When you find out a close friend is going through a tough time it takes the wind out of your sails and suddenly you want to shift your focus into helping them in any way. However, sometimes the best intentions can leave people tongue-tied and saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.
“Friends try to be helpful, but their own fears and biases can make their comments backfire,” says Monique Honaman, author of The High Road Has Less Traffic: Honest Advice on the Path through Love and Divorce. Here are five things to avoid saying to a divorcing friend:
1) “I told you so”
The relationship may have been a train wreck from the start and you may confidently assert that you were the only one to see it. But comments like “I never really liked them” or “I saw it coming a mile away” can cut into not only your friend but your relationship with them. It comes across as pessimistic, and worse, dismissive of your friend’s entire marriage, says Lisa Rene Reynolds, PhD, marital therapist and author of Parenting Through Divorce: Helping Your Kids Thrive During and After the Split. “They might think, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’” Your friend may even suspect that you’ve never trusted their decisions. Not only that, but when you say anything like “I knew it,” you’re implying that you understand more than they did about their own relationship––which is a major insult, says Dr. Reynolds.
2) “Are you sure you really tried everything?”
This may be easier to say from someone who has never been in a divorce and doesn’t understand what it feels like to see a loved relationship falling apart. While you may be trying to help your friend think of new ideas to rekindle that old flame it comes across as judgmental, as if you are questioning your friend’s devotion to their marriage. “You’re foisting your own value system on your friend, which is insulting.” What if the divorce wasn’t their idea, it was an abusive relationship or they tried––but failed––to get their spouse into couples therapy? Often, your own fear of divorce is behind comments like these, says Honaman. Even if you think you wouldn’t make the same mistake it’s best to not say anything if this is how your intentions will manifest.
3) “At least kids aren’t involved!”
While it may be true from a legal perspective that the less assets and children involved in a marriage can potentially simplify the case your friend doesn’t need to hear this coming from you. Even if you are trying to make them feel better comments like this can potentially remind them of how short their marriage really was that there wasn’t time for children. Or, it can evoke feelings of failure that they couldn’t raise and nurture a family as they may have planned. “You may be opening up a whole other wound if your friend had wanted kids and didn’t have them before the marriage ended,” says Dr. Reynolds. “Acknowledge their feelings, and later, if they seem ready, you can help them see the benefit of not having to deal with custody and co-parenting battles,” says Honaman. But in the moment, keep it to yourself.
4) “How will you manage to take care of your family alone?”
Mentally, this may sound to you like “Do you have a plan for the kids yet?” or “Is there anything I can do, like babysitting, to help you out right now?” but will come off as “I don’t think that you can take care of your family by yourself.” What stings here is that you’re saying your friend isn’t “competent enough to go it alone,” explains Dr. Reynolds. “Your friend is likely already worried about supporting their family,” she adds. It’s better to reframe your concerns in a softer way, says Honaman. Try: “Have you thought about the house? Will you be able to stay home with the kids, or do you need help finding a higher-paying job?” Be solution-oriented, and if you can, pitch in by babysitting the kids or revamping their resume. If what you mean is “I’m here to help if I can,” than just say so.
5) “The annual holiday celebration will be so odd now.”
Divorce doesn’t just affect the people going through it. It touches extended family and friends. You may have recently planned a couples trip with them, or have an annual neighborhood bash for all the families in the area that may seem just ruined to you. Generally comments like this come from either a person’s own insecurities on how they’re going to handle navigating the new social waters they’ve just found themselves in, or wanting to express that they can sympathize with their friend. But, comments like this will just come off as self-focused and not as sympathetic as you intend. If you voice your concerns do so tactfully, and follow your friend’s lead by letting them bring it up first. Express you’re willing to be flexible and figure it out with them.