How to Help People Going Through a Divorce

Navigating the death of a marriage.

Divorce is not something new to me. As I think back through my childhood, I clearly remember many of my friends’ parents getting divorced. In my mid-20s, two of my best friends, married for almost 10 years, split (as did each of their siblings, who were also friends of mine). Then two more friends … and two more.

I never thought my marriage would end. And while the news is still fairly fresh in the public eye, being separated and divorced is a reality I’ve been walking through for almost a year.

Because we chose to keep our private life private as we traveled that journey, only a small group of friends, people in our church, counselors and a few colleagues and pastors knew what we were going through. Reflecting over the last several months has awakened my analytical mind, and I’ve been intentionally processing how many of our relationships have changed, what’s added to the pain and what’s helped relieve it.

Some questions and comments I’ve frequently heard are:

“What advice do you have for friends going through a divorce?”

“Are there any resources you’ve found that have helped you, or that you’d recommend for me to help my friends?”

“I just don’t know what to do or what to say to them.”

“I don’t want to get in their business.”

Because these remarks occur on a daily basis, I thought it’d be best to share two thoughts with you—one on things that helped me and one on things that hurt.

Keep in mind, these are unique to me and every relationship is different, so please don’t assume I’m an expert by any stretch of the imagination.

WHAT TO DO:

Be there.

Just because you don’t know what to say doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say anything. In fact, most of the time it’s better you don’t say anything at all except to acknowledge what your friend is feeling is real (and is usually pretty rotten).

Here’s the catch: When a relationship is ending, especially a marriage, it physically feels as if your soul has been ripped out of your body. People going through this change will likely not have the strength to reach out to you. We will feel we’re a burden or that the only thing we have to talk about is how sad, angry, lonely or afraid we are. Most of us don’t want to be Debbie Downers, but we feel as if we epitomize that character in a season like this.

Not only do we not want to bring people down with us, we don’t have the strength to engage with others.

This is why it’s so important you reach out constantly to your friends. I’m an introvert and I tend to isolate myself when I’m going through a hard time. During the worst six months, I had friends texting, calling or emailing daily and at times willing to drive through snowstorms to pick me up and take me to the only open café in town with no agenda at all but to be with me. Sometimes we talked about the situation. Other times, we talked about music, or watched TV, or we didn’t even talk at all.

Knowing our friends are pursuing us helps remove the weight of loneliness that haunts us. And don’t worry; if you think you may be intruding or being overbearing, if we really need some time alone, we’ll let you know.

WHAT NOT TO DO:

Don’t disappear or blow Jesus smoke.

Don’t ignore the situation. If someone reaches out to you to even make you aware of what’s happening, even if you have nothing to say back, just say you’re sorry. That is enough.

When I sent an email out to an expanded (but still small) group of friends and acquaintances, about 90 percent of the 50 or so people responded. The 10 percent who didn’t were people I had traveled with, shared stages with, signed books with, who had endorsed my books or I endorsed theirs. After no response from the email, or from the blog post that followed, or any acknowledgment whatsoever that they even received the information, I reevaluated my relationship with them. Sadly, many of the friendships I thought were based on mutual respect weren’t. They were simply relationships of benefit and circumstance. Coming to that realization hurt, and I had to make changes in the way I view those relationships now.

There is a medical term called body dysmorphic disorder that essentially means you believe something about your body image that isn’t true. For example, many people who struggle with eating disorders literally see their bodies as being significantly larger than they are in reality. For me, this has translated into an emotional association. I realize I don’t have actual leprosy, but I often feel like a leper; that I’m contagious, or unclean. I feel people need to stay on the other side of the road. And when friends disappear, it adds to this misconception.

Please don’t disappear.

Also, don’t assume that “ministry” or cliché “Christianese” will stitch up our bleeding hearts. Be Jesus. Don’t just talk about Him.

I recently received an email from a pastor who shared about a friend currently in the middle of a divorce: “My prayer is that he will wake up to this hurting world around him and engage,” he wrote.

I can only hope this pastor’s heart is in the right place, however, I wrote him back and explained to him the last thing we can do when we are this broken is to jump back into the world and “wake up and engage” and care for others—especially when our own pain is so new.

This is one of the times the church needs to “reach in and engage with the people around them who are hurting,” not the other way around as this pastor indicated.

Please keep in mind I don’t think this implies people going through a divorce should expect to be waited on hand and foot and maintain a completely selfish existence. By making our health and recovery a priority, we will naturally emerge back into a place where we can serve out of abundance—not pressure.

THE BOTTOM LINE:

Be there for your friends. Grieve with them. Celebrate with them. Give them meals and hugs and hold them tightly. Don’t worry about having nothing to say. Pursue them. Pray for them. Love them. Constantly let them know you have their back.

Don’t fall off the face of the earth. Yes, it’s uncomfortable—for both us and you.

Anne Jackson is the author of Permission to Speak Freely: Essays and Art on Fear, Confession and Grace and Mad Church Disease: Overcoming the Burnout Epidemic and a frequent blogger.

32 Comments

84,032

Joe commented…

In the Bible, it clearly says, "God hates divorce". If you are divorcing because your spouse has cheated on you, or wants to separate because of your faith in Christ, that is justifiable, because it is in God's word that you can do so. I dunno how long you have been following Christ, but it is apparent that you were in ministry and writing books as well.
I know divorce is very painful and hard, because my parents went through it as well. But that does not excuse me to follow that example, rather follow God's word that in faith and trust that, even when I am suffering and experience challenges in my marriage, that in the end we are joining in Christ's suffering so that we may know the power of His resurrection, so that we may HOPE in ALL things in Him so that we may be redeemed.
I honestly feel the issue of why so many Christians are divorcing is because they are NOT Christians, they only carry a badge saying they are Christians, because they go to church. But the problem is, they are not fully relying on the Word of God as the primary source to change their hearts! If you have not heard these things in your church, I'm not surprised. The issue is because we have a crisis. A spiritual crisis and I believe it is by the Holy Spirit that gives us the transformation through the Word and spiritual accountability. This is what we call Spiritual Formation and we are in desperate need of it in the church...

Moyo Mamora

27

Moyo Mamora commented…

I don't quite know how to respond to this article. It's good in the sense that it tells what to do and how to help a friend go through the process, however I stop to think, we're talking about a divorce here on a Christian magazine!!! To me it seems like we have adopted the culture of nursing divorces, like we kinda think "hey..divorce happens, let's deal with it".
Now i'm not saying ignore the topic or be silent about it, and I also state clearly that I understand that people have their decisions to make individually, but that ought not keep us from speaking some truths. It may be hurtful and seem insensitive to speak some truths to the couple if they're really your friends, but I believe it is very vital that it happens.I have nothing against anyone that has been through a divorce, as a matter of fact, I think no less of them, it's just the understanding that divorces always leave the parties involved broken for a long time. It takes God to heal the parties involved (if they're willing to let Him work). Divorces are usually as a result of one or both parties not walking in the fullness of God's love and His Word. I wonder many times why couples will rather fight with their spouse in arelationshiprather than fight for the relationship to stand? The answer is because many times we're too concerned about how I FEEL in the middle of it all, but love is not self centered (1Cor. 13:4-8). God wasn't thinking about just Himself when He redeemed the world through Christ Jesus.All in all my point is that marriage is a covenant, vows were taking saying "...xxxx till death separates us". This vow was made before God and witnesses. Why not call the couples to wake up to these realities? Why trust God to heal from a divorce when we can trust Him to save the marriage? By right of covenant, the later is easier. If both parties are Christians and are willing to work with God, they can save the marriage and if they go through the rough patch together, they'll come out stronger. Love is a deliberate action and not a feeling, as a matter of fact it requires crucifying one's feelings because for the most part feelings are selfish, but lovefocuseson the other persons feelings.This will be my primary stand, first of all, while I make a conscious effort to love and support both parties. But I think ignoring these realities will be because I'm more concerned about whether my thoughts and ultimately my person will be accepted by the people involved. But remember love considers others first."You never leave your partner....especially in a fire"- A quote from the movie FIREPROOF (Please watch it if you have nothttp://www.fireproofthemovie.c...

Also here are some articles that I believe will be a blessing to married, and those considering marriagehttp://www.edenlifemag.com/cat...

84,032

Kimber commented…

Excellent article!!! A dear friend is in the process of divorce and in so much pain. I totally agree that she needs simple support. Not preaching, or "get over it" comments. Anyone going through this needs our unconditional love and patience. It is a process and not something that you heal from overnight. We need to learn how to just be there for one another!! Thanks for putting this out there Anne!

84,032

guest commented…

youve been divorced three times or have experienced it three times through family members?? if the first is the truth than are you sure those people who disapproved were being harshly judgement critical and manipulative? I can disapprove of someones actions and still love them and want to support them. But after three divorces I personally would feel it was time for some "tough love" and that my support was being misread as approval to continue to divorce and remarry when clearly its not in your best interest

CSD

3

CSD commented…

This excellent article is about how to support someone going through a divorce not how to be opportunistic and wound with your judgements. Saying your piece about how wrong and sinful he/she is for divorcing is just an excuse to enact the righteousness-by-comparison deception you live by. The people who are going through divorce are well aware of why divorce is sinful and they are well aware of the extreme pain, so verbally pouncing on them will only serve to hurt them further. Go against your normal reaction and instead, reach out in love to that suffering Christian because truly that is what they desperately need during this terribly long, emotional-exhausting haul they are facing.

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