*To my friends and family: Please remember that if I am upset with you I will talk to you about it in person….not in a blog post. This isn’t about you. (o:
Check this out…
I have a friend who is also in the midst of divorce and when her husband was moving out, all their neighbors came out to see what was up with the U-haul in the driveway. Fine, normal, we’re all curious creatures. But one set of neighbors crossed all lines of polite behavior. When they asked what was going on, my friend’s husband quickly and directly said, “I’m moving out; we’re getting a divorce.” He hoped they’d go away, but they did not. Instead, they went on and on about what hard work marriage is and how, for the sake of the children, they should keep trying—otherwise they would ruin their children’s lives. And they said all of this right in front of the two children! These neighbors are not friends of the divorcing couple, have no real knowledge of the situation and… it’s none of their damn business! What is wrong with people??
One part of divorce I did not expect was how free people would be to judge, advise and question me. If I had a nickel for every time someone asked whether my ex and I went to counseling, I could probably afford the retainer fee of a decent attorney. It didn’t bother me at first but after the 73rd time, I started to twitch. The answer is yes (2+ years, 3 different counselors), and it didn’t help one single bit. I’m not saying counseling isn’t helpful in general; in my experience counseling is very helpful when the people on the couch speak the truth and invest themselves in the work. Otherwise, it’s just really expensive. In hindsight I think the money would have been better spent on hookers and housekeepers.
If I had a dime for every time someone has said to me, “You really need to…,” “You should…,” or “You have to…,” I could easily cover the attorney’s bill for the entire divorce. Divorce is an uncomfortable topic and it’s hard to know what to say when someone gives you sad news. While I can’t tell you the absolute best thing to say, I can give you a short list of what to avoid.
1. Don’t give advice unless you hear these words: “Do you have any advice for me?”
90% of the advice given to me is unsolicited and from people who don’t know me or my marriage very well. It’s getting pretty old. I have been a frequent giver of unsolicited advice myself, so clearly my karma was due, and I’m pretty sure this experience has cured me. If you are talking with someone and they say “Can you believe that?” or even “What do you think?” these are usually invitations for validation, not advice. Validation is comforting and sounds something like, “That must be really hard and I’m so sorry you are going through it.” If you are the generous and nurturing type you could even throw in, “Is there anything I can do to support you during this time?”
2. Don’t tell a woman (including yourself) to lower her standards or expectations in an effort to find, manage, or fix a relationship.
Every woman on the ding-dang planet who has ever said this to another woman needs to check themselves. I would like to make a loud and public plea that we stop feeding each other this giant bag of B.S.. Seriously? Enough is enough. Yes, I’m sure that some women have insanely high standards and need a reality check from the people who care about them—but these women are in a very small minority (probably just Minnie Driver and one other chick I don’t know). Women’s relationship standards being too high is not one of the cultural crises facing the people of America. Trust me on this one.
3. Do not ask them how the spouse they are divorcing is doing. They don’t speak for them anymore. That’s kind of the point.
4. Don’t judge. None of us really know what happens in someone else’s marriage. The worst parts of a relationship are usually kept well-hidden from public view. Be careful what you say to or about someone going through a divorce. Your judgements will likely travel through conversations, across towns and eventually be added to the big pile of poo already sitting in the divorcee’s lap. Nobody needs that.
So what can you say?
“I’m sorry” is always good. No matter what happened, no matter who left who, even if it’s a mutual choice; divorce sucks for everyone involved. Curiosity about the details is natural, but tread carefully. A woman I know, when hearing my news, asked how long I was married and how many of those years had I wanted to be married. I thought this was a great way to put the question. If someone says “we were married for 10 years and I never wanted it to end,” you know more about how they are hurting, and it’s kinder than the “who left who” question. If they say “we were married for 10 years, but I wanted out after 6,” well then they probably feel a combination of grief and relief… and it’s probably safe to mention any hot single friends you’d like to set them up with in the future.
And now, I’d like to revisit point #2 (lower your expectations B.S.). I heard and followed this advice many times throughout my marriage and it always made things worse, not better. Always. I paid attention to the patterns; I cannot belabor this point enough. The less I expected and asked for, the less I got. I’m pretty sure it’s just physics… or something… sciencey. (I wish I’d known about this guy and listened to him instead.)
I am a very outspoken person (obviously) but when it comes to romantic relationships I have trouble being assertive about what I want and need. In my marriage I spent way too much time accommodating when I should have drawn lines in the sand. It was only when I spoke loudly and stood my ground like a prison guard that we made any progress. In the end, I think my marriage could have survived if I’d have done more of that.
So there we have it: my divorce is my own fault because I refused to behave like a prison guard, day in and day out. I have two kids; I do enough whip-cracking as it is. I waved the white flag and cried “Uncle!” Yes, relationships are hard work. Call me lazy, but I’m not willing to spend the rest of my life in a dead-end job.