There are few life crises that leave a caring person more confused and uncertain about what to do than watching a good friend go through a divorce. For other crises, accidents, deaths in the family, financial crises, life-threatening diagnoses, the "right" response and the help needed is more obvious and straightforward, and usually a group of friends will naturally come together to provide help and support. For a variety of reasons, this rarely happens when a couple divorces.
Whether they initiated the divorce or not, the divorcing friend has a complex set of challenges to master as they move from being married to being single. They have to find a new home, furnish it, and open all the new accounts to finance the new life. At the same time, they have to continue working to support themselves (and sometimes their soon to be "ex" as well). They have to manage the legal divorce process, usually by hiring an attorney to represent them, even if the divorce is collaborative or by mutual agreement. These tasks are time consuming and can be overwhelming because they all happen at once, and most of these tasks can't be delegated to even the most compassionate and available friend. But while the list is daunting, the tasks are doable with a little persistence and good humor. Good friends can be cheerleaders and even companions while these tasks are mastered, but there is a limit to how much a caring friend can help with these basic life tasks.
This post is focused on the part of the process where a caring friend can make a difference. While most of my experience in this area has been professional as I helped my clients overcome these social and emotional challenges of bouncing back from divorce, my recent personal experience has provided a new level of understanding and appreciation for how a network of caring friends can make the transition easier, and what is and is not helpful. So here's my "Top Ten List" (I miss Dave Letterman!) of suggestions for how to help a friend get through a divorce and successfully transition to being single again.
1. Be there. Call, email, text every day just to check in. No need for long conversations or expressions of sympathy or advice. Just be there in some way every day for a while. You'll know when to back off.
2. Make time to meet your friend for lunch or happy hour every week. If you have mutual friends, make it a group outing. Keep the focus on your mutual interests, what's happening in the the world, family, or whatever comes up, and make room for a report about the divorce but keep it short and shallow. Encourage socializing; discourage serious dating for at least the first year, especially for men.
3. Avoid siding with your friend and bashing the soon to be former spouse. No relationship fails unless both people contribute to its demise; if there are children, your friend has to co-parent with the ex and stirring up resentment will make that harder, not easier. At the same time, don't let your friend take all the blame for the divorce either.
4. Encourage your friend to take time off from work to get settled in the new home and have time to think through a new plan for the future. If the friend is the stay at home mom, get some friends to plan a day of activities for the kids to give mom a break to just rest and recover a bit or have a spa day. Healing takes quiet time.
5. If the divorce (or the marriage before divorce) has been emotionally traumatic, encourage your friend to get counseling, and regardless of the marriage history, to get into a good divorce recovery program at church.
6. Daily routines are a stress reducer, so encourage the establishment (or re-establishment) of a health daily routine: regular bedtimes, meals, exercise, and leisure time. Discourage excessive time at work; encourage balance and time alone.
7. Encourage your friend to forgive their "ex", regardless of their failures, transgressions, or omissions. Forgiveness is a decision not a feeling.
8. Help your friend focus on the present and the future; discourage repetitive recounting of the past--change the subject. If they are having trouble with letting go, encourage them to journal every day until they are through.
9. It's been said that every relationship is either a blessing or a lesson. In my experience, there are both in every relationship, but some are not evident except in hindsight. Encourage your friend to take time to find both and write them down. Lessons learned don't have to be repeated.
10. Finally, and most importantly, encourage your friend to be grateful every day. Research has demonstrated that people who list 3 things on paper every day for a week that they are grateful for, are less prone to depression and anxiety a month later! This is especially important for middle-aged and older men who are particularly at risk for depression and suicide when they're alone.
Divorce is certainly a painful and difficult life transition for nearly everyone. Divorce also presents an opportunity for transformation because so many of a person's life structures are in flux all at once. Using these suggestions, you can help your friend use this life crisis as an opportunity to build a better life and a better future.