Our culture assumes a lot about divorce—that it’s always bad, that partners are always suffering, that women are always victims, and that primary partners should always be each other’s whole world. Not only do these assumptions affect people going through a divorce, but they also impact how their friends, family, and acquaintances talk to them about it. Our Founder and Clinical Director Matt Lundquist recently spoke to The Cut about how to support a friend or other loved one through a divorce.
Though not in the article “How to Help Your Friend Through Divorce,” divorce is frequently a kind of mass, intensive experiment in projective identification, meaning the assumption made about someone else’s divorce says more about the one asking than the one going through a divorce. For instance, a married person may be jealous of the freedom they crave. A single person may have their own feelings about their parents’ lack of a divorce. Someone whose partner is cheating may assume another’s partner is a cheater.
We also have certain presumptions about safety in marriage. Often these ideas confirm our own fears or the underlying predicates of our own life choices. For example, “I just got married and stay married to protect my children,” “Single women in their 40’s are unhappy,” or “If I leave my partner, I’ll be abandoning them and feel forever guilty.” Some of these presumptions center specifically around the supposed protection of women. We have to consider the history of marriage as a place where women were subordinated but also “protected.” Women are often mistreated in marriage and less often (though still too often) in divorce. But this isn’t universal. Plenty of women come out better off without being in a marriage that can include hardships ranging from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse to being taken for granted.
Ultimately, when a friend is getting a divorce, we know next to nothing. Not just how they feel about it, but the logistics of it. Some couples divorce and stay friends, run a business together, co-parent, and sleep together. Some don’t. The best way to conceptualize divorce is as a fairly common experience that adults endure that can involve hard decisions and hardships, but may not involve either.
Divorce is also not a static event, but a series of events playing out over time with frequently a long build-up and always a long aftermath. Similarly, how someone feels going through a divorce may change day to day and over time. Divorce is—usually, but not always—a major life change and the very understanding of it also changes over time.
By acknowledging we don’t know much about a friend’s divorce and being open to their evolving feelings, we can be curious rather than presuming to know. In The Cut, Matt explains that it’s okay to lead with questions when talking to a friend. See what your friend is down to talk about and what he, she, or they need. Ask, “How’s it going? How are you feeling about your divorce since I last saw you? Are you down to talk about that?” Don’t worry if your friend doesn’t want to discuss it. They’ll likely remember down the line that you asked when they do feel like talking.
Supporting a friend through a divorce is like supporting a friend through anything. The key, as always, is to build the conditions to talk about stuff. Some ways to build conditions is to ask for consent rather than avoid. Don’t leave a friend alone out of fear that you’ll do it wrong (or fear of their hard time, if they’re going through one). Instead, ask, “Do you want to talk about this with me now? Cool if not, we can do other stuff.” Check your own reactions and assumptions (even your assumptions based on the last time you talked since feelings can change). Ask more questions than you give advice. And above all, learn something.