“What to Say When” is a Darling series written to equip you to engage others in hard situations with thoughtfulness and kindness.

When a friend gets divorced or separated, it is so hard for everyone involved. We talked with women who have gone through divorce or separation. All of their situations were unique. They are different ages, have different family structures, believe in different religions and are from different parts of the country.

These answers come from the conversations we had with all of them and represent the common themes we saw in every story. Read below to learn what not to say, what to say and other things to consider. 

What Not to Say:

“What happened?”

For me, it was really hard when well-intentioned people immediately asked for details that weren’t volunteered. The answer to, “What happened?” is much longer and infinitely more complicated than someone in the throes of crisis can neatly or calmly summarize for a third party.

Divorce is always an incredibly painful story. Let the person volunteer what they want to share.  

“We knew from Day No. 1 it was going to be a mistake.”

It was really unhelpful when several people close to me shared immediately that they thought my ex and I never should have gotten married, that we were a terrible match, that they knew from day one that it was a mistake, etc. People going through separation or divorce are at their most vulnerable. I felt that I was questioning everything about not only my marriage but who I was, my values and my future.

People going through separation or divorce are at their most vulnerable.

I got stuck in an endless loop of self-judgment, and as a result, I was painfully sensitive to the judgment of others. Their feedback was intended to be validating of my ultimate decision to leave, but instead, it made me question my instincts and judgment even more. 

“Why don’t you just try…?” 

When I was getting divorced, many people said things like, “Why don’t you just try harder?” or “Why don’t you just give it six more months?” or “Why don’t you just go to this couples’ retreat or this new counselor?” I think they were suggesting ideas because they thought it was best for us to stay together, and I tried to appreciate that they wanted what was best for me.

It hurt because their suggestions communicated, “I will only be happy with you if you make it work to stay married.” I did not feel they had not taken the time to try to understand everything that had happened or to try to understand everything I was feeling. Their suggestions were not informed yet. If I could redo it with those people, then I wish their first instinct had been to listen and understand instead of trying to fix it. 

“What are you going to do with your ring?”

The ring, dress or other wedding memorabilia understandably spark curiosity. Yet, a point of curiosity for you is potentially a major pain point for the person going through the divorce.

That memorabilia will conjure up memories that she may not want to process with you in that moment. It is also not critical information that will help you help her. Thus, it’s better to let her volunteer that information instead of asking.

It’s better to let her volunteer that information instead of asking.

What to Say: 

“Thank you for sharing this with me. I’m so sorry.” 

I found it comforting and refreshing when friends instead responded with, “I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I don’t know what to say.” It felt genuine and it didn’t require anything of me. 

I don’t have an agenda. I’m just here for you.”

I had one friend who flew in from another city as things with my ex-husband were blowing up. When she called me to tell me she was coming, I told her that I didn’t want her to come. I was too wounded and sad for another person to come in with a strong opinion about what I had to do next.

She was wise enough to see my defensive posture for what it was. She saw that I was afraid and wounded. On the phone, she said, “I’m not coming to tell you what to do. If you want a space to talk about the circumstances and process your feelings, then I will listen and I will not offer an opinion unless you directly ask me. If you don’t want to talk about it, then we will run errands and do laundry and go work out.”

It meant the world to me that she was willing to leave her agenda at the door and try to understand how I was doing. There is a real cost to this kind of love. It takes a lot of time to listen and demonstrate that you heard. It means forgoing the simplicity of a black and white world, where decisions are made easily and quickly. I was grateful that all she wanted was to listen and understand. 

“Do you want to come with us?”

I was the first of my friends to go through a separation or divorce, and I worried a lot about being alone and being left out. I really appreciated when friends continued to include me and invite me to things. Even if I wasn’t always up to it, it made me feel less alone and that I was worthy of friendship.

Friends invited me to little things like going to get groceries and run errands and big things like international vacations, and every invitation made me feel like I belonged.

Every invitation made me feel like I belonged.

I had one friend who said, “I love this cardio yoga class. I scheduled us for 5:30 p.m. workout class every Monday for the next six weeks, and I can’t wait to go to yoga with you!”

It meant so much to me that a friend was scheduling out things in the future and was committed to being with me even though I was a mess. 

“This does not define the rest of your life.”

When I was considering divorce, it felt like the rest of my life I would be wearing a scarlet letter D everywhere I went. It helped me when my close friends reminded me that while I wasn’t a wife anymore, I was still a mom, daughter, sister, employee, friend and a lot of other roles that gave my life meaning and purpose.

I was afraid everyone would see my divorce as a failure that defined who I was, which meant I was a failure too. It helped when people reminded me that my divorce was not the end of my story. It is just a sad chapter in my story. 

I was afraid everyone would see my divorce as a failure that defined who I was…

“You don’t have to explain to anyone what you are going through if you don’t want to.” 

I came into marriage believing that divorce was almost never acceptable. When I was going through a divorce, I felt like I had to justify my situation to everyone, even strangers in the grocery store! I had one friend who helped me come up with a one-sentence summary that was appropriate to share with strangers, another one-sentence summary for acquaintances and another one-sentence summary for friends.

She also fielded a lot of questions from our larger friend group on my behalf. It helped that I had a go-to response for awkward situations, and it helped that she was sharing the details I felt comfortable for people to know but didn’t want to share myself. 

“Your feelings are valid. You‘re essentially grieving the death of a person in your life and the death of the dreams you had for your life.”

During my separation from my husband, I attended the funeral of a dear friend. During the funeral, I was struck that my grief for my marriage and my grief for my friend were actually very similar, which made me feel a little bit guilty. My counselor told me that it was actually right to grieve my marriage because the person I thought I had married and the dreams I’d had for our life together were gone.

The person I thought I had married and the dreams I’d had for our life together were gone.

Divorce feels like a death. The finality of something that was supposed to be constant for the rest of your life is crushing. I really appreciated my friends who gave me permission and created a space for me to grieve. 

“If you’d like, I’d love to help by ________.”

People going through divorce might need help from a counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, lawyer or financial advisor. It may seem overwhelming to try to help someone in a divorce when you don’t have that expertise, but the little practical things have to get done too!

Some amazing friends said things like,  “I’d love to help by coming over to fold your laundry,” or “I’d love to help by watching your kids after school next week.” If you have the bandwidth and inclination to help, then think of a practical thing you could offer to do. 

Things to Consider: 

1. The circumstances of the divorce

Every story is different. Some people choose to get divorced, and others have a spouse who leaves them. Some people have left an abusive or difficult marriage. For them, divorce may feel like freedom. Some people wanted to stay together, and thus, divorce feels like abandonment.

Every divorce (and every marriage) is different. Do not assume that you know the whole story or all the feelings involved. 

2. Whether children are involved

If children are involved, then there are even more factors at play. Be thoughtful about the impact this has on the children. Practical help is even more meaningful when children are involved. 

3. The impact on you

If a close friend or family member is getting divorced, then their divorce may feel like a death in your life. It is good and healthy to create space for yourself to grieve too. The divorced person may not be in a position to support you in your grief, so make sure to find another friend or counselor who can help you process your feelings too. 

Have you been through a divorce? Have you walked with someone through a divorce? What would you add to this list? 

Illustration via Henzel Illustrations

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10 comments

  1. Thank you so much for creating this research. My cousin recently went through a divorce and I was at loss for helpful words/actions. This is so helpful.

  2. When this article was first posted, I cried. My mother in law is in the process of divorce, and it confirmed so many things for me, and broke me anew in a healing way. It spoke to me, and my husband. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for bringing an awareness to a very sensitive subject and giving us words and tools to love our friends well.

  4. Wow! what a great article! I currently have two close friends going through divorces right now, and neither one of them ever saw it coming. Perfect timing for me to read this and such great advice!

  5. I have a friend who is currently going through this and I have been at such a loss about what to say. This helped so much!

  6. I read every word; and I found it to be very thorough and spot on. I thought of myself in those difficult months after my separation and could totally relate to everything written here, even though it was decades ago. This should be in EVERYONE’S library as a “go to” when someone they know is going through a divorce, or even if THEY themselves are doing so.

  7. Amazing article. My sister’s divorce was just finalized a few weeks ago. It will be a hard holiday season, but the article lists so many things that I know have been helpful to say and what hasn’t been helpful. Everyone should read this!

  8. Really great article. I am at the age where friends are in that space. Some handy tools here to utilize. For some reason this reminds me to remember to ask permission. Is it ok to; talk, ask, do, whatever. When you ask permission you allow the person to answer honestly. I like to ask permission before I dump my issue onto someone else. Sometimes people don’t have the bandwidth that day to deal with what you have going on. I guess it is all about creating comfortable boundaries that probably preserves both parties.

  9. This is super helpful right now for me. My sister is separating from her husband so I appreciate this to know how to help her. Thanks for writing it.

  10. Thanks to the people who contributed their stories. One of my college friends is going through a divorce and it’s super complicated to know what to do. Thanks for this resource.

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