Most marriages begin with love and mutual respect. No one goes into marriage intending it to end in divorce. But with studies now suggesting that 33% of all marriages in Australia are expected to end in divorce, most people will likely feel the impacts of a separation at some point in their lives. If you are a friend or family member of a loved one going through a breakup, you likely need to protect and nurture them through the challenges ahead.
Rushing in to take sides and give advice is often our natural instinct. However, there are better ways to approach things. While there is no quick fix to ease the pressure of your loved one’s relationship breakdown, there are ways you can offer proactive support.
So what should we say – and not say – if we want to help our friend? Here are some guidelines that may help.
Be there for them and listen
When a friend confides in us, we can feel pressure to offer wise counsel to prove our friend’s trust in us was not misplaced. But often, that’s different from what our friend is after. In fact, our friend may very well resent advice that wasn’t asked for or the presumption that we immediately have the solution for a painful, complex issue.
Very often, a friend wants to be comforted and heard. We can best support our friends by remembering we are not trained counsellors and focus instead on what friends do best: listen, hug them, and let them know you will be there for them as they work through this.
Offering empathy is a powerful way to help a friend. You can show constructive empathy by focusing the discussion on your hurting friend’s feelings – not on their partner or what may have occurred for the relationship breakdown. People experiencing separation are bound to feel a world of emotions. A friend who is well-versed in supporting people will know not to fuel the emotional flame and to listen objectively without offering too much opinion.
Try to understand the waves of emotion and uncertainty they are feeling and let them know their feelings are perfectly valid. You could say things like:
“I’m sorry you have to go through something so painful.”
“I’m guessing you’re really confused right now.”
“It sounds like you’re extremely hurt and disappointed. I would be too.”
A good friend and confidant who knows the couple well can speak life and hope into the situation by offering a more balanced perspective.
In contrast to giving advice, offering perspective is not directive or pushy. It’s a much more sensitive approach to wait and ensure the hurting friend feels heard and understood before gently suggesting alternative and more positive ways of looking at the situation.
But don’t underestimate the value to your friend of feeling heard and understood and of knowing they have a trusted friend who cares about them – and who also cares about their marriage.
Show your support
This has a caveat. When you support a friend during a divorce, the best way is to champion them and build them up without tearing down their former partner.
Putting on the boxing gloves and launching into ‘I always hated them, you always deserved better…’ will build a wall of negativity.
Instead, say: ‘You’re a great person. You’re strong, and we will get through this together. Would you like to have dinner tomorrow? I am always here to listen whenever you need me. In a year, this will feel better. What do you need? I care for you.”
Don’t offer uneducated advice
Unless you are a qualified expert or have experienced an identical separation yourself, it is unlikely that you can comprehend the depth of your loved one’s experience.
People in support roles tend to problem-solve to make themselves feel useful, but offering unsolicited advice may create unforeseen problems later.
The best way to offer advice is to do a little digging into professional services that can help them navigate the path of separation most effectively and amicably. Friends help friends find the help they need.
Accredited Mediator Jack Whelan explains, “one of the biggest mistakes people going through a separation process make is taking advice from friends and (well-meaning) family who do not understand the law”. He advises to get their support but “don’t take their advice, as every relationship is different”.
Click to view the list of our resources and tools to help your friend or family members here.
The Separation Guide aims to make separation and divorce simpler, more manageable and less stressful. To find out more about how one of our Network Members could support your separation, take our free 3-minute Q&A.
The information in our resources is general only. Consider getting in touch with a professional adviser if you need support with your legal, financial or wellbeing needs.