Illustration: Tallulah Fontaine
When you walk down the aisle you never expect that one day you’ll be on your own again. At least not when you’re young (okay, middle aged).
Divorce is for other people. Couples who don’t invest in their relationship. For serial cheaters and people who probably deserve it.
When it happens to you there is a combination of shock, grief and relief. Relief that the relationship problems are finally over, grief at saying goodbye to a shared history and shock that the unthinkable has happened.
You mourn your ex-spouse, even as you are relieved to be away from a toxic relationship. You mourn the couple you once were.
For many months after I left my ex I found myself wanting to go back in time, to tell ‘old him’ – my best friend of 15 years – what was going to happen to us, to hear him laugh and reassure me that it wasn’t possible.
What you don’t expect is to be mourning the loss of other people that were close to you. Yes, you’re going to lose the in-laws – particularly if things ended badly – but close friends too?
You assumed they liked you both. Until they didn’t
And yet this is precisely what happens. You can lose up to 10% of your friends when you get divorced (a stat I read somewhere).
People take sides or don’t know how to react, naturally distancing themselves. Some think divorce is a disease that is catching.
There are good-time friends who don’t want to be there for the rainy days. There are the friends who found you irresistible as a twosome but don’t really know what to do with you on your own. Some may feel insecure letting their spouse socialise with a newly-single woman.
There are friends who like your ex more than you. You never knew this when you were a couple, going to dinner parties and social gatherings. You assumed they liked you both. Until they didn’t.
These are the friends who cannot, or will not, reconcile your reasons for leaving your ex with the person they like enormously. (I get it. If I hadn’t been at the receiving end, I wouldn’t have believed me either).
So they cast you as the villain and that way they don’t have to believe you. When you express hurt and anger at this betrayal it further justifies their decision. Clearly you are the unhinged bully your ex said you were.
One of my ex-friends used to (rather pretentiously) call me and my husband ‘PLUs’, or ‘people like us’. I saw them this weekend when I was out on the sledging hills in my village, surrounded by a little clique of their PLUs.
I am no longer one of them. I stood on the periphery and watched these happy nuclear families, feeling that familiar surge of exclusion, of not quite belonging.
I am no longer invited to dinner parties. I am shunned by those who feel I gave my ex a hard time. By those who judge from their glass houses. By the fair-weather friends.
In divorce you are sometimes kicked while you’re down by the very friends you thought you could count on
Nobody tells you any of this about divorce. That sometimes you are kicked while you’re down by the very people you thought you could count on.
A particular low point for me was waking up one morning to an email from my solicitor. She had attached five statements that she had received from the defence in support of my husband’s bid for custody in our divorce trial.
Each one extolled his virtues as a father, omitting the crucial detail. That he was an alcoholic. Yes he can dress his children appropriately and give them healthy snacks. He’s great fun in the school playground. But sometimes he drinks and drives.
Each one of these statements was written by a couple I had considered to be close family friends. I’d confided in the wives, been on holiday with them, looked after their children – just as they had looked after mine.
I felt it physically. Like a deep punch to the stomach. It hurts to lose friends, at any time in life, but particularly when you’re in the throes of a nasty divorce.
It makes you feel betrayed and extremely rejected. It hurts almost as much (possibly more) than the breakdown of the marriage itself. It certainly makes the process even harder to recover from.
Tessie Castillo describes it perfectly in an article for Scary Mommy:
“Losing a friend is very different from losing a husband,” she writes. “You don’t have to leave your house. You don’t lose half your income. You don’t have to make co-parenting arrangements or split holidays with your kids or stare at the empty space in the closet where her clothes used to be.
“But losing a best friend can be harder than losing a husband. Divorce is tragic and terrible, but at least it provides relief from a toxic marriage. When my husband left, I cried for weeks, but amidst the swirling confusion and grief was a sense of freedom, of hope, of second chances. Deep down I knew I was better off without him.
“Losing a friend did not make me stronger. I felt no relief once she was gone, no hope that good would come of the tragedy, no pride in my ability to move on. Instead, I stayed up at night wondering what went wrong. I still do,” she concludes.
‘I felt no relief once she was gone, no hope that good would come of the tragedy, no pride in my ability to move on’
It’s a tough lesson, but a lesson nonetheless. When it comes to friends, divorce sorts the wheat from the chaff. Most importantly, it makes you recognise and appreciate the good friends.
They are the ones quietly propping you up. Checking in on the weekends your ex has the kids. Making time for you in their diaries and not rubbing in the social occasions you’ve missed out on.
They are ones who encourage you to socialise when it feels so difficult, even if you’ve said ‘no’ the last five times they asked. They don’t give up and know you’ll emerge from your shell eventually.
They are the ones who give you a key to their house when you’re living at your parents so you can work somewhere nearby whilst your children are at school.
They’re the ones who understand that however horribly your ex is behaving and has behaved, you’re still grieving. They don’t badmouth him… unless you want them to.
They may not agree with all of your actions and choices, but they support you anyway and do it without criticism.
And they remember you’re a human being, who sometimes wants to shoot the breeze about topics that are lighter than divorce, legal battles and disappointment.
So be kind to your divorcing friends. Be there for them and be forgiving if they’re not always themselves. Whatever you do, don’t kick them while they’re down.
It may seem impossible right now but one day it could be you who needs that support. The statistics are not kind: One-in-three (one-in-two if you’re a breadwinner wife).
I love the following tips from Working Mother on what to say to a friend going through a divorce:
Provide Specific Support
Your friend is about to hear, “If you need anything, just call,” from everyone she knows. Many well-intentioned people serve up the generic offer of help, and many really do mean it. But your friend likely won’t actually ask anyone for help. Why? It’s not easy admitting you need help. And some people don’t actually follow through even if asked, so sometimes it’s easier not to ask at all. Or she may not know what she needs help with right now.
The solution? Think about what she really needs, and tell her how you’re going to help. You might tell her you’re taking her kids for the evening so she can have some quiet time. Or pick her up after work, and take her out for dinner. Maybe her new schedule makes it impossible for her to get her daughter to soccer practice on time, so you make it your mission to make sure it happens. Whatever the need, let her know you have it covered. Work out the details then and there to make sure it happens.
Withhold Negative Opinions
You always knew he was a cheater. Or maybe you just felt they weren’t going to make it. You never liked him anyway. Your friend should feel good hearing you badmouth her soon-to-be ex, right? As much as you feel like you’re being supportive, you may actually make her feel worse. She probably still has some affection for him, even if the divorce was her idea. If they have kids, he’s still going to be in her life, so bashing him doesn’t help her deal with that.
Let her vent if she needs to talk about it, but don’t pile on with insults. Tell her you’re there for her and that you’re sorry she has to deal with those behaviours.
Silence Your Advice
You mean well when suggesting that your friend start dating or offering up the name of a good divorce lawyer, but your friend probably doesn’t want to hear it. She’s getting advice from lots of people right now, from her curious neighbours to her dear old mom. As a parent, you’ve probably received your fair share of unsolicited advice, so you know how frustrating it can be.
If you’ve been through a divorce and your friend asks you for advice, by all means, share your best tips for coming out of the process as unscathed as possible. Just don’t force your opinions on her or make her regret inviting you over for drinks. Keep in mind that your experience may be completely different than hers. Suggest she might consider her own circumstances and talk to her divorce attorney, therapist or other professional for specific advice.
Be Her Cheerleader
Okay, you may not want to actually break out the pompoms—but being your friend’s biggest supporter in a grown-up you’re-going-to-rock-your-new-single-life way can be the boost of confidence she needs. You don’t have to paint an unrealistic picture of a perfect life, but you can let her know you believe in her. Acknowledge that it’s a difficult decision and a challenging situation. Then reassure her that she’s got this.
Admit You Don’t Know What to Say
Feeling uncomfortable with the situation? Not sure what to say? Worried you’re going to say the wrong thing or make your friend feel worse? Admit it. Saying you’re not sure what to say shows your friend that you’re trying to be supportive and want to help. It also opens the door for her to tell you what she needs to hear right now. Once you admit your fears, listen to her cues to see where you should go with the conversation.
Talk About Usual Friendship Things
Yes, your friend is going through a divorce. Yes, it’s a huge part of her life right now. But she’s still your friend, and she’s still a person. The thing she might need right now is the normalcy of your friendship. Ask her for advice on what to wear to an upcoming event, or chat about the latest episode of your favourite show. Let her lead the way to determine whether she needs to talk about the divorce or take a break with regular friendship talk.
Talk to the Kids
What do you do if your friend has kids? If you’re close to the kids, don’t be afraid to talk to them during the divorce. Just how close you are to the child can help you decide what to say. If the child feels comfortable with you, he may open up and talk about his feelings. Encourage that sharing. Experts recommend that kids be allowed to be honest about their feelings. Sometimes kids need a little help putting those feelings into words.
Kids may also just want to talk about their favourite toys or what they did at recess. Be there as a neutral adult who listens to the child no matter what he wants to talk about. If you’re not sure what to say, talk to your friend first. Just don’t put yourself in the middle of the family drama. Remain neutral without talking badly about either parent.