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How to help a friend going through a separation

Most marriages begin with love and mutual respect and it would be fair to say that no-one goes into marriage with the intention of ending up divorced. But with studies now suggesting that 33% of all marriages in Australia are expected to end in divorce, it is likely that most people at some point in their lives will be impacted by separation. If you are the friend or family member of a loved one who is going through a separation, you will likely be feeling the need to protect and nurture them through the challenges that lie ahead. Rushing in to take sides and give advice is often our natural instinct, however every separation and divorce is unique, and opinions are like belly buttons- everyone has one. While there is no quick fix to ease the pressure of your loved ones relationship breakdown, what you can do is offer proactive support that results in less harm and more good.

So what should we say – and not say – if we want to help our friend? Here are some guidelines that may help:

1. 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 not 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 just wants to be comforted and heard. We can best support our friend by remembering we are not a trained counsellor and focus instead on what friends do best; listen, give them a hug, and let them know you will be there for them as they work through this.

2. Offer empathy

Offering empathy is a powerful way to help a friend, and 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 a separation are bound to feel a world of emotions – but a friend who is well versed in supporting people will know not to throw fuel on the emotional flame and to listen objectively, without offering too much opinion.

Try to understand the waves of emotion and uncertainty that they are feeling, and work with them to resolve them. Ultimately offering advice equilibrium to assist them in navigating their way down the separation path more effectively.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.”

3. Offer perspective

Often 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 (i.e. pushy). It’s a much more sensitive approach that waits to 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.

4. Show your support

This has a caveat. Those supporting friends during a divorce need to be loud about building them up, without tearing their former partner down.

Putting on the boxing gloves and launching into ‘I always hated him, 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. In a year, this will feel better. What do you need? I love you.”

5. 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 true depth of your loved ones experience.

An old friend once told me, “there are only two times in life you should give advice, one is if you are asked directly for it, and the other is if their life depends on it”.

People in support roles tend to problem-solve to make themselves feel useful, but offering unsolicited advice may create a problem that hasn’t yet been conceived.

The best way to offer advice is to do a little digging into professional services that can help them navigate the path of separation in the most effective and amicable way.  Friends help friends find the help they need.

Jack Whelan, accredited mediator 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”.

Voice Lawyers Managing director, Kayte Lewis from Voice Lawyers agrees that “the role of a friend in support is important, but they will likely need some objective advice around separation. There are a lot of myths and we find our clients will refer to ’legal’ information their friend has given them.  More often than not it’s not correct or doesn’t apply to their specific situation.”

Click to view the list of our resources and tools to help your friend or family members here.

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