When Friends Divorce

How to help family or friends with divorce

Posted May 16, 2019

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When Brad and Angelina went through their doubtlessly painful divorce, Angelina told People Magazine "I am very saddened by this, but what matters most now is the well-being of our kids." She emphasizes what is most important: the health of the children involved.  

If you have a friend or family member going through a divorce, it can be difficult to know how to handle the personality changes that come with the process. One day they’re angry, the next day sad, the next seemingly apathetic. It can be tricky to know how involved you need to be. 

But you aren’t their therapist; that isn’t your job.  It should fall upon a psychiatrist, psychologist, or a social worker.

So what can you do? Learn a bit about divorce, and how it affects people. It is a world of stress and many unknowns, you can be shelter in the storm.

Divorce – A Type of Death:

What your friend or family member is likely going through is grief.  This is a natural part of divorce. Divorce is a death of sorts: the loss of a marriage and a dream of an intact family, forever. It’s human to mourn the losses that come from divorce, whether they’re grieving for themselves, the loss of their spouse, or their children.  

This grief is ultimately a positive part of healing.  

Here’s what you can do: educate yourself on what your friend or family member may be going through, and gently help them make sensible decisions.  Playing a truly helpful role, you can prepare for and accommodate their grief.  Plus, you can encourage them to get good professional advice, whether it is legal or psychological.

Stages of Grief:

After carefully studying the topic, Kübler-Ross came up with a model of five stages of grief. These stages are not a fixed process, but they may give you guidance about what you are dealing with.

The first stage of grief is denial. While we are under great stress, it gives us the comfort of thinking things aren’t so serious.  

While your friend or family member does technically understand that they are going through a divorce, she may deny it to a certain degree, thinking it won’t really happen or that it won’t be difficult. She may shrug it off, act as if it’s no big deal. But the best way to deal with the reality of divorce is by being realistic.  If she chooses to ignore the subject for too long, it will only make matters worse.   

When denial fails, the second stage of grief is anger.  Anger is often directed at the spouse or even the children, and sometimes bleeds over into their interpersonal relationships.   On one hand, anger can be used to mobilize a person to action; a call to arms of sorts. Be aware that when anger is in charge, it can be damaging, causing your friend to make poor decisions they may not be able to undo.    

I believe strongly in psychotherapy for most people going through divorce.  While you can help, a good therapist is best to aid your friend or family member by guiding them to make sound decisions that will not backfire in the long-term.  You may also want to consider the author’s new course on divorce, The Intelligent Divorce Course, for more guidance. It does not replace therapy, but shows parents how to deal with some of the basic obstacles found in divorce.

Strength driven by anger is fragile and temporary.  At this weakened point, they may enter the next stage, bargaining.  Divorce comes with drastic life changes, and they may feel the need to work it out even if their ex is not interested.  Bargaining can be an intelligent step in the legal process, but if your friend is dealing with a manipulative exit may lead to unfair concessions in the divorce.

At its core, bargaining hopes that everything can work out.  Hope is crucial to the healing process, but hope should also be realistic.  

When this bargaining is fruitless, the next stage is typically depression; with the acceptance that life has changed forever, the heaviness of the loss hits them -- hard.  It may be hard for you to witness, but this stage is actually very important to the healing process.  Distinct from clinical depression, this stage is that in which your friend finally allows himself to feel the true weight of what is happening.  

This process allows people to truly grieve his loss and eventually remember the good.   Positive memories will endure, and a future awaits him, but it may take some time, and be aided by therapy.  You should stay in touch, and let him or her know that they matter. Invite your friend or family over, make play dates with their children if they are young, and get him or her out of the house.

Depressed people do not feel they deserve to be loved.  You can make a difference.

At this point, we come to the final stage of grief, acceptance.  In this stage, your friend or family member accepts the reality of loss, and begins to resolve his or her grief.  This stage is also about growth and taking on fate with honor and courage.  They have to remember that what defines the character of a person is what life gives them, but how you respond -- how you take charge of your situation, no matter how unfair it may be.  

The reality of the situation is that no matter how hurt, angry, or depressed a person may be, they don’t want to continue feeling this way forever.  The marriage didn’t work out, but that doesn’t matter in the end.  What counts is that a person going through divorce still has a life left to live, children to raise and needs to make the best of it.  That is acceptance.  

Common Mistakes:

Your next step is getting to know the most common mistakes.  For example, some people over-identify with their friend’s anger, only to lead them to make awful decisions based on anger that can backfire badly. Some people get put off by a person’s neediness during this time and subtly begin to avoid them, only to cause more confusion and hurt.  (Reach out, even by text. It counts.) Yet others fall into the role of the savior, playing the role of the therapist only to get in over their heads.  And others become overly sensitive with their friend and do everything possible not to upset them, even at the expense of honest advice.  

Friends and Family:

Friends and family are incredibly important to a person going through a divorce.  

Just remind yourself again: you are not a therapist.  It is not your obligation or your place to become deeply involved with your friend’s psychological state. However, if you can be there for them in their time of need.  Armed with the knowledge of what you just read, you can avoid many of the problems that damage relationships.  Plus, you can be a kind ear, listening carefully and being of use. That is a huge contribution, and one you can be proud of.

The emotional roller coaster that is divorce is complicated because your friend or family member will is going through so much, and you will often feel it is beyond you to help. Have compassion. Help them get professional help. Be there. It is what we human beings can truly do for each other.