It happens to us all
At some point in our lives, most of us will go through a divorce, or at least a very painful breakup. Most of us will also experience being a shoulder to cry on when it happens to someone we love.
So when someone close to you tells you they are getting divorced, what is your first impulse?
Is it to give them a pep talk and focus on the bright future they’ll have without the ex you’ve always secretly hated? Is it to take them out on the town to forget their pain through the miracle of alcohol?
Perhaps you take a tough love approach, telling them to drop the drama and snap out of it. If any of these sound familiar, this post is for you.
No matter how kind you think you are being, in the long run, these responses will make things worse. They push the divorcee to displace the legitimate emotions that they are feeling and prolong the pain far longer than it needs to be.
It’s not them, it’s you
What’s more, these responses are really about you, not the person you care about. When we ask someone to stop feeling what they are feeling, it’s because we are uncomfortable with how that makes us feel.
We panic because we don’t know how to process the pain that the other person is experiencing. It’s easier to shut it down than to deal with it.
Even when we think we’re trying our very best to help that person, we’re actually making things worse for them – in order to make ourselves feel better.
Even if you truly believe that everything happens for a reason and that this will all work out for the best, is that really going to stop a person experiencing the initial shock and trauma of divorce from feeling rejected, anxious, frightened, hurt, or overcome with grief? Absolutely not.
All it does is stop that person from believing that these feelings are legitimate. It makes them press those feelings down inside of them, where they’ll continue to fester.
If they aren’t allowed to feel these emotions, they will not heal and they will not be able to halt any cycles of self-destructive behaviour in their tracks. On top of the pain of the divorce, they now have the shame of feeling that their pain is unreasonable!
What should I do?
So what should you do if you really want to help someone going through a divorce? Hear them. Hug them. Reassure them that you’ll be there for them whatever happens, that they are amazing and loved, and that there will be an end to the pain that they are feeling.
Listening without judgment or interruption is a surprisingly difficult thing to do, especially when the natural urge is to try and “fix” anything which is hurting those we care about.
If you’re not sure how to go about this, one really useful tool is the “bucketing your frustrations” exercise that I talk about in detail here. This shows you how to encourage your loved one to “pour” their emotions into a physical bucket by talking through all the things that are upsetting, frustrating or scaring them, then throwing it away.
Once you’ve dealt with all the negative emotions, focus on the positives without undermining the way that they are feeling. Name five things each that you feel glad or grateful for in your lives.
End with one (manageable) thing each that you will achieve tomorrow. This will help them to counter their destructive emotions with a sense of creating and being in control.
Whether you decide to try the bucket exercise or just really, genuinely listen, the key is to remember that the person going through the divorce needs to feel the things they describe. If they avoid them, they will hurt for longer.
While it might be hard for you to hear, letting them do that is the best way to be a friend right now.