We used to joke amongst the couples we are close to, "who would get custody of the friends in a divorce". We are a very close group of friends that met in college around 20 years ago, and have remained close through many of life's changes and transitions. Never did we think that our joke would have to eventually be addressed.
The day that my best friend told me that her marriage was in trouble was devastating. Here was a couple that we shared our lives with. Her husband and mine had been roommates the same year that she and I lived together in college. We stood up in each others weddings. We were godparents for one of their boys, they godparents to our son. He helped us build our house. We spent weekends together, holidays, birthdays.
Suddenly all that was going to come to an end and I had to think quickly about how I would find balance between two people that I cared about. Through some trial and error, here are some of the things I learned about being a friend to divorcing friends.
A. Listen. It is sometimes very, very difficult, but key. You are not going to solve your friend's problems, only they can. Allowing your friends to talk about their feelings, or talk through the situation, helps them to start the process of healing. Remember too that as a listener, sometimes the less said the better. Silence can be one of the strongest coach/counseling tools you have in your arsenal. More healing can be done in the silent times than in the talking. Let there be silence when there isn't anything to say. It is really ok.
B. Focus on the person that you are talking to, not the spouse. My friend couldn't change her husband's behavior, but she could change how she was responding to him, or how she internalized the things that he said. These were things she could control and growth she could make. Beating him up behind his back will only go so far in making her feel good.
C. Don't play favorites. This was the hardest thing for me and continues to be. My best friend was hurt terribly and I instinctively wanted to protect her and validate her. Though I wouldn't often bad mouth him to her, I would do it to my husband, which made things within our relationship stressful. Even though this divorce was the result of some bad decision making on the part of my friends husband, he was still someone she had devoted her life to for ten years, the father of their children and my husband's friend. I needed to always keep that in mind. If you have to rant and rave negativeness, it is best to find a third party or write in your journal.
D. Make sure that you do things with your friend that takes his/her mind off their miseries. If you always get together and just talk about the divorce, soon you will get burned out and your friendship will start to struggle. You need to continue to groom the things that made your friendship strong before the marital problems started. Not to mention that your friend is probably eating, sleeping, living the divorce 24/7 and some time off from that will give them a renewed attitude and help them to see that there will continue to be life after their divorce.
E. Find ways to continue traditions and make new ones. My friend and I started to get together for our kids to make gingerbread houses at Christmas time before her divorce began. We still do this and have expanded the day to included going out to cut our Christmas tress and exchange gifts. Even though we know that traditions help to normalize things for kids, they can do the same things for adults and again be a reminder that your friends and family are important.
Divorce is a stressful and difficult time for both the couple and their friends. It is not unusual to hear that friends felt inclined to choose one person or the other because the divorce made things uncomfortable. With a little hard work and commitment, friendships can continue to grow, flourish, develop, and be successful.
Kim Dziobak is a personal coach dedicated to working with individuals and families.