How to Help a Friend Going Through a Divorce (In-Depth Guide)

How to Help a Friend Going Through a Divorce (In-Depth Guide)

Divorce specialist Natalie Maximets
Natalie Maximets is a certified life transformation coach with expertise in mindfulness and sustainability. She is a published author focused on the most progressive solutions in the field of Psychology. Natalie helps people go through fundamental life challenges, such as divorce, and build an entirely new life by reframing their personal narrative.

Do you want to know what to say to a friend going through a divorce? When you find out that one of your friends is dealing with separation, you probably want to help, but you do not know how to do it. Ending a marriage is a time-consuming process, and at each stage you can help in a different way. In order to do it, you need to be aware of what your friend is going through, and what kind of help is required.

Before people decide on a divorce, they might go through a painful period of bickering and fighting. Even if their separation was only a matter of time, and you could easily predict it, don’t say, “I told you so” or “I knew that you’d end up with a broken heart!” There is nothing you can do at this stage except for lending an ear if they want someone to talk to let their feelings out.

Even in the opposite case, when no one could have seen the severe breakup coming, be prepared to assist by lending out the guest room and sitting with children.

Many people at the separation stage put a good face on and claim that they are fine. But looks can be deceiving. Deep down they are probably really hurting after being torn away from a family member they once loved. This is a situation that nobody is likely to feel comfortable about. During tough times many people have a tendency to shut down and even go into a deep depression.

So how do you help someone going through a divorce? For starters, keep in mind that some people prefer being alone and need some time before they are ready to open up about their situation. They may not be ready to hear comforting words about divorce for a while. In this case, it’s better to just let them know that when they are ready to talk about it, you are always there for them. The best thing you can do to show them encouragement at this point in their divorce is to give them space when they want it, show your love, and express non-judgement.

Besides, there are certain gender differences in the way men and women suffer through a divorce. Knowing them can help you meet the actual needs of your friend and avoid imposing any unnecessary assistance that might cause frustration.

Gender Differences in Suffering Through a Divorce

What to say and not say to a female friend going through a divorce? How about a male? In fact, men and women react to separation quite differently due to a number of social factors, as explained by Nehami Baum, a family therapist based in Israel with a Ph.D. in social work.

As a specialist in non-death related losses and the author of the article “The Male Way of Mourning Divorce: When, What, and How,” Baum explains that men and women have differences in the time, subject, and manner of their grieving process.

Women start suffering from their marital issues earlier than men. “Women experience the highest levels of stress before the decision is made,” Baum says. “In the meanwhile, men feel the highest levels of stress after the decision.” Before a couple officially decides to separate and is having arguments, women are fully immersed in the conflict with the spouse. They experience it intensely throughout the period leading up to a divorce and right after it.

In contrast, men have a ‘reality phase’ that sets in later. Often, when the separation is complete and the custody arrangements are settled, only then do they start feeling the pain. Moreover, not all men are able to tolerate anxiety caused by the separation from their loved one. Thus, they may suppress it until they obtain an inner resource to overcome it.

The fact is, women initiate the divorce more often, hence, they become aware of the reality earlier. If it is the husband who initiates the divorce, he is likely to start the painful realization earlier, too.

Furthermore, men and women grieve for different things. Statistically, men grieve more for the loss of the family because that is what they miss most.

“Some men go so far as to deny missing the individuals they lost in the divorce, whether their children or their wife,” Baum says. “But they talk about missing things that are symbolic of family, such as their workshop, coming home to an evening meal, or pulling into the driveway and feeling proud of owning a beautiful home.”

Meanwhile, women suffer more for the loss of the marital relationship and the absence of a male figure in their life.

Lastly, men and women experience stress from separation in different ways. Most females live through a divorce emotionally. They often respond to enormous stress with depression and try relieving it by talking to friends, relatives, and seeing a therapist.

Contrastingly, men rarely deal with separation by processing their emotions. Most of them respond to a divorce with self-medication and frantic social activity. Men do heavy drinking after their divorce twice as often as women. Moreover, they start partying and carousing, and sometimes they turn to drug use. Additionally, men are likely to quickly get into a new relationship or engage into casual sex.

Obviously, each person has their own ‘timing’ to let the pain go and find their own way to overcome divorce. However, the above-mentioned characteristics are not gendered in a biological sense. In other words, men and women aren’t biologically hard-wired to suffer in a certain way. They develop certain inclinations because of the choices they make, and they are sometimes predetermined by social pressure or their personal differences.

What to say to a male friend going through a divorce? Firstly, you should understand the reasons behind their behavior. Men act in such a way not because they aren’t capable of feeling the pain or sadness, but because they are less in touch with their emotions. Boys are often prohibited from expressing their emotions from an early age, so don’t be too hard on them. Thus, even if you don’t approve of their erratic conduct, your blame words are what not to say to someone going through a divorce.

Men start suffering from separation later because statistically, women initiate a divorce twice as often as men. Thus, women enter the ‘reality stage’ earlier. Furthermore, women are traditionally considered the ‘emotional guardians’ of the family.

Women have an unspoken ‘right’ to express and experience emotions. Thus, the husband can experience the need to feel and express his own emotions only when his wife is no longer around.

It is socially acceptable for men to express anger and other powerful emotions that are considered manly and aggressive. At the same time, sadness and sorrow coming from the loss might be associated with weakness and effeminacy. Thus, it is difficult for some men to understand their own feelings and the feelings of their kids and wife.

Moreover, many men tend to grieve due to the loss of children (or the reduction of time spent with them). They also get stressed over the change in their routines and overall family life. Some men refuse to acknowledge that they depend on their wives emotionally in a marriage. However, the loss of the emotional connection with the spouse gets more real after the separation. They often find it as more acceptable to feel the grief over the above-mentioned things rather than due to the loss of their wife.

Society explicitly encourages women to grieve by making it socially acceptable. Men cannot cry as openly as women do. Furthermore, they enroll in therapy less often. They are more prone to deny emotional reactions and are not highly skilled in emotional introspection. It is inherently difficult for men to suffer openly when the meaning of their loss cannot be adequately interpreted by society.

Therefore, men express their loss and pain indirectly through actions. Once the “heavy drinking” period is over, men encourage themselves to move on quickly. They hide their emotional issues deep down and engage in work, hobbies, and other activities.

These findings show that both men and women mourn and grieve after divorce, but they do it in different ways.

Gender-Linked or Individual Variances?

Even though earlier differences in grieving were described as gender-related, they can be individual variances as well. Both men and women can be in denial. Certain men find it challenging to realize and process their emotions, whereas other men can cry and express themselves freely. Some women prefer moving on more quickly than others. Ultimately, the person with any set of characteristics enters the ‘reality phase’ where the realization hits hard.

People can respond to stress in a number of ways. Divorce is a stressful event. People find it hard to concentrate. They can have intrusive thoughts about the separation and feel disoriented and confused. They often experience social withdrawal or frantic social activity. Many individuals respond emotionally by crying, feeling sorrow, guilt, anger, sadness, and fear. People can also have somatic responses and develop headaches and muscular aches, get restless and agitated, or get sensitive to noises.

Knowing these characteristics, you will be able to tailor your help according to your friend’s needs.

What to Say to Someone Getting a Divorce?

Here are some words of encouragement for someone going through a divorce. As simple as they may seem, these phrases possess intense healing power.

How are you? Once you find out about your friend’s situation, approach them and ask how they feel. Start a conversation to see what may be appropriate to ask and gauge your friend’s possible reaction. Keep in mind that if they are severely depressed, they may need professional help.

Offer help. The easiest way to help is to ask what your friend needs. Then your assistance will be on-point. However, don’t take offense if they say they need nothing. People in need may decline such offers because they might need some time alone or because your offer sounds too generic. Thus, specify what you can help with; for instance, with watching kids or cooking.

Let’s Hang Out. If your friend isn’t in severe depression, suggest that you hang out together. However, if they feel very sad, offer your friend an opportunity to open up in a relaxed atmosphere on his or her own terms.

Even if your friend refuses to go out, they will be happy to know that someone is concerned and wants to hang out with them.

Socialization is extremely important at the mourning stage. Encourage your friend to engage in various activities and social events. This will help them to decrease the pain that they are living through, which is an ongoing process.

Unfortunately, male socialization often discourages men from valid ways of mourning for divorce. In such a case, therapy can support them while they’re grieving.

I Can Hear You. If your friend starts talking about their marital problems, be a good listener. Most people share their problems not because they necessarily want to hear your opinion. You might not get a full understanding of the context. Moreover, many issues are not that easy to resolve.

So please be careful if you’re eager to find the best advice for someone going through a divorce. Most people do not need advice. Just knowing that they are not alone is really helpful. When you carefully listen to people, you show them that you care.

Help Your Friend to Express Emotions

Even if your friend doesn’t show negative emotions, but you can see that their behavior has changed, it’s a sign that the divorce has affected them. You don’t need to be a therapist to recognize unusual conduct. So if your friend starts acting differently, it might be their way to overcome post-divorce stress. However, if they neglect the grieving process, it might be detrimental to their mental health.

What to say to someone going through a divorce? Firstly, tell your friend that you are going to support them, no matter what. It’s always nice to hear that there’s someone who isn’t going to judge them, nor their ex-spouse, and just loves them the way they are.

Secondly, remind them that it’s okay to feel different emotions and to need some time to restore inner peace. Otherwise, the process of grieving is not over. If your friend doesn’t explicitly avoid emotional contact, try helping them to voice out the emotions they feel.

Some people have difficulties establishing contact with their emotions. Thus, saying, “You are probably grieving” or “That is your way of experiencing a loss” can be rather helpful.

Simply ask them what they feel. And if they find it hard to identify it, ask whether their emotions are negative or positive. If they are negative, list such states as feeling angry, sad, anxious, overwhelmed, depressed, scared, etc. By agreeing that they grieve and mourn for the loss of marriage, people alleviate their psychological state. After all, it gets easier to experience an emotion when it has a name.

Next, inquire if there’s anything that could cheer them up, and give them some time to think. If they are hesitant, suggest a couple of simple things, such as bringing them a cup of tea, watching their favorite TV show together, taking a walk, or spending the weekend outdoors.

If your friend is experiencing positive emotions, such as relief, hope, or excitement, try to enhance those. Reinforce your friend’s optimism by asking what their life will be like in the near future and what long-term plans they have. When you shift the focus of your friend’s attention to the great opportunities ahead of them, you take them out of their painful past. By doing so, you set their mind towards the future they are eager to explore, which boosts their mood.

Please be very careful if you decide to recommend a good therapist to them. On the one hand, such a suggestion can be helpful, but make sure that you don’t hurt your friend’s feelings, especially if they didn’t ask for it. You might see that your friend isn’t coping with intense stress and is probably very depressed. In this case, show your empathy first. Tell them that you accept them as they are, and then tell your friend that you are very concerned about their state and would like to help.

Say that you are unsure whether your support is enough, since your friend still doesn’t feel well. Underpin your argument by claiming that when you feel sick, there’s nothing wrong with seeing a doctor and getting the treatment you need. Similarly, a therapist who could because they are an expert and have dealt with similar cases many times. Be careful to choose the mildest words when offering up the idea of a therapist. If you are too straightforward, your friend might feel even more pain because they might mistakenly assume that there’s something wrong with them, and you want to “fix” them, not their state.

Legitimize Their Experience of Loss

How to help a male friend going through a divorce? As was suggested earlier, it can be especially useful to help them recognize their emotions. Thus, do not be fooled by their denial. Even if your male friend says that he is fine after divorce, it can be the other way around. However, they might find it too stressful to recognize their pain or express it in front of others.

Try to help your friend articulate what happened to them and define their experience as a loss. Say that it is alright to be sad, upset, and frustrated about the loss. Such an approach will legitimize their feelings and alleviate their state.

However, do not push your less emotional friend to express their emotions more openly. It is not a goal. The main thing is to find acceptable ways of mourning and grieving. Indirect expressions of pain are normal, too.

If your message is that it is acceptable and even helpful to grieve for the loss, your male friend can feel more comfortable living through it, at least in your presence.

By realizing that the male ways of mourning are just as valid as the female ones, men get the message that grieving for the loss of their children, wives, and family is acceptable and they should do it.

Thus, men understand that they can mourn for their losses and that both emotional and non-emotional ways of grieving are ok.

How to Support Someone Going Through a Divorce?

Divorce disrupts the structure of people’s lives and family routines. Therefore, you can help your friend get their life back on track.

Self-care. Eating, sleeping, and exercising properly are the three basic things that are responsible for a sound body and mind. As their friend, make sure that they sleep enough, eat well, and have time and energy to exercise.

What to say to someone getting a divorce with children? If your friend does not get enough sleep because of small kids, volunteer to babysit several times throughout the week or help them find a babysitter. If your friend has trouble sleeping because of insomnia, suggest a few meditation apps or help them find a good physician.

Childcare. Probably your friend is not used to taking care of the children single-handedly and has difficulties in juggling parental responsibilities and a job. Your help will allow them to adapt to the situation. Offer to pick up the kids from school or watch the kids from time to time to let your friend run errands and adjust to this new situation.

Help with moving out. Often divorce is associated with downsizing. After the breakup the house is sold and your friend might need your help to move to a new place. Help your friend pack, as it can be an emotional moment when every detail reminds them of what they used to have. With you being around sorting through the stuff and packing, your friend is less likely to go too deep into reverie and it will take their mind off rumination.

Bring a meal. Encouraging words during a divorce are great, but combining them with a hot meal might be even better! Come over with a pizza or homemade dinner as a good-friend gesture to make your friend’s life easier at least for one evening. Spotting an empty seat where the spouse used to sit can be painful. So occasionally dropping by with takeout shows that you care.

Do not discourage them from dating or not dating. Everyone has their own pace and way of mourning. As their friend, back them up with any choice they make. It is not your place to judge. Do not push them to find someone immediately to ‘move on.’ Similarly, do not say that it is too soon to install Tinder or similar apps. Simply let them know that you are there for them and you can always chat over a glass of beer or a Chardonnay.

Be ready for possible rejection. If you truly want to know how to help a friend through a divorce, be prepared for a possible negative reaction. What you interpret as help might seem rather useless to your friend. If you really want to be there for them, check in occasionally to see what exactly they need. Let them know that it is ok to tell you if your help is unwanted.

Healing is an ongoing process. If the person wants to be left alone, comply with it. Some people need to be alone to process their feelings and stress on their own. Even if you give them words of encouragement during the divorce, getting better after separation can take years. If your friend does not want to talk or hang out now, they may want to later. Check in on them from time to time to see how they are doing. It will show your friend that you are concerned and you care. It is helpful and nice.

Help with lawyers. If a couple has just split up, your friend may appreciate it if you can come with them to a meeting with a lawyer. For those who are inexperienced in working with an attorney, it helps if you lend your eyes and ears during a meeting and look out for questions your friend can forget to ask. As an outsider who is not too immersed emotionally, you can provide emotional support by being calm and having clarity. You can also tell your friend about the tool that can make the process faster and easier. They might not even know about such services, so send them a link to the website to help them find out more.

How to Comfort Someone Going Through a Divorce? Don’t Break Taboos

Don’t trash their ex. It is a big no-no. Your friend can pour out their heart, calling their spouse all the bad names in the world they want, but you can’t. You never know how their relationship will turn out later or how your friend’s feelings may change. Using mean words when talking about them is not a wise course of action, especially if an ex-spouse remains a co-parent. To avoid uncomfortable situations later, listen and validate your friend’s emotions, but avoid bad mouthing their ex-spouse.

Avoid trying to solve your friend’s problems. You should not see a goal in solving the problem of divorce for your friend. Therefore, do not say that the divorce was a great thing to happen or suggest that it is good that they are free from their lousy partner, as those aren’t words of wisdom. Divorce hurts, so if you have never liked your friend’s spouse, there’s no need to let them know about it. As was already said, simply listen and support them emotionally. It is their experience, not yours, so let them vent and start a new chapter in their life.

Don’t compare their case with other people’s divorces. You might want to tell a story about someone else going through separation. It can be helpful unless you start comparing your friend’s case to it - so don’t make it a comparison. Such a story can be useful if it helps to indirectly suggest a few sound solutions or to relieve similar emotions that your friend might be experiencing, too.

What If You Face Rejection While Helping a Friend Through Divorce?

There are situations when you genuinely cannot help. Either you cannot be around but you know that your friend needs some help, or your friend stubbornly refuses help from you or says they are fine.

Recommend therapy. This is a time when you can refer to some real-life cases of people you know. You can say, “I knew a woman who kept saying she was fine after a painful divorce and then she had a heart attack. After that she started sessions with a professional therapist, and she got much better physically and emotionally.”

Suggest online resources. Even the most reserved and secretive individual needs some stress relief. Suggesting a website that they can visit unnoticed can help. Encourage your friend to visit our online blog. There they can find a wide selection of articles on dealing with divorce: how to get back to normal after a divorce, how to spot post-divorce depression, how to start dating again, or even how to give yourself permission to skip dating for the time being.

What to Say to a Friend Who is Getting Divorced?

Don’t forget to remind your friend that the terrible period will be over sooner or later. No one stays in pain indefinitely. Somehow people adapt. However, it is possible to reach that point faster and in the least difficult way. The main thing is to be there for them, even if it is just to lend an ear. Let them know you are there for them if they need help and show them that you care. Encourage your friend to help themselves as best as they can and look out for recovery.

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