It’s been almost seven years since I first separated from my husband. In the time that has passed, I’ve seen and learned a lot, not only about myself but all the people I have encountered who, like me, ended their marriages for one reason or another. And, let me say, there are a lot of reasons. A lot. Even so, what I’ve noticed that’s common among all the stories told to me during this period and the interactions I’ve had is how much pain people are in, even years after the finalization of their divorce.
That is not to say everyone’s unhappy. I don’t think that’s true at all. In my mind, pain doesn’t equal unhappiness but, rather, episodes of it. Those episodes can, however, be severe, which makes it all the more necessary to be there as a source of support for our friends and family who are going through a divorce or recovering afterward and may need a shoulder to cry on when they least expect it. Unfortunately, that’s how pain after a divorce often hits — at the spur of the moment when we think we’re doing just fine. Whether it’s an argument with the ex-spouse, a breakup, financial matters, parenting concerns, illness, death of a loved one, or any other life change, a seemingly unrelated issue can be enough to open old wounds and bring up feelings of rejection, anger, sadness, and loneliness once associated with a prior marriage and subsequent divorce.
The question remains: How exactly should we help when a friend or family member is struggling? Here’s a few things we can do.
Even though every divorce is different and every person’s response to their divorce is different, there are a few ways we can offer support regardless of the specifics involved. The first and I believe the most important way is to be a good listener. Doing this is harder than it looks, especially living in an age where our use and reliance on technology has so compromised our attention spans. We want information, we get it, and in an instant, too. That is not the case when dealing with people who may not be ready or willing to open up yet about what’s bothering them. When they do, we should prepare ourselves, and that means listening, really listening, to what they’re telling us. A story can sometimes take a lot of time to unfold. It may also get repeated over and over again to you, not so you understand it better, but so the person telling it to you does. Patience is a virtue, especially when being a good friend.
To be a good listener in these situations means likewise reserving judgment, sometimes until later or even for forever. Remind yourself you have not walked in anyone’s shoes except your own. As much as you think you know what your friend or family member is experiencing and feeling, you can only understand so much, including how you would react if you were in their place and what you would’ve done if you were them. At this point, you can only speculate. Listening without judgment means just listening, at least for the moment.
When it does come time to give suggestions, and they may ask you for them, tread lightly. You want to offer guidance, not browbeat your friend to do what you want them to do. People need to find the answers and reach conclusions themselves for them to make sense in their lives. Comparing your friend’s situation to your own or others’ can help but, again, should be presented in a nonjudgmental manner. Instead of giving your friend the answers you want them to have, ask the questions they may not have thought of concerning why they are behaving and feeling as they are.
Should you require backup when aiding a friend who’s feeling depressed or lost, suggest they seek the advice of a mental health professional. Part of being a good friend is recognizing that you cannot always be there in the way you intend or your friend needs and that you may ultimately jeopardize your friendship by overstepping, at least for the time being, to ensure they get the help they need. But that’s what a good friend does; they act selflessly, expecting nothing in return but, usually, find themselves rewarded with an equally as good a friend who will be there when they need them to be.
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