By the end of college, five of my closest friends had announced, “My parents are divorcing.” My floral love seat bore witness to incalculable tears and conversations as their grief surfaced.
Though I haven’t personally known the pain of my family fracturing, I’ve certainly walked alongside it.
As numbers of “gray divorce” ebb, we’re watching more of our adult friends see their parents split. But it’s a myth that the older the “child” of divorce is, the easier it becomes. Sure, they don’t have to swap houses every other week and live out of a suitcase, but their grief and adjustment are equally real.
When your friend’s parents are divorcing
It’s an honor to be there for our friends, but a lack of personal experience can leave us insecure. We worry, I’ve never been through this. I don’t know how to help!
In my pursuit of learning how to help friends whose parents are divorcing, I visited with author and speaker, Lauren Reitsema. Having undergone her own parents’ split as a teen, Lauren knows from experience and research what children of divorce crave as they adapt.
In truth, it’s your presence. Your willingness to help them shoulder this weight will help more than you realize. Here are a few ways you can best do this.
1. Help them uncork the pain.
Pain is part of every divorce. But even if your friend’s parents ended a toxic marriage, your friend probably isn’t popping the apple cider to celebrate. In fact, as their parents are divorcing, your friend is likely experiencing “an identity fracture,” as Lauren terms it.
“[Divorce] ultimately sets up a kid’s life to be split,” she said. “Their [parents have] an opportunity to form a new branch of a tree, but the child is always rooted between both.”
As their friend, you can grant permission to grieve. They’re probably hearing a lot of messages contrary to how they feel, as Lauren was herself, such as, “This is the best decision for our family,” and “Buck up, buttercup.” What’s worse, Lauren shared, “people generally have compassion on kids, but adults are assumed to be fine.”
People are nervous when comforting someone who’s hurting. I remember not knowing what else to say to my friends aside from, “I’m so sorry!” But as Lauren put it, “We have to be brave and say, ‘I heard your parents are divorcing. I know this can’t be easy and I don’t have all the answers, but what I do have is my presence, and I want to share it with you.”
Help them get “through it, not over it” as Lauren likes to say.
2. Help them in their relationship with their parents.
Not only is your friend navigating personal loss, they’re traversing unfamiliar parent/child dynamics. They may even be experiencing role reversal, feeling more like the parent than the child.
Help them establish appropriate boundaries. If, for instance, a parent is excessively clingy or asking your friend to take sides, limiting contact can be helpful for a time. Lauren suggests expressing something like, “I love you both and will always be in your corner … but here are some boundaries I need to help me come to grips with this.”
If it “fits the occasion” and gives “grace to those who hear,”—as all speech ought (see Ephesians 4:29)— it’s appropriate they voice their hurt to their parents. Asking, “Can you help me understand why you’re calling it quits?” opens the door for honest conversation.
Regardless of how their parents respond, you can acknowledge pain and encourage grace. Remind them God, too, grieves the pain and loss of divorce. He is “near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit,” (Psalm 34:18). He asks us to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Help your friend recall their parents’ humanity and need for grace.
3. Know what not to say to a friend whose parents are divorcing.
Despite our well-meaning hearts, we can say the wrong thing. Shocker, I know. For instance, Lauren said we might accidentally trivialize their story by making it a statistic.
Words like, “Thousands of people’s parents are divorcing, too. They survive and are stronger for it,” squelch your friend’s freedom to process. Lauren was also adamant that it’s disrespectful to assume we know the ins and outs of their parents’ motives. Although you are close friends, it’s not your place to invade their family’s privacy.
“Give generous assumptions, not negative ones, and don’t be an expert where you’re not. Be a good friend,” she said.
4. Help your friend recreate a divorce-free legacy.
When parents are divorcing, it can impact the children’s view of marriage.
On one hand, your friend might be determined, even optimistic, that they’ll never put their own children through this. Unfortunately, statistics show those who’ve seen a pattern of divorce are more likely to repeat it.
But Lauren herself is a testament that no one is doomed to repeat someone else’s actions. She wisely noted, “I have to fight every day for my marriage … to not repeat the gross stuff that legacy has given me, but also to repeat the amazing stuff.”
You can assist them in clinging to the good and discarding the unhelpful. Lauren said even seemingly small generational habits, like sarcastic digs at the dinner table, don’t have to continue in their family. By the Lord’s grace, generational change is possible.
On the other hand, your friend might be single, stiff-arming any idea of marriage. Lauren passionately encourages them to see how, “the institution of marriage is not the problem. It’s patterns and people that are the problem. Don’t look at marriage and say, ‘If I never get married, I’m going to be fine.’ That actually robs you of so much blessing. It’s more about saying ‘How am I going to do marriage? How am I going to act as a spouse? … Serve? … Love? … Forgive? … Lay down my pride?’”
Your presence matters
When my friends’ parents were divorcing, we drank lots of tea. Took lots of walks. We cried lots of tears and ate lots of snacks. And we prayed a lot.
I’m sure I didn’t say all of the right things or do as much as I could have, and neither will you. But I know my presence mattered. Lending time, a listening ear, and truthful words during this unique fracture in their life is a beautiful way to love your friend.
Copyright © 2020 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.
Lauren Miller serves on staff with FamilyLife as a writer in Little Rock, Arkansas, though she’ll always be a California girl. She graduated from Biola University and the Torrey Honors Institute where the Lord first planted in her a love for family and marriage ministry. As a single, she loves serving the youth at her church, watching British dramas, and reading a good book in her free time.