Carolyn Hax comes to the rescue.
Adapted from a recent online discussion.
I’m wondering if you can provide some general advice on the best way to be there for someone going through a separation/divorce. A good friend of mine, who lives far away, is starting a trial separation with her husband. While I think this is a good next step for them, they’ve been married only two years and my heart breaks for them both.
I’ve never navigated this particular life challenge and am wondering if there are any do’s, don’ts or best practices. Thanks!
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DEAR FRIEND: If you can dismantle your surprise-registering mechanism, that would probably be the kindest thing you can do.
Meaning, if she tells you something bizarre about the way things were in the marriage, then you don’t register shock. If she tells you she’s devastated to the point of worrying she can’t carry on, then you don’t register shock. If she tells you her only emotional response to the separation is unadulterated joy, then you don’t register shock. If she tells you she’s shocked by her own indifference to him and/or her failed marriage, if she tells you he or she cheated, if she tells you he hit her or she hit him, or whatever other potential shocking awfulness she might admit, or if she admits the shocking awfulness that nothing was really wrong but she wanted out anyway (does that cover it all?) — then the best thing you can do is be a nonjudgmental listener.
For serious issues like abuse, then be nonjudgmental while also urging professional help, even just a hotline. Remaining calm doesn’t mean letting it go when you’re in over your head.
And if there’s something so very bad that you feel you must rethink your friendship with this person, as is always possible, then you can reckon with that later, both after you’ve had time to process what you’ve heard and after you’ve gotten more of the story.
The reason for this is that people who have reached a point of some degree of unraveling are a high-percentage bet to reveal an ugly side of themselves. I say this as a believer that we all harbor some degree of ugliness, we just have differing abilities (due to wiring, training, circumstance) to keep a lid on that part of ourselves. Times of trauma are often our worst as far as self-control.
They also have the potential for being our best when it comes to doing hard work on ourselves, though, so being nonjudgmental and supportive isn’t just a kindness to a struggling friend. It can also be a sound investment for you into a person on the cusp of significant personal growth.
It sounds mercenary, but I don’t mean it to; it’s really more of an argument for patience through friends’ rough transitions. If you can be the friend who rolls with this woman’s trauma and rocky emotions, and doesn’t shy away from whatever battle she needs to fight to get to that stronger version of herself, then, no guarantees, but you might become someone she regards as her friend for life — and grants the same license when it’s your turn to need it from her.