The author of Life Drawing: A Novel explains the rules of kindness and etiquette to follow when comforting a newly single friend or family member.
By Robin Black
1. "But you two always seemed so happy..."
I heard this a lot after my first marriage ended some 20 years ago. My marital troubles weren't the sort to manifest in public scenes or to burst out in scandals. We had two healthy and winsome little kids, shared a sense of humor, liked many of the same people and hid the unhappiness behind closed doors. No one -- no one we knew, anyway -- saw me throw his McDonald's cheeseburger out the car window in a frustrated fit; and, no one saw us talking, calmly, hours into the night about how to tell the children.
So, of course people who didn't really know us were surprised. But when they expressed that surprise -- "but you two always seemed so happy," it often felt like an accusation. Their comment pushed me right into defensive mode: "Well, it may have appeared that way but, truly, we were fighting all the time..." No matter to whom I was speaking, a neighbor, a second-cousin, or how casual the relationship, I felt the need to justify what we had done -- only wondering afterward why I had shared my private life. So, even if a divorce surprises you, saying that it was you who didn't see what was happening -- instead of implying that maybe the divorcing couple has made a mistake -- is much kinder. My favorite reaction: "I'm sorry. I had no idea."
2. "Did you try couples therapy?"
Asking a newly divorced person if she tried therapy, or a vacation without the kids, or regular date nights or any other way to forestall the divorce is going to play right into that voice in her head, the voice that says: You should have tried harder. You rushed into this.
It's an inevitable worry when the stakes are so high -- though, in my experience, more people rush into marriage than rush into divorce. I surely did. I knew my first husband for less than half a year when we got engaged, and no one tried to slow us down. But fast forward eight years and, yes, we did go to couples counseling -- where, after many months, on a particular evening, I realized we had entered the Humpty-Dumpty stage. All the king's horses and all the king's men…
It wasn't what we were saying. It was the place where we sat. The therapist was a woman in her seventies, and her office was in her house, her husband occasionally visible in the garden or audible from upstairs. And there was something about being in that home, feeling the complexity of all those years of two people living together, raising children into adulthood together, somehow "making it" for decades, that made me realize that, try as we might, our marriage could not survive. It was, quite simply, unimaginable to be at their stage and still be together. So, in a strange and decidedly unexpected way, it was the couples therapy that made me certain we should divorce.
Still, that sense of certainty faltered at times, even through the final decision. (The children! The children!) So, anything that sounded remotely like, "Are you sure you needed to do this?" or "Are you certain you tried every solution?" buried me again in paralyzing insecurity.
3. "I hope you have a good lawyer."
Okay. If it's your sister who's getting divorced, and you know she is up against a real so-and-so and you're superclose, you get to say this. But for anyone outside the inner circle to suggest that the end of a marriage is a war, complete with sides, is just plain wrong. And it can also feel like a back-door way of asking for lurid details.
Trust me, if the newly divorced person wants you to know about his or her legal situation, whether that's involving custody, alimony or child support, he or she will be the one to bring it up. And if she does, don't be too critical of whatever settlement she's reached. Though my ex and I shared many expenses, I never received formal child support, and people told me endlessly I should have fought for it, should have gotten myself some shark of a lawyer to do better for me; but those people didn't know the whole story, and their reproaches, kindly meant as they were, caused me social discomfort, because the details were all way too intimate, and were also genuinely painful, for reasons that I didn't want to share. There is no one-size-fits-all settlement for every divorce. A family is a complex and, sometimes, very fragile thing—never more so than when reconfiguring itself into two new parts.
4. "I never thought he was right for you…"
This statement contains a supportive message: "You did the right thing." But it comes wrapped in something that sounds an awful lot like, "I knew better than you all along," or "I could have told you this would happen." Most people going through a divorce are struggling already with a lot of embarrassment and shame -- trust me, I still remember those awful "I'm a bad person, I'm a bad mother," moments.
So, how do you let a friend know that you think they've done the right thing, without making it sound as if you've been tsk-tsking their marriage all along? "This seems like a positive step," is one straightforward possibility. But my sister-in-law set the gold standard. It may seem obvious or even a little hokey, but her simple statement, "I really do trust that you've thought this through and know what you're doing," was amazingly steadying. True, the fact that I was getting divorced meant that, at some point along the way, my judgment hadn't been all I might have wished, but hearing that solid word, "trust," helped me remember that taking some missteps in life doesn't mean you are doomed to keep taking them.
5. "I wonder if you could give me some advice, because my marriage isn't going so great these days."
After my divorce, I was amazed by how many unhappily married people -- some of whom I barely knew -- started inviting me to lunch or suggesting we meet for coffee, so they could get a little advice. The harried looking mother at pre-school. The friend of a friend I ran into at the deli. I became a kind of poster child -- or poster woman -- for divorce. And it was very clear to me that most of these people didn't want advice as much as they wanted permission. The fact that I had been part of a marriage that ended seemed to make them assume I was going to respond to the possibility of their divorcing with a big, "You go, girl!"
But what divorce really taught me was that no one else can know whether or not someone else's marriage should end. And no divorce is good news. Sometimes, it's an improvement over the married life, the married household, but it's inevitably a sadness, as well. My answer to all those who asked me if I thought they should get divorced was always the same. "I have no idea what you should do, but whatever you decide, make sure you can articulate the reasons behind the decision very clearly to yourself. Because I promise you, there will be days when you will need to remind yourself that you made a conscious choice and why you did. And there will be things people say to you that will bring on those days…"
Which I realize, looking back, was my first lesson in what to say to people who are considering divorce…