I’m not divorced, but I have friends that are, and the one thing they all have in common is that they sometimes want to smack us for the things we say to them.
Divorce can be hard to talk about, and even though I’ve supported friends and family as they went through their own, even I’m guilty of messing up the conversation. To get less sucky at it, I talked to a bunch of divorce vets — moms who have been through it before — and I have your definitive list of things to not do and say.
1. “Don’t tell me how lucky I am to have my weekends to myself.”
A shared custody agreement is not a guaranteed every-other-weekend vacation. It is something that will inevitably suck for everyone involved, especially on holidays. I know you want a break. A court-mandated child-free weekend is not a break.
2. “Don’t trash my ex in front of my child.”
It might be tempting, but keep it to yourself, or keep it between the two of you. If your friend’s ex is a foul string of profanity, their kid will figure it out eventually. Until then, their kid has the right to think that his dad hung the moon. Cork it.
3. “Conclusions. Please do not jump to them.”
Probably the least sensitive thing that you can ask is “Oh my God, was he cheating on you?” or “He didn’t hit you, did he?” If either of those statements are true, you’ve just backed your friend into a corner if she isn’t ready to talk about it. If they aren’t, you’ve just labeled yourself as someone who is reactionary and unreliable in a crisis.
4. “Don’t play child psychologist or ask me how my kid is handling it.”
Don’t ask, “How’s your little one handling it?” unless you genuinely care. An acquaintance who asks this doesn’t want the truth, which is, “really shittily, actually,” 99 percent of the time. Similarly, your friend doesn’t need the 800 studies you printed out about how children are affected by divorce.
5. “Don’t handle us like we’re made of glass.”
Divorce can be hard, but it isn’t the end of the world. When you tiptoe around your friend and her kid it’s less likely to come off as sympathy and more likely to come off as condescension. It also signals to the kid that something is up, which they undoubtedly already know. Just be normal.
6. “Sometimes, I want to talk about something that isn’t my divorce.”
I know that’s the big elephant in the room, and this is my most common mistake: opening every conversation with, “so, how’s everything going?” with a very loaded “everything.” Life goes on, so again, be normal.
7. “Don’t assume I haven’t thought this through.”
A friend once told me that the worst part of getting divorced was the “helpful” suggestions everyone had. Had she tried marriage counseling? This amazing book? Yoga? She had to fight the urge to answer with a sarcastic, “Whoa, marriage counseling? What’s that?” every time she heard it. Divorce is often a last resort, not something you do when your spouse leaves their socks on the floor one too many times.
8. “I’ll let you know if and when I’m ready to date.”
For the love of God, tread carefully here. “Getting divorced” is not the same as “newly single,” your friend may not be ready to date for a long time and even the appearance of impropriety can jeopardize issues like custody if a divorce isn’t final.
9. “‘But what about the children?’ can suck it.”
Do you really think that your friend hasn’t imagined the potential consequences of putting herself and her child through a divorce? What about the children? Are they better off in a home with two people who clearly are not happy? That can’t get along? Just, shhhhhh.
10. “Ask me what I need.”
If you don’t know what to say or how to act or what to do, just ask. You might feel dumb, but one of the rare things I’ve actually done right is to say, “I’m sorry you’re going through this. What can I do to help?” Really. As simple as that.