Another friend called to let me know his wife filed for divorce. He’s devastated his marriage has failed–despite several attempts at counseling. Still, he’s looking forward to turning the page on this dark and tumultuous chapter of life. I empathized with him and wondered what my divorcing friend needs.
In my counseling office, I encourage couples to make every effort to work it out before splitting up. But divorce still happens. It is a product of living in a broken world. For too many of us, it’s a topic we rarely discuss. Sometimes it feels like the only options are celebrating the split — which seems weird and wrong — or avoiding the topic altogether. So we’re quick to overlook what our divorcing friends need most when going through the painful process.
I talked with a number of people who have experienced divorce for a variety of reasons. Their feedback, while not surprising, highlights the sadness, loneliness, and lack of support from their family, friends, and church.
Based on my conversations, here are the things they say your divorcing friend needs too.
1. Nonjudgmental friends
Over and over again, individuals expressed experiencing sadness when longstanding friendships changed or ended upon the announcement of their plans for divorce.
In Paula’s case, one friend couple insisted she should stay the course no matter what her husband did or didn’t do. She says, “Judgment and condemnation, in my opinion, is very different from Christian love and holding people accountable with truth and love. When Christians stand in judgment against others in an unloving way, it causes deep pain.”
Paula ultimately left her church because she felt abandoned there. She needed friends and a body of believers to lean on more than ever.
David and his wife were married for 17 years. The marriage ended in large part due to his wife’s multiple affairs. David actually served as a worship pastor at the time. He describes the breakdown of his marriage as not only sad and traumatic, but also humiliating.
In his case, David’s divorce also resulted in the loss of his ministry job. Losing his marriage and his job led to a time of intense loneliness.
“I needed companionship,” he says. “But people were so busy with their own lives and struggles. My closest friends didn’t have time for much other than a text or short phone call.”
Those I spoke to echoed this sentiment ad nauseam.
2. Friends who will stay
Jennifer, whose husband left her after almost 11 years, says, “Right after the divorce, it would have been nice for friends to text and check on me.”
Bill was incredibly isolated after his nine-year marriage came crashing down. He says, “I had no friends that I could just talk about it with. I was lonely and needed people to share, discuss, and talk about what I was going through.”
Melanie and her husband divorced after more than 35 years of marriage. They had long-term relationships with several couples in their church–people they traveled with all over the country. She said the divorce completely surprised them all. And as a result, those friends just stopped making contact. Melanie eventually unfriended them all on Facebook because, as she put it, “Let’s not pretend we’re friends when that’s clearly not the case anymore.”
Paula offers some compelling advice: “Do not avoid a friend who is going through a divorce because you don’t know what to say. They are hurting deeply. I thought it would kill me, and most days I lived hour by hour and felt as fragile as glass.”
So often it seems people tend to back away from friendships when they aren’t sure what to say or do. But your friend going through a hard time needs you to be there for them.
3. Specific practical help
“Let me know if you need anything,” you might say to your divorcing friend. That’s a statement thrown around like candy, especially in church contexts. It’s a lovely sentiment. But the reality is that very few people really take it to heart. And people who are experiencing the pain and grief of divorce frankly aren’t up to assessing another person’s availability and skill set.
The individuals I spoke with–especially the women–talked about the importance of offering specific practical help during this time.
Jennifer reflects on the time when her husband filed for divorce. “Meals would have been nice. Your mind is so messed up that it’s difficult to figure out what you even want to eat, much less fix it yourself. For the longest time,I didn’t want to cook, and when I did, I ate on paper plates.”
She pointed out something else worth mentioning.
“I see people with children get more help from the community than those of us without kids. We’re hurting really badly too.” She suggests taking the initiative to invite your newly single friends to holiday activities–and even kids’ activities. Because it would help ease the pain of being all alone, if only for a little while.
Whether it’s helping with your divorcing friend’s laundry, providing childcare, driving to appointments, or mowing the lawn, there are many opportunities to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those who are going through separation. These are, after all, situations in which the load of daily activities has stayed the same, even though the number of adults to shoulder the burden has been cut in half.
4. Pastoral support
I have served on church staffs for many years, so I’ve seen this approach play out many times. Pastors are afraid to get too involved. They don’t want to be perceived as taking sides with either the husband or wife. And most of the time, the truth of what’s really going on lies somewhere in the middle.
One pastor expressed it this way: “As pastors, we know we need to do something to help couples who are struggling. But finding a pathway to help that is not viewed as somehow partial to the husband or the wife is a lot harder than it might seem. It can get particularly sticky in smaller churches where there are several generations of family in the congregation. It doesn’t take much for things to backfire spectacularly.”
As a counselor myself, I know how easy it is to become triangulated, drawn into the toxic relationship dynamic that has become normal for the couple. The nature of dual relationships in the church family, where one or both spouses serve alongside pastors in some capacity unrelated to their counseling, can further inhibit the kind of objectivity and boundaries needed to keep the therapeutic relationship safe.
It’s important for pastors to get to know the counselors and therapists in their communities, so they can confidently make appropriate referrals. Of course, counseling is rarely provided as a free service.
5. Church support
“I was so crushed by the way my home church handled my heart during my divorce,” says Paula. She and her husband divorced after nearly 12 years, citing her husband’s unaddressed mental health problems and addiction cycles. She says her husband was unable to work, coparent, or support the family in any way. And he refused psychological help until the relationship had fallen completely apart.
I also encourage churches to set aside funds each year that can be used to help church members offset counseling-related expenses. Most counselors are more than happy to make third-party payment arrangements that preserve the integrity and confidentiality of their services. Churches can also provide support groups like DivorceCare to help those who are walking through this dark season of life.
I know you’re facing it with at least someone in your circle right now. Divorce is all around us and likely even something you or a family member is currently facing.
To be honest, the timing of everything gets a little tricky. While a person is not technically divorced until the judge signs and seals the papers, the marriage off-ramp can be long and bumpy for many months. A friend going through it needs support and encouragement all along the way.
While judgment, trite clichés, and awkward avoidance are commonly provided, what your divorcing friend needs most is love and care. It’s a care that can be active but quiet, offering grace, mercy, time, and space to grieve, re-group, and begin again.
Copyright © 2019 Garrick D. Conner. All rights reserved.
Garrick D. Conner is a licensed professional counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist, ordained minister, and freelance writer. He serves as discipleship pastor at Park Hill Baptist Church in North Little Rock, Arkansas. You can read more from him at garrickdconner.com. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.