What to Say (and NOT to Say) to Someone Going Through Divorce

You have just learned that someone in your life is going through divorce and you want to know what you should say to them. Or, you’re facing divorce and you’re wondering why your friends and family seem intent on saying things that only make you feel worse.

With divorce, as in any major loss and transition, it’s difficult to know what to say. For those on the outside, they often want to offer support and comfort, yet surprise and a lack of awareness may lead to the proverbial foot in the mouth. And for those on the other side, heightened emotions and a life in flux may result in taking even the most innocuous statement as an intentional barb.

So this is a primer for both sides – for those going through divorce and for those in their lives.

What to Say, What NOT to Say and How to Respond

Don’t Say – “I know just how you feel.”

This is such a common response whenever somebody is dealing with something difficult. It almost always comes from a good place, a place of empathy and wanting to let the person know that they’re not alone. Yet we never understand exactly how somebody else is feeling. Even if the circumstances are identical, their own past and reactions will greatly impact how they respond.

Maybe Say This Instead – “I’ve been through similar. If you ever want to hear about what helped me, please let me know. “

This phrase lets them know that they’re not alone, both in the experience and in dealing with it. It communicates that there is common ground, but stops short of making assumptions.

If You’re On the Receiving End –

Accept this phrase in the spirit in which it was intended. They are wanting to reach out and they are putting themselves back in the place when something similar happened to them.

Don’t Say – “I get it. My partner never puts the dishes in the dishwasher and it drives me crazy.”

I seriously doubt that a messy kitchen is the reason for the divorce. Yes, those small domestic squabbles can be really annoying and you may have woken up to socks hanging off the cabinets and so you’re feeling especially irrupted with your spouse right now. But still comparing those daily struggles with divorce is minimizing and dismissive. Please complain to someone else right now.

Maybe Say This Instead – “This must be hard for you. I am sorry that this is something that you’re facing.”

If you can’t relate to the magnitude of a divorce, it’s okay. You don’t have to have been there in order to acknowledge that this is something difficult.

If You’re On the Receiving End –

Set boundaries. If you have people in your life that are using you to complain about their minor relationship issues, it’s okay to tell them that you cannot be the recipient of that right now. If they continue, limit your exposure until you’re in a better place.

Don’t Say – “I feel like a single parent because my spouse travels so much.”

I get it. Being a parent when your partner is always on the road, or at work or just absent in general is HARD. Hell, parenting no matter what is hard. But here’s the thing, you and your children are still a cohesive unit, even if it’s one whose operation is largely commanded by you. After divorce, there is grieving for the impact on the children and fear as to how everything will work out.

Maybe Say This Instead – “Being a single parent is hard. Let me know if you need help with transportation or just need somehow to bounce a decision off of.”

You’re acknowledging the challenge without participating in the comparison olympics. And even better, you’re suggesting some possible solutions to some of the difficulty.

If You’re On the Receiving End –

I know that these two situations are not the same thing, but try to see some of the similarities (because there are some). This person may be a good resource for you to help you navigate this new way of parenting and they may be a good companion on spouseless kid-friendly outings.

Don’t Say – “I would never divorce; I believe in working things out.”

That’s awesome. I admire that you’re not a quitter and that you’re not afraid of hard work. However, the reality is that many – if not most – of us that got divorced felt that same way at some point. Yet either we were given no choice or that became the best choice out of a sea of less-than-ideal options.

Maybe Say This Instead – “I know that this had to be a difficult decision.”

Trust that they are making the best choice for themselves and that they are not acting impulsively. If you’re not sure who initiated the divorce, a simple, “This sounds hard,” may be better.

If You’re On the Receiving End –

Divorce is often a major fear for anyone who is married, so your split may be a trigger for those around you. “I would never” is often code for, “That is my biggest fear and so I need to pretend that I have control over it.” Remember that what they are saying is more a reflection on them than a criticism of you.

Don’t Say – “Divorce is a sin”

This may be a core belief for you and so you’re truly concerned about their well-being and relationship with God. Yet you’re also not their spiritual advisor. There are basically two possibilities here – either they do not see divorce as a sin or it is against their beliefs and so this decision (which may indeed have been a life-or-death one) was made after many prayers and much reflection.

Maybe Say This Instead – “Do you have somebody to talk to? A counselor? A pastor?”

Questions and support will always be received better than judgment.

If You’re On the Receiving End –

Take a deep breath. Remember that your relationship with God is your business and have faith that you are doing the right thing for you.

Don’t Say – “You’re destroying your kids.”

Trust me, they are already feeling immense guilt for what this is doing to the kids. They don’t need your voice amplifying that. And it’s also not that simple. If there was abuse, divorce is clearly the preferable option for the kids. Even without abuse, kids often do better with two happy-yet-separate parents than two that are always fighting under the same roof.

Maybe Say This Instead – “How are the kids doing?”

This communicates that you’re thinking about the kids and also gives you a chance to see if any help is needed to ease the transition. Instead of shaming the parent for the divorce, maybe try to be another trusted adult that can help support the kids through this.

If You’re On the Receiving End –

They care about your kids. That’s pretty awesome. However, you also don’t have to listen to shaming and judgmental comments like that. It’s okay to say, “I’d appreciate it if you refrained from commenting on my parenting choices. I’ll reach out to you if I’m looking for ideas or advice.”

Don’t Say – “I never liked your spouse anyway.”

That may be true. Their ex may have been as awful as a Marvel villain from day one. But that’s not your conversation to initiate. Because even if they were awful, the person in front of you was in love with them at one time. Be considerate of that.

Maybe Say This Instead – “How are you doing with your ex right now?

This gives them to chance to let you know if they’re still in love, researching revenge fantasies or navigating a serviceable coparenting relationship.

If You’re On the Receiving End –

The more you communicate your needs, the more you’ll help those who want to support you and yourself. If you want companionship on the ex-bashing bus, say so. If you’re working hard to paint your ex in the best light possible, speak up. You can’t get mad at people for saying the wrong thing if you haven’t let them know what’s right.

Don’t Say – “What happened? Did they cheat? Did you cheat?”

I know you’re curious. Yet let the person dealing with the divorce decide how much they divulge and when they release that information. They may be trying to preserve their ex’s image for the sake of the kids or they may be ashamed of something that happened (or didn’t happen) behind closed doors.

Maybe Say This Instead – “I’m here for you when/if you want to talk.”

This is perhaps the best thing we can say to somebody who is dealing with any kind of thought situation. Be there and be willing to listen.

If You’re On the Receiving End –

You get to control the story. You decide what you’re comfortable sharing – and with whom. You don’t have to answer the questions that you’re asked.

Don’t Say – “Oh, you’ll bounce back in no time”

I know that you WANT them to be okay. You believe in their spirit and tenacity and you have faith that they will get through this. But right now, they feel like their world is ending. Hold space for that.

Maybe Say This Instead – “You’re strong. You WILL make it through this. And I’ll be here for you.”

You’re reminding them that this is the end of a chapter, not the end of their life. And you’re also not implying that this will be easy. Finally, you’re reminding them that they’re not alone as they navigate the divorce.

If You’re On the Receiving End –

You WILL make it through. Maybe not bouncing – at least not yet. But you WILL cross that finish line after divorce. Even if you’re crawling.

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4 Responses

  1. bookaddict04 says:

    This is great! I’ve heard many of these, both the good and the not so great. Is there any way I could share this on my blog as well?

  2. Just Bethany says:

    So much this! Platitudes shmatitudes!! Just give me a hug, offer to pray with me, and, most importantly, don’t judge me!

  1. July 23, 2019

    […] they want to engage in a little ex-bashing or maybe they prefer to keep quiet. Either way, allow them to dictate when and how much they say about their situation. Sometimes, couples want information about a breakup in order to reassure themselves that […]

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