically saying, “Yeah, marriage is hard. I mean I can do it. You clearly not so much. Maybe try harder next time?”
Understand that your friend is going to want to hang out more and be open to that. Yes, another way of putting this is, your friend is going to be needy because they are in need and what they need is friendship, and that would be where you come in. It’s tough going from sharing a household for years to suddenly facing a perpetual string of solo Tuesday nights (and the other six days of the week too). You don’t have to bend over backwards or pretend you don’t have your own life, but maybe be open to having a third wheel around while you watch Dancing With the Stars, or make room for guys’ night at the bar here and there even if you haven’t left the house on a Wednesday in months and gave up whiskey for White Claws with the wifey years ago.
Tell your friend all the bad stuff you really thought about their ex unless invited. It’s extremely common for friends to suddenly unload every bad impression of their recently-separated friend’s ex as soon as the relationship is over, basically some version of “I/we never actually liked him/her because _____.” Now this one can go both ways, because maybe having a clear-headed impression of the ex is exactly what your friend wants or needs, but you shouldn’t be the one to initiate that. Even when things go bad, there is still a lot of love there, and in the end that was the person they were married to. Dumping all over that person reflects badly on the marriage and thus badly on your friend. And the two might reconcile and then you’re in a position of having talked serious trash about their spouse. But, hey, if your friend wants to hear what you really thought of him/her, some of that can be empowering and affirming in small doses. But again let your friend be the moderator of that.
Invite your friend into positive social groups and interactions, even if they were never interested before. A bad marriage can really close one person off to the rest of what’s going on in the world, and when it comes to an end they can find themselves spit out into the social wilderness without a community, a lot of friends, or recently-used social skills. Their marriage may have been close to their social everything and, as bad as it may have been, it’s now gone and they don’t know how to start over. Invite your friend along with you to group events you do that they may or may not be interested in: book club, ultimate frisbee, church, beach outings, even support groups if that’s applicable. They may not want to come but they’ll appreciate the thought and may be inspired to go find a group/community that will provide them with social support and new connections.
Encourage your friend to “get back out there” quickly. Yes, to the brain of a long-married person, the world of Tinder and Bumble and whatever else may sound like a wonderland where single people go live their best unshackled lives, and as such it’s the immediate silver lining of a divorce. And it’s the low hanging fruit of suggestions of how to distract oneself from a bad breakup. But, really, encouraging someone who’s in the thick of the emotional pain and practical concerns to go learn to swim in the murky world of online dating is not great for them, and probably not great for anyone else either. Dating immediately at the start of legal proceedings with an ex-spouse can also be an emotional time-bomb for both parties that makes the divorce way messier than it needs to be. Your vicarious delight at your friend’s adventures and/or misadventures in online dating can wait until they get more pressing personal and legal issues sorted out.
Have your friend over for dinner with the family on a regular basis. You might think that eating pot roast with you and your kids and then settling into a night of Disney Plus is the last thing your newly single-and-ready-to-mingle friend wants to do after a separation. Again, having known tons of people who go through this, I’m guessing you’d be wrong. Make the invite and find out.
Give amateur and/or aggressive legal advice. We’ve all heard about other people’s divorces, read about them, and seen them depicted in TV and movies. But I’ve rarely found anyone who can provide any sort of useful legal guidance on someone else’s family law issues who wasn’t themselves practicing in the family law world in that particular jurisdiction (and this especially goes for lawyers who practice in other fields). What I have heard is a lot of bad and/or incorrect legal advice that doesn’t help people and usually just makes them upset/frightened or, even worse, unreasonably confident. Furthermore, this advice for some reason tends to be on the aggressive side against the other spouse. And if there’s one recipe for making a bad separation situation way worse, it’s having one spouse act aggressively and ignorantly with regard to the law. It’s a legal fees arms race waiting to happen.
Suggest your friend go into mediation and/or speak with a trusted legal adviser. Well, this being my blog, this is of course the self-serving pitch, but I can say this confidently: I have only ever seen positive consequences of a separated person seeking consultation with a skilled legal professional and or reaching out to a mediator in the process; while at the same time I have seen quite the opposite when a person assumes it will all work out on its own and/or pursues legal action on their own without help.
Contact a Los Angeles Divorce Mediator/Attorney With Further Questions
At the Mediation and Law Offices of Jeremy Masys, I serve as a mediator between divorcing spouses and family law attorney providing full representation and limited scope counsel. If you have any questions about the divorce process in California, please contact me at 213-478-0089 or by entering your information below.