No one gets married hoping to have a divorce. People don’t shovel through years of dating fails, heartbreak, the joy of finally finding “the one” — publicly announcing their union to everyone they know — only to decide to return it like a piece of clothing that didn’t quite fit, consequences be damned.
But, it happens — a lot. Granted, not as much as the headlines perpetuate (that climbing 50% divorce statistic is actually a myth), but we all have someone in our lives who ended their marriage. Some reasons are legitimate and necessitate immediate separation, while others leave us shaking our heads.
Regardless of your opinions from the peanut gallery, the question remains: What can you do, as a friend? What is your role as a nearby bystander or close confidant when you are witnessing a marriage fall apart?
I asked Chicago therapist Anita Chlipala, LMFT — author of First Comes Us: The Busy Couple’s Guide to Lasting Love and founder of Relationship Reality 312. While there’s only so much you can do, she says that a friend’s perspective can be a gamechanger.
Before the divorce: Hey, have you seen a professional?
When things get tough, as in the marriage-might-be-ending sort of tough, doling out casual love advice as a friend could do more harm than good. “Obviously, I have a bias as a marriage counselor, but I’m a huge, huge, huge advocate of couples going to see a professional couple therapist when problems start,” says Chlipala. “Couples might have tried to fix things on their own, but they don’t have the tools and information that a marriage therapist has.”
In fact, if a couple is looking to get a divorce, it’s usually a sign they’ve been sitting on some issues for a while. “Friends can be good, too, but sometimes I have to tell my clients not to listen to their friends!”
The fact is, most marriages aren’t abusive (if they are — that’s a different article). “Most of them are worth saving — people just don’t know how to save them,” says Chlipala. They shouldn’t give up before they see a professional.
If your friend or their spouse is resistant to the idea, remind them that whatever issues they have will most likely carry over into their next relationship or marriage.
“Statistically speaking, most divorced couples are not happier after the divorce,” explains Chlipala. “Even if they end up with someone else, it doesn’t mean their relationship problems are going to get better.”
For instance, if someone is conflict-avoidant, that characteristic will manifest in similar problems with their next partner. Maybe not initially, but after the “honeymoon period” fades away, they’ll find themselves caught up in similar patterns. As Chlipala explains: “There’s a ‘grass is greener’ mentality when people are in unhappy marriages.” Separation looks like it would be so much better, but often it doesn’t change anyone’s happiness level. And many times it makes it worse.
“People get unnecessary divorces because they don’t know what it takes to make marriage work. They think the problem is communication, but usually, it’s about connection.”
So encourage them to try therapy, committing to at least three months, with a therapist they both like. If divorce is sounding inevitable for whatever reason, though, keep these three things in mind:
1. Don’t play the blame game
If a friend is proceeding to go through a divorce, and the final papers are signed, it’s important that you don’t get caught up blaming the ex, villainizing them like they’re some monster. This includes vehemently nodding when they tell a story and you agree that they’re the worst. “It might be tempting to say, ‘Yeah! You’re better off without her!’ But rarely in my experience do I see the divorce being one person’s fault,” says Chlipala.
Sure, maybe they were the worst. And even if that’s true, it’s important to honor your friend’s experience and feelings without totally bashing a person they’ve spent years of their life with. After all, there’s no need to compound their regret. Of course, it might be hard to do this in the heat of the moment, but over time, as your friend becomes more reflective and their energy is less focused on anger or daily survival, they’ll appreciate you as a steady supportive friend more than those who throw gas on the flame.
2. Don’t minimize what they’re going through
Even if you’re an optimist, it’s important that you’re not constantly telling a friend going through divorce how there’s “so many fish in the sea”, or that the whole debacle was “for the best.”
“Don’t try to rationalize their pain,” Chlipala says. “Don’t tell them, ‘Don’t date’ — or don’t tell them that they should ‘get out there.’” You need to let them heal from the marriage in their own way. Everyone recovers differently, and if you’re looking to support them, simply ask what you can do.
And if they don’t have an answer?
“Just come over and bring pizza. Sometimes, this means not asking permission, but just showing up with food,” explains Chlipala. “At a time like this, don’t let him be isolated.”
And remember to give them a big hug — physical touch might be something they’ve missed since their marriage ended.
3. Include them — and be ready to just listen
Maybe every year you did a couples trip — or maybe you saw this friend a lot on double-date movie nights. You might think that because they’re no longer with their spouse, they don’t want to join couples activities anymore. Here’s where most people are wrong.
“Maybe it will feel awkward at first, but still ask them to join. Text them up, just like normal,” says Chlipala. Don’t assume that just because they’re unattached, they no longer want to come on the trip, or even out to the movies. Maybe they’re fine going solo, or maybe they could bring a friend to the couples’ trip or movies. There’s no denying that things have changed, but they’ll appreciate the company — probably more than usual.
“Sometimes friends don’t know what to do, so sometimes they don’t do anything,” says Chlipala. And this is a huge problem. As the divorced person’s social circles start to get smaller, it’s important that you show them that you’re still there, just as before — and you’re even more ready to listen.
So laugh with them, invite them out — be a friend. Your steady presence will be a game-changer as they navigate this dark, uncertain chapter in their life.