Watching some go through trauma can be traumatic in itself. So how do we support someone going through the trauma of divorce or a break-up?
In this article am not going to handle divorce from the point of view of the person going through the divorce but from the point of view of a supportive friend, colleague or family member.
It may be a parent, a child, a sibling, or friend that is going through a breakup. You may be watching them spiral out of control as they wrestle to deal with the dramatic change in their lives.
Many feelings will arise including moodiness, upsetness, depression, anxiety, panic and insomnia. It is very hard to know how best to support someone through the roller coaster of emotions and if they are closet you, you may feel like you are on the roller coaster with them.
It’s tempting to want to make them happy, distract them or tell them to stop being gloomy and feel different/ look on the bright side of life. A common human trait is to try to intellectualise the emotion:
“think of the opportunities”
“you never liked them anyway”
“there are plenty of fish in the sea”
“God will never give you something you cannot handle”
“don’t be sad, this is a chance to really examine everything from a fresh perspective”
Although all these statements are probably true – it’s ALL about timing. Delivering these messages in the first few weeks is not going to go down well.
“It’s ALL about timing”
In the first few weeks, it’s critical for the ‘soon-to-be-divorced person’ to just feel their emotions. Emotions, when fully experienced, naturally evolve along the path of healing but its often the people supporting the person being made redundant that interrupt this healing pattern.
The initial state before the cycle begins is often quite stable, at least in terms of the subsequent reaction to hearing the bad news (compared with the ups and downs to come, even if there is some variation, this is indeed a fairly stable state).
And then, in the calm of this relative paradise, a bombshell bursts…
The Naked Divorce grieving cycle
Denial stage: trying to avoid the inevitable.
Anger and betrayal stage: frustrated outpouring of bottled-up emotion.
Panic and negotiation stage: seeking a way out. Making deals with your ex.
Humiliation, fear of failure or looking bad stage: gradually sinking into a spiral, feeling embarrassed and avoiding seeing people.
Despair stage: realization that something awful is coming your way and you’re strapped into the rollercoaster and helpless.
Loss, grief and depression stage: a final realization of the inevitable, surrendering to the grief.
Space and nothingness stage: once you have grieved and grieved, experiencing loss and pain, you’re left with a feeling of nothingness. It’s different to numbness because you feel very present and can notice things around you. Your senses are heightened. You may also find that you cannot cry anymore. You experience an emotional vacuum.
Acceptance stage: seeking realistic solutions and finally finding the way forward, it’s not a feeling of resignation. It’s a feeling of profound understanding of the way things are and the way things are not.
Responsibility and forgiveness stage: taking responsibility for where you may have caused cracks in the relationship and contributed to its subsequent breakdown and divorce. Forgiving your ex and yourself for any failings during the relationship is a critical part of true and real healing.
Gratitude stage: transformational experience. Learning from your divorce and seeing positives and negatives from the experience. This stage completes the healing.
What you don’t realise, in offering intellectual platitudes is that you are only doing this so YOU can feel happy again.
It’s your own discomfort with their emotional state being so linked to your own emotional state that upsets you. If you resist their emotional state, it will persist because it has no avenue to be expressed.
So to survive and be happy in the first few weeks of supporting your partner, it helps to stop linking your own happiness to the happiness of this person – move to your own orbit and allow them to simply ‘BE’ where they are.
Break your dependence on them and instead of fretting, go play tennis, go for a walk on your own or go shopping and allow them to be.
Here are a few tips of what to do and what not to do in supporting someone through this change.
Divorce support mistakes
Don’t give pep talks. Its not your job to pump them up and ensure they are happy again. Understand their need to express their emotions and use the BUCKET exercise below to give them an avenue to express these emotions Don’t intellectualise their emotions or offer any ‘sage’ advice – telling them to look on the bright side of life or telling them that ‘everything happens for a reason’ just invalidates the pit of despair they are looking into. Allow THEM to come to this conclusion on their own – this way, they will own the conclusion on a deeper level Don’t orbit around them or link your own happiness to their happiness – they are entitled to their process and way of dealing with things.
Don’t tell them to snap out of it
Don’t tell them they are being ridiculous, self indulgent or dramatic – use the BUCKET exercise to hear them – sometimes people just need to vent their emotions – its not necessarily about you.
They will want to indulge in what I call STEATs (short term emotion avoidance tactics) so they can feel better and run from their emotions. They will want to avoid dealing with their emotions by focusing on decorating, shopping, partying, drinking or being super ‘busy’ with something or other.
Rather than rejoice in these activities with them, encourage them to stop and feel their emotions. Validate their right to their emotions. If they engage in STEATs for too Long, they may end up depressed due to repressing their emotions
One thing to guard against is that your partner does not avoiding dealing with their emotions by burying themselves in things which either numb the pain or distract them. Don’t get me wrong, in the early days of divorce, the S.T.E.A.T.s are probably the things which help your partner feel better in each moment. BUT the thing to be aware of is that it’s not feeling better for real – it’s a false sense of security – a false feeling of recovering. It fits into the false healing category.
Short Term Emotion Avoidance Tactics include but are not limited to:
Alcohol and drugs
Excessive anger towards others
Fantasy or escapism activities (books, TV, movies)
Random sexual encounters
Spending countless hours with your children under the guise of being a good parent but the actual agenda is using your children to help you feel better
The problem with Short Term Emotion Avoidance Tactics is that they are short term. They do not last, and they do not deal with the true emotional issue. S.T.E.A.T.s are distractions that either damage or delay the recovery process.
How to support someone going through a break-up trauma
Have compassion. Allow them their feelings and validate their need to process things in their own way
Do reassure them that you love them as they are, that they are amazing, that you are here for them whatever happens
Do show them the divorce emotional cycle and reassure them that they have a right to their emotions and there will be an end to the journey and that you have full faith in them
Listen to them
Give them lots of hugs. If they look sad – just give them a big bear hug
Whilst they resolve their divorce, discuss everything with them positively, reassuring them
Buy them a book to help – the Get Over Divorce book is a great gift, it’s not too heavy and will steer them in the right direction.
Encourage them to bucket and do this daily for 21 days (see below)
Once 45 days have passed, if they are still moping around – get them to see someone to process their feelings so that they can move on
Bucket your frustration
Go fetch a bucket (a real one) and sit together with no TV or chaos in the background with the bucket between you both You start by encouraging your loved one to express their frustrations, feelings and emotions into the bucket – you not allowed to respond except to acknowledge that you hear what they are saying and ask if there is anything else to go into the bucket – encourage your partner to ‘put all their frustrations into the bucket’ and vent everything that is pissing them off about life and how life should be.
Your job is – JUST LISTEN
Keep asking if there is anything else and keep going until the bucket is full and they can think of nothing else
When done, you both pick up the bucket and throw out these frustrations out of the window or door
Now it’s your turn It’s good to say how you feel but I recommend not sharing your worries about their divorce – focus on other things that annoy you or frustrate you — this way, your loved one will feel they are not alone in being frustrated but they will feel that you are not pressuring them to snap out of their emotions
When done, you both pick up the bucket and throw out these frustrations out of the window or door
Now you both take turns to say what you are grateful for about your life. Your lives are actually very rich and amazing BUT because you dont focus on that, you dont see this. I want you to come up with at least 5 things you are grateful for
Now you both take turns to say what you will accomplish tomorrow. This is important because at the moment, life is happening and things are not being created. Creation has a beauty to it
Break-up support help:
So, I hope that helps. If you have found this article of some value you might also be interested to know that I’ve built an online divorce recovery quiz for caring and kind people like you that want to help their friend out. Download this free guide here.
You can send them any of our programs or recommend they take the quiz. Even if they choose not to take the quiz, they’ll appreciate that a friend is thinking of them, not trying to dismiss their situation, and is providing some thoughtful and caring support.
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