Being a friend during divorce
March 21, 2007 9:32 AM   Subscribe

How do I be a friend during a bitter divorce?

A close friend is going through a difficult divorce. (Nutshell: married for two years, wife was unhappy but kept quiet about it, started seeing someone else, left him six months ago.) I thought he was making the first steps in moving on, but it is still an open wound: he is hurt and angry, wants to lash out at her.

My personal estimate is that it will take something like two years before he can move on, so he has "time to burn", in my book. However, I feel like I'm just saying the same things to him, over and over, and want to help him. Aside from listening to him and being supportive, what can I do?

Any advice?
posted by cgs to Human Relations (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
By being supportive and, above all, listening, you will be able to hear him when he tells you what he needs.
posted by melangell at 9:42 AM on March 21, 2007

Take your friend to dinner and just let him ramble.
Do this twice a month.
He will feel better; you'll feel good in your kindness; everyone benefits.
posted by Dizzy at 10:47 AM on March 21, 2007

Is he keeping himself busy, or is he spending a lot of time sitting around stewing? If the latter, try to get him out and involved in something.
posted by adamrice at 11:11 AM on March 21, 2007

I've got a somewhat similar situation with a close friend of mine who is going on his 3rd year of an incredibly ugly, bitter, never ending custody battle with his ex. Really, yeah, all you can do is listen and that's probably all your friend needs -- somebody to listen to him unload all the ugliness he's facing. There is a natural tendency to want to help friends solve this kind of problem but really, there's not much you can do, other than just being there, and realize you might hear him relate the same anecdote half a dozen times, because it's knocking around in his brain.

The only advice an outsider to one of these things can offer is of the common-sense variety (e.g. don't do anything violent, illegal, or something that would forseeably hurt his side of the case). You might also suggest he get some type of counselling, even if it is short term, because it will help him in his case to sort out the personal nastiness/bad feeling/spite/whatever from what he needs to accomplish legally to get away from his ex.
posted by contessa at 11:29 AM on March 21, 2007

Response by poster: adamrice: no, he is really active, which is good. and has been seeing some girls...

contessa: yeah, i guess that's what made me post... we'll be talking and everything is good, and then he'll switch over to breakup-speak. and it is (almost word-for-word) the same stuff he has been saying all the while. i should resist pointing this out, right?
posted by cgs at 11:48 AM on March 21, 2007

cgs: well, it depends. If you know he's leaning on a few friends to get him through this, he might have forgotten who he has told what to, and that's forgivable, because he's got weightier things to keep track of at the moment. If you're his sole confidante, you can point it out in a way that won't make him feel like a repetetive dork, such as, "Oh yeah, I remember when you first told me about that last month -- I was shocked!!" to take him out of the feedback loop. You might also try and steer the conversations toward what the present situation is, and what his plans are, when the story starts again.


DivorceFriend: There was that time when she said she was going to a work party, and then I found an email that she was really with Mr. X ...

cgs: (butting in, in a natural/polite way) Oh, right -- I guess she has been denying that in her deposition, then? Did your lawyer subpeona her email records?

(etc etc).
posted by contessa at 12:11 PM on March 21, 2007

cgs... not to trivalize... but two years?

He's a basket case over a bad two year marriage? I'll bet they have wedding gifts they haven't used, yet. Jeez.

I agree, regardless, that you can support him by being friendly, as others have said... Research and learn about how one moves on from obvious, world class fuckups and give him the benefit of your reading and pondering efforts. Buy him books. Help him figure out how he might have contributed, if you really want to be a friend. To begin with, someone's skills at character assessment need improving. Someone's ability to see what is going on around him could use work. A good self assessment of what it is that was so unbearable about him is in order, (not that there necessarily is anything!) A good, honest, non-rage filled assessment of why his ex would do what she did is warranted.

More than anything, forgiveness is the best thing he can work towards and you can help him arrive there with personal love, kindness, acceptance, understanding, wise counsel, and well timed advice. Help him just get this all behind ASAP and let it heal. Help him see that and you'll be his best friend, in fact, and not just a companion during the rage/revenge/craziness chapter of something that obviously has a larger story than the one you described.
posted by FauxScot at 1:01 PM on March 21, 2007

It would probably be good, for both his psyche and his divorce case, if he avoided further romantic entanglements until his divorce is final. As a friend, you could point that out.

As a friend, you could point out that getting to know himself better is warranted, particularly that part of himself that holds his empathy. Because if he lived with even a sociopath for 2 years, and didn't pick up on the weirdness, he's seriously out of touch with His Empathetic Man. As his friend, you could suggest that he work on that, if not through formal counseling and therapy, then through directed readings and study.

As his friend, you could get him to see the value of turning bitter experience into personal growth. And you could do so in such a way as to try to deepen your friendship, so that it can safely contain the expressions of anger and frustration he already has, and will further develop for the divorce process, without running aground itself, as a friendship.

One reason a person keeps saying the same things over and over is that they'd like to say more, but haven't the means or courage to do so, or even formulate or admit what is really bothering them. So, they approach the topic again and again, like a cat with a huge hairball it can't spit up, until they find a way to expel the bitter bile of which they need to rid themselves. As his friend, you may not be able to listen to what he's trying to spit out indefinitely, but you can encourage him to find someone, even a professional, who can. Or you can, if you have courage and strength enough for both of you, and a healthy liver and constitution, get him blind, knee-crawlin', preacher-cussin' drunk, and listen to his soul crave murder and help him safely plot it. And then sober up together, get through the hangovers, get something to eat, and send him on his way, in his right mind and better off by far, for the catharsis.

For nothing less than catharsis and healing, in some form, will make him again, as good a friend as he once was. But if you can see him through, lending wisdom and courage, he'll owe you things that will stand your friendship in good stead, should you yourself ever founder on life's shoals. The deepest friendships always contain memories of shared troubles overcome, or at least endured, together.
posted by paulsc at 1:14 PM on March 21, 2007

FauxScot, bitter marriages and bitter divorces come in all shapes and sizes - usually, the bitterness has less to do with the facts of the breakup or the length of the relationship and more to do with the expectations vs. reality of each person in it.

cgs, just the fact that you're asking this means you're being a good friend! Letting your friend know that you want to help and are there to listen are good and basic and sometimes the best you can do. But it can also sometimes be useful to just ask your friend what kind of friend he needs right now:

Does he need someone to agree with him? Does he need you to help him see the middle ground here? Does he want someone to help diss his ex? Does he want someone to play devil's advocate? Or just someone to help take his mind off it? Etc.

At different times during my divorce, I needed all of these things and more from my friends - usually different friends, at different times. I've been through enough therapy to know how to ask my friends for it - but if your friend is not offering what kind of support he needs, it never hurts to ask. That way you *know* you're helping in the way he needs! :) Good luck.
posted by twiki at 2:06 PM on March 21, 2007

Response by poster: they lived together for five years previous to the marriage, so seven years is pretty significant (in my book).

another thing that makes it tough is that they were very active w/in our social group, and his wife was a very cheerful, upbeat person. "the life of the party", etc. so when it came to light that "she was miserable" and couldn't be with him anymore, we were all really surprised. i mean, i'm pretty sensitive towards these things and i used to call them "the flagship of marriage". our group was so closely knit that now there is some resentment towards her, not only for cheating on him, but that she kept this (hurting) side of herself so hidden, even during all the parties and trips...

bottom line: it has really opened my eyes up to the saying "behind closed doors".

and he isn't talking about anecdotes, but more like "i just want to understand [why she left me]". and, from my perspective, he is never really going to know this. i mean, does he just take her ultra-personal attacks as truth? (she is both the best and worst person to tell him these things). how does he find his own ground while not ignoring her critiques? and am i the warm shoulder in all this ("fuck her, is her loss"), or the honesty-dealer ("maybe she was right?").

gah... this has kinda devolved from an AskMeFi question to a therapy session (for me!). there isn't really an answer. he's just going to have to suffer for some time, and i'm going to help him as best i can.

thanks for your advice, everyone!
posted by cgs at 2:30 PM on March 21, 2007

Possibly the best (and only) thing you can do to steer the conversation off the well beaten circular track is to change how you respond. Perhaps asking questions would be better for him than trying to give answers you probably can't provide anyway.

"What do you need? How can I help?"

"Why do you think she left?"

"Do you think she was right?"

It's the therapist's trick for staying neutral and making the patient do their own work. In a good way. It's cheap, but better than floundering when there is nothing left to say you've not already been 'round 347 times.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:15 PM on March 21, 2007

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