In elementary school I had a good friend named Jacob. One day, I learned that Jacob’s parents were getting a divorce. Although I had once watched an episode of Frasier, I still had no hope of offering any helpful words to my friend. The best I could do was help him fight an imaginary alien invasion in my backyard.
Armed with a few water guns and an imaginary grenade launcher, my valiant effort against extraterrestrial invaders was the best I could offer my friend at the time. I’m not sure it helped. I’m not sure anything I could have done would have helped. I was eight. Cut me some slack.
My point is that I suck at emotions. I suck so bad. I’ve always known this, so I am rarely surprised at my emotional fragility or inability to comfort others. When my parents got divorced when I was 23 I was surprised to learn that I am not the only person that sucks at emotions.
I was caught off-guard by how little my friends and family helped. I assumed that the average person was really good at emotions and would have something to offer me as I worked through my parents’ divorce. The truth is that most of us have the emotional equivalence of an 8-year-old with an imaginary grenade launcher. We’re not well-equipped to relate to a friend coping with divorce.
This article is the best I can offer to the friends of twentysomethings whose parents have divorced later in life (which is more common than you realize). Depending on where your friend is in the healing process after the divorce, I have listed a handful of best and worst practices that should really help.
The First Weeks After The Divorce
For me, the days and weeks after my parent’s divorce were mildly traumatic. I wasn’t functioning normally. I was disoriented. Things were foggy. This was not the time for nuanced arguments and deep thinking. This was a time for raw emotion.
I recognize that, for some, the divorce process might last months. But there will still be a “this is actually happening” moment. It’s the moment when reconciliation is no longer an option and when hope is gone. That is a crushing realization, even in a dysfunctional family where divorce might even be the healthiest option.
Knowing this, here are a few things you can do (and not do) to help your friend at this stage.
Don’t: Let them dwell on it
Do: Help them think about anything else
Your friend can’t NOT think about divorce right now. You’re not doing them any favors or helping them “process” by bringing it up. They will default to thinking too much about the divorce. One of the best things you can do is take their mind off of it. Help them have fun. Help them feel normal. They probably feel abandoned and lonely. Take them bowling and pay for it. Go ice skating. Invite them over to work on a craft or side project. Finally teach them to play the guitar like you keep promising. Go to a concert. As long as you keep them away from alcohol, sex with strangers, and Nickelback, you’re doing well.
Don’t: Give them therapy or a sermon
With that said, don’t avoid conversations about the divorce. Just don’t be the one to bring it up. If they want to talk about it, they’ll bring it up. Just don’t lead the conversation. If you are talking more than them, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re talking more than 20% of the time, you’re doing it wrong. Your job is to listen, not tell them what to think. This isn’t the time for you to ask a ton of pointed questions. This is a time for raw emotion, not a sermon or therapy session. Just let them talk.
Aside: Don’t say crap like, “If you need to talk, I’m here for you.” That’s a freaking cop-out people say when they don’t actually want to be there for their friend. Instead, why don’t you actually initiate some time with your friend and BE THERE so that they can talk when they feel ready? Don’t force them to initiate.
Don’t: Treat them like someone who just had a heart attack
Do: Treat them like a time traveler
This one needs some explaining…
When someone has a heart attack, you treat the person gently and give their condition a lot of focused attention. You say things like, “How are you feeling today?” and “What can I get for you?” Don’t do that. Your friend is not a fragile baby. Their condition does not need your attention. They need your attention.
Instead, think of them like a time traveler. They are disoriented, not dying. Your friend is confused and out-of-place, not on life support. Pretend they are a time traveler from the year 2060 and need some help adjusting to normalcy. Tell them, “Hey, it is Monday, February 3rd, 2016. We play basketball on Mondays. I’m picking you up at 7 p.m.” Tell them when you’re going to the grocery store and offer a ride. Remind them to do laundry. If they have responsibilities like homework, do it with them. Help them be normal.
Aside: Don’t ask crap questions like, “How are you doing?” That’s a terrible question. They’re doing poorly. Don’t put them in the uncomfortable position where they have to give a fake answer to keep things from getting awkward.
A Few Weeks After The Divorce
After a few weeks, your friend will remember how to be normal and the disorientation will fade. The wound is starting to scab-over and heal. Here are a few added things you can do to help them heal.
Don’t: Assume you are what your friend needs.
Do: Ask if and how you can help in the healing process
As the raw emotion fades, the time for introspection, deep thinking, and healing begins. Having a healthy support system—especially when there has been a fracture in the family structure—is important. It is frustrating, though, when someone tries to help more than they should. It is uncomfortable to become someone’s project, especially when there is not a strong relationship of trust established. Therefore, please ask permission before you try to help in the healing process. Your friend has experienced a deep hurt. You need to be invited in to that.
I have an older friend named Bob who experienced a significant amount of trauma years ago. He once explained to me the need for a “Heart” Friend and a “Head” Friend in the grieving process.
A “Heart” Friend is your “I need to vent” friend. They have your permission to ask thoughtful questions, but they’re not going to judge you, correct you, or offer (much) advice. They know that their role is to listen and say, “That sucks. I love you. Eat more pizza.”
A “Head” Friend is your “tell me I’m an idiot” friend. They are going to correct you and offer advice. They are going to over-analyze your actions. They are going to say hard things like, “You need to forgive your mom” or “Don’t take sides, that’s going to make it worse” or “You’re pushing your girlfriend away” or “You’re being a diva. Suck it up.” This relationship probably requires the highest level of trust, so if you haven’t been invited to say the hard things, don’t say them.
While it’s good to clarify which type of friend you are, it’s also important to know that you should focus most of your time on just being a friend. You’re a friend before you’re a therapist.
Speaking of therapists…
Don’t: Be afraid to recommend therapy.
Do: Know that you can help in ways a therapist can’t.
The negative stigma of counseling is unjustified. It is not reserved for sociopaths, alcoholics, and the children of helicopter parents. It is for everybody. Counseling is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of hurt. Time does not heal all wounds; it only heals the ones that don’t need to be disinfected, put in a cast, stitched, or bandaged. Counseling is for anyone whose wounds are not healing on their own. Don’t be afraid to nudge your friend toward counseling if you don’t see an increase in emotional health. Maybe offer to drive them to a session so they don’t have to go alone.
With that, though, know that counseling is just a piece of the puzzle. Your role as a friend is just as important, even if they feel uncomfortable opening-up to you.
Don’t: Focus on the failings of the parents.
Do: Focus on the successes of your friend.
The best thing anyone said to me after my parents’ divorce was, “Matt, you’re going to make a great father and husband one day. I’m proud of the man you’re becoming.”
I didn’t really care why things went wrong with my parents; I just accepted that they did. I did, however, care very much about what this meant for my future (and my identity). I wasn’t scared for my parents. I was scared for myself. I was scared that I would make the same mistakes. I was scared that my relationships would also end in rejection. The words of my friend Greg cut straight to the heart of my fears and gave me hope.
To be honest, the only conversations I remember about my parents’ divorce were the ones that focused on the positive, healthy decisions I was making. Unfortunately, most conversations revolved around the question: “What went wrong?” That’s not a helpful question. Be your friend’s cheerleader, not another finger-pointer. Your job isn’t to assign blame. Your job is to give courage.
Don’t: Expect things to be the same
Do: Encourage them to try something new
Events like this tend to change people. For better or worse, things simply won’t be the same. Your twenties are already a formative decade; a traumatic event like divorce will only add fuel to the fire. Don’t expect your friend’s life to go unchanged.
But please help your friend make positive changes. Your friend’s life is in a pliable state, so push them in the right direction. Encourage them to try new things and do cool stuff. Maybe now is the time for them to change careers. Maybe now is the time for them to get in shape. Maybe now is the time to replace Netflix with novels. Be one of the people in your friend’s life pushing them off the path of least resistance.
A Year Or Two Later
It’s been about two years since my parents’ divorce. I’m sure there is still room to grow, but—for the most part—I feel emotionally healthy. Like any healed wound, though, there is a scar. Here are a few tips for relating to your friend and his scars.
Don’t: Assume negative feelings about family members
Do: Ask about family
I like to talk about my family. I like my family. Just because my parents are divorced doesn’t mean that I don’t love them. It also doesn’t mean that I hold a grudge or have unresolved anger. It also doesn’t mean that “things are hard.” Please don’t assume that they are. Please don’t assume that I don’t want to talk about my family. And please don’t bring it up in your serious voice. Please don’t assume that being around them will be awkward. Please don’t assume that it is a “sensitive issue.” It’s family. You would feel weird if I assumed all of those things about yours.
Don’t: Neglect them during the holidays
Do: Think of small ways to make holidays suck less
Do children of divorced parents enjoy the holidays? Not in any way. Holidays suck so bad. They suck in different ways for different people, but they unanimously suck. Most families choose not to celebrate the minor holidays because the major holidays are so terrible.
How can you help?
For minor holidays, feel total freedom to invite them to your family function. (It’s only weird if you make it weird.) Even better, blow off your family and start your own tradition together. Your friend will appreciate your friendship more on the Fourth of July or Easter than any other day of the year. The minor holidays are incredibly lonely.
For major holidays, do as much as you can. Get them a present or a card for Christmas. Give them a call after dinner on Thanksgiving. Write them a letter of appreciation. If you’re comfortable with it, invite them over to celebrate with you. They might not even have plans. If you think it would be weird to have them celebrate with your family (it is less weird than you think), be creative. Take them out for Chinese on Christmas Eve. Have Thanksgiving breakfast. Something. Holidays suck.
Don’t: Be weird
Do: Not be weird
Divorce is already an uncomfortable subject. Don’t make it worse by being weird about it. If you think that you might be acting weird, ask, “Am I being weird right now?” Odds are, yes.
You probably don’t realize how much your friendship means to a friend coping with the divorce of his or her parents. Wherever they are in the process of finding their new normal, you can make the process suck less. Being a good friend has that effect.