I have always been a planner, hell bent on having control. With all things in life, I anticipated every possible outcome so I could have solutions ready in my back pocket, and I prided myself on being a fixer. But as we all find out sooner or later, we make plans and God laughs. I found myself in the thick of that proverb at 31, as the life that I had so carefully constructed for myself and my marriage of 3 years, came crumbling apart. Having discovered that my husband was having multiple affairs and “no longer believed in monogamy”, I sat across from him in a booth at an empty Chili’s and tried to figure out my next move. My marriage was over, that was for certain, but confronting that reality by telling friends and family felt like a task so daunting and terrifying, that my shame and anxiety left me paralyzed. Fortunately, most responded with grace, compassion, and support. However, humans are imperfect, especially when responding to trauma, and due to the masochistic tendencies that we all tend to have, the unhelpful responses were what echoed the loudest in my head. Here are a few things not to say to someone who is going through a divorce and what you can say instead.
“I saw that coming a mile away.”
Because no, you didn’t. When it comes down to it, no one knows the ins and outs of a relationship quite like the couple. What you see on social media and in public is only a small glimpse into the marriage. While you may think you saw signs of the marriage crumbling, it’s important to remember that everyone has different deal breakers, standards, and expectations in a relationship. What is good for you, might not be good for someone else. Instead say: Nothing at all. There is no reason, ever, for a comment like this.
“At least you didn’t _____ (have a child, have a home, etc.).”
Let me be very clear- divorce is a trauma. Whether you have been together 2 years or 20 years, have 5 children or none, assets or financial independence. While you may mean well, the “it could always be worse” attitude is very damaging to someone experiencing a trauma. We all know that every situation could always be worse. But minimizing someone’s experience instead of allowing them to sit with you in their grief ultimately silences them and takes away an opportunity to process their feelings and heal. Instead say: “This is a big loss of not only the person, but the future you saw for yourself. It will take time and I’m here to listen.”
“I never liked him/her anyway.”
In my opinion, this might be the worst thing you can say. While the intention might seem obvious- you are attempting to minimize grief by letting someone know they aren’t missing out- you are inadvertently criticizing their judgment by saying that not only was the divorce a failure, but the relationship and choice of partner was too. We all hope the people important to us like the person we are with. And if we choose the wrong one, we hope those discussions can be brought up graciously and early by those who have our best intentions in mind. Saying so after the fact, really only makes matters worse. Instead say: “It may not seem like it now, but I am glad he/she is giving you the opportunity to find someone who will treat you the way you deserve.”
“You didn’t suspect this at all?”
Would it have somehow made it better if I had? Intentional or not, this question puts the focus and blame where it doesn’t belong. A marriage is nothing if not built on trust, and suggesting a person play detective to their spouse is unhealthy. Hindsight is 20/20 and while there may be things we notice in our marriage that are concerning, worst case scenarios are not always assumed. What should be assumed is that they did their best with the information they had, and further explanation is not needed. Instead say: “It must hurt to feel so blindsided, and you don’t deserve the pain you are going through.”
This statement, meant to hype you up, really just makes you feel very alone in your feelings. It might even be true! But no matter their faults, when you’ve been with someone for a long time and built a future with them, you don’t just immediately fall out of love with them. I remember in the weeks and months following my separation, a few of my family and friends couldn’t fathom why I wasn’t angry. But they were detached from the emotional connection I felt. While logically, I understood where my loved ones were coming from, my emotions took a bit longer to catch up. Grief is a process that I needed to honor on my own terms. Instead say: “I hope you know your worth, and I will continue to remind you of the amazing person you are.”