“My wife just filed for divorce.”
I was stunned by my friend’s words. As I held the phone, I became so lost in my thoughts that his voice seemed like the “wah wah wah” sound from the Peanuts cartoons.
Why hadn’t they said anything? I wondered to myself in frustration. Maybe my wife, Erin, and I could have helped them and prevented the divorce!
Why hadn’t I called my friend sooner? I felt guilty for not being there when he needed help.
My friend’s sobs brought me back to the conversation, and a long journey was set into motion.
Knowing what to do or say when a close friend goes through a divorce is difficult, yet there are several ways you can ease your friend’s burden and demonstrate Christ’s love to him or her. First, though, you need understand your own feelings about the news.
Recognize Your Emotions
When your friends are divorcing, it’s normal to experience a wide range of emotions. Someone you care about may feel traumatized and be deeply hurt, and that hurts you, too. So as you consider how to offer support, be sure to process your own thoughts and feelings. You can do this by talking with another close friend, family member or counselor. You need to take care of yourself so you have something to give your friend. You might feel:
- Shock and disbelief. Maybe you knew your friend’s marriage wasn’t perfect but you were still blindsided by the divorce.
- Profound sadness. Pat Conroy wrote, “Each divorce is the death of a small civilization.” Divorce is like a death but without a funeral to celebrate a life well lived or mourn an unexpected loss. There will be shifts in relationships, and you may grieve the loss of a future with your divorcing friends (i.e., spending time as couples and as families, holidays, vacationing together).
- Anxiety, worry and fear. You might worry about the many ways this could affect your divorcing friends and their children. You may feel anxious about saying the wrong thing to your friend.
- Powerlessness. As your friend’s marriage collapses, you may feel like a helpless bystander and have zero control to fix or change anything.
- Anger. It’s easy to be angry because your friend or their spouse is reneging on a lifelong promise or refusing to fight to save their marriage. Maybe you’re angry because of the poor choices you’ve witnessed that caused their marriage to collapse. Anger can also come from watching a nasty divorce unfold. It’s painful to witness child custody and visitation battles, disagreements over alimony and child support or disputes over property division.
- Guilt, shame or embarrassment. You may wonder how you could have missed the warning signs. Maybe you feel you should have said something or tried harder to intervene.
Tips for supporting a friend who’s going through a divorce
Now that you’ve processed your initial emotions, consider these suggestions for helping your friend.
Understand your friend’s emotions
Experts say that a divorce is usually the second most stressful life event for a person.
In addition to losing a spouse, your friend is experiencing many other losses (time with children, home, personal possessions, shared history, traditions, extended family [in-laws], couple friends). At the same time, your friend is dealing with multiple hardships and disappointments (broken promises, shattered dreams of the future, financial challenges). Your friend’s intense grief may trigger sudden emotions, such as disbelief, anger, guilt, sadness and shame. Grief also affects sleep, appetite and thinking, and your friend will probably be disoriented or uncertain of what to do next.
Your friend probably feels alone. Maybe he or she had to move out of the house and has limited or no contact with his or her ex-spouse or children. Your friend may feel anxious or worried about suddenly living alone. Maybe he or she has been ousted from a friendship group or driven away from a home church.
Because of these difficult emotions, many people going through a divorce gain or lose weight. It’s called the divorce diet, which refers to changed eating habits due to stress and anxiety.
Be a rock
Divorce is indescribably painful for all parties involved. Think of the difficulty of uncoupling and untangling years of building a family together. This is the time to demonstrate Proverbs 17:17: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.”
As Korin Miller explains, “Most people don’t need advice during a divorce, they just need to know that they’re not alone and that people care.” Your friend needs to know that you’re there for the long haul — that you’ll be as stable and reliable as a rock.
As your friend and his or her children are going through a divorce, your goal is to encourage your friend in a way that they know you’ll always be there for them. You want to provide a safe place where your friend can find support and comfort.
Pray for your friend
The only possible way you can consistently show up as a rock for your friend who’s going through a divorce is to pray — unceasingly!
Pray for God to restore the marriage by softening hearts and bringing the right counseling help. Pray that God guards the hearts and minds of your friends and their children as they experience the trauma and pain of divorce.
Take comfort in knowing that even if you don’t know what to pray for, Romans 8:26 promises that the Holy Spirit is already interceding on your behalf in ways that you can’t possibly understand.
If you’d like more guidance, you can find specific prayers in our Marriage Champions Prayer Guide.
Offer emotional support
To heal well after a divorce, facing the pain is vital. As you support a friend going through a divorce, help him or her accept the loss and lean into the heartache. You can do this by reminding your friend of your unconditional love. Let him or her know that you’re there to listen.
Divorce creates an emotional roller coaster. Grief doesn’t follow a formula or consistent pattern. One moment your friend will need a shoulder to cry on and the next moment, a safe place to vent. Some days, your friend will be moody and push away in anger. Don’t take this personally. It’s not about you.
It’s a confusing season for all parties involved. Your friend is trying to figure out how to be self-reliant while also dealing with loneliness and added responsibilities.
Ask your friend genuine, specific questions, not “How are you?” This vague question is cliché, and most people don’t even wait for a response before offering, “Great … have a good day.” Vague questions such as this are also exhausting to answer if someone is already feeling overwhelmed or emotionally depleted.
Instead of “How are you?” ask questions such as:
- What is one feeling word that describes how you’re doing right now?
- What’s been the best and the most difficult part of your day (or week)?
- How’s your heart today?
- What’s one thing I could pray about for you today?
- How did you take care of yourself today?
Allow your friend to grieve in whatever way he or she needs without judgment or platitudes. Trying to be helpful, Christians often say “When God closes a door, He opens a window.” or “Everything happens for a reason.” or “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
I understand the heart behind the stale comments, but they rarely help when someone is hurting. In my experience, God gives me more than I can handle so I can seek His strength instead of relying on my own resources. I appreciate this perspective from Oak Ridge Baptist Church: “We weren’t promised troubles we could handle — we were promised help through the troubles.”
God is always with us during difficult seasons, and this truth found in Isaiah 41:10 can comfort your friend: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
So how do you best support a friend going through a divorce? Just be accessible. Don’t try to fix his or her broken heart. Don’t tell your friend how he or she should think or feel. Instead, make your goal to care with deep compassion.
Offer practical help
Divorce is exhausting on every level — emotionally, spiritually, physically and mentally. Your friend is facing an arduous journey. Imagine someone handed you a large jar filled with sand of various colors and told you to separate the colors. That is what the uncoupling process feels like.
Ask if you can help pack if your friend is moving. Babysit, clean, fold laundry, run errands, buy groceries, take kids to school or practice, dog sit or drop off a meal without staying to talk.
The divorce process can take up to a year. Your friend may want you to join meetings with mediators and lawyers. I listened in on my friend’s mediation call and helped him with paperwork. But do these things only if he or she asks you for assistance.
I never stopped encouraging my friend to fight for his marriage. God is in the miracle business. Erin and I led the Hope Restored marriage intensives for years. We personally witnessed countless miracles as marriages were restored. We never gave up hope, because sometimes a marriage can survive on someone else’s hope for a season.
Encourage your friend to consider a healing separation instead of a divorce. However, when abuse is present, clear boundaries need to be in place and the abused spouse needs to be in a safe place so they can begin the healing process.
Focus on the Family is dedicated to bringing healing and restoration to couples who are struggling in their marriage. But God’s design for marriage never included abuse, violence or coercive control. Even emotional abuse can bruise or severely harm a person’s heart, mind and soul. If you are in an abusive relationship, go to a safe place and call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit them online at thehotline.org.
Ask about the state of your friend’s heart
In Matthew 19:8 (NLT), Jesus says, “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended.” The common link in every divorcing couple that I’ve worked with is hardened hearts.
In Proverbs 4:23, King Solomon offers this advice: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Basically, King Solomon is saying that our heart is a conduit of God’s love. When our heart closes or hardens, God’s love is no longer flowing through us.
If God’s love isn’t flowing through us, we don’t have any love to give God or others. I warned my friend when he was going through his divorce that the biggest battle he would fight would be to keep his heart open.
I routinely asked him about the state of his heart: “Is it opened or closed?” I also asked how he was guarding his heart from closing. Was he spending time with the Lord in prayer and by studying God’s Word? I asked about his church attendance, friendships and what he was learning in counseling. Pray for your friend’s heart to remain open and for his or her spouse’s heart to soften.
Encourage your friend to get professional help
Obviously, you can’t be your friend’s therapist. You’re too close and your perspective is skewed. To heal from the trauma of divorce, your friend needs counseling from a licensed Christian therapist. Focus on the Family has a comprehensive referral network of Christian counselors you can search for by ZIP code. Your friend can also call and speak with one of our Christian counselors at Focus for free. My friend found a wonderful therapist who’s been a lifesaver.
Guard your tongue
Proverbs 18:21 (NIV) says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” If divorce wasn’t your friend’s choice, there will be plenty of moments when you want to vent about the person who’s causing your friend so much pain. That’s understandable. You need to have safe people you can do that with — a spouse, close friend or counselor.
But don’t speak poorly about your friend’s ex-spouse in front of others —your children or other mutual friends. This isn’t the time to say, “I never really liked that guy anyway!” or point out other issues you’ve had with your friend’s spouse over the years.
Take the high road and model Christlike behavior. And remember that this couple might reconcile one day. It’s never “over” until one marries someone else. Don’t do or say things that might interfere with the reconciliation process or that might make your friend’s working relationship with his or her spouse more difficult.
Support your friend if he or she is the “guilty” party
Maybe your friend was the neglectful spouse: the one struggling with an addiction, being abusive or having an affair. Knowing how to respond or support a friend in that situation is challenging. Of course you want to help your friend, who’s also hurting. But at the same time, you don’t want to make it seem like you agree with his or her actions and decisions.
Remind your friend that you unconditionally love him or her, but don’t enable poor choices or sinful behavior. You may have to set boundaries around living at your house or providing financial assistance. And then, don’t cave — follow through on the limits you’ve placed within the relationship.
Your role is to support your friend. Support isn’t an acknowledgement that you agree with his or her behaviors or choices. And remember, it’s not your job to rescue your friend. You are not responsible to get him or her to end an affair, find help for an addiction, or attend couple’s therapy or anger management classes.
Look to the future … carefully
I love Jeremiah 29:11 (NLT): “ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the LORD. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.’ ” It’s so important to remind your friend to have hope for a bright future. However, a word of caution: Doing that can be met with frustration and anger. Your friend may still be grieving the divorce or might still desire restoration of the marriage. He or she may not be ready to talk about the future. If your friend reacts negatively to your positive outlook, don’t argue or push the subject.
Support a friend going through a divorce by protecting your marriage
As you support your friend, you also need to take care of your marriage and yourself, because you can’t give what you don’t have.
Guard your own marriage
Divorce is contagious and can actually “spread” among friends. Guard your marriage by maintaining a rock-solid commitment, prioritizing time with your spouse and building a community of pro-marriage couples around your own marriage.
Erin and I saw a marriage therapist as we grieved our friends’ divorce. I wanted to make sure we were dealing with any issues that might strain our marriage. My commitment to Erin was firm, but I wanted to keep growing as an individual and as a couple. It was so helpful to discover specific ways to strengthen our marriage. I also wanted to model that marriage counseling is normal and it’s what we do to keep a marriage strong.
Seek your own support system
Don’t let your friend’s divorce monopolize your life. Make sure you’re investing in things that give you “rest” and bring you “life.”
Adding social media boundaries is helpful, too. It’s tempting to stalk your friend’s ex-spouse on Facebook or Instagram, trying to gain insight into the reason for the divorce. However, playing detective rarely helps your emotional well-being. This isn’t how you should care for yourself. Instead, it may only upset you if you scroll through photos of your friend’s ex-spouse enjoying life while your friend remains painfully stuck.
Supporting a friend who’s going through a divorce takes time and energy. But remember this — as you share your friend’s burdens, as you pray and listen, and as you gently encourage reconciliation, God might use you to save a marriage. At the very least, you have the opportunity to show Christlike love to someone when he or she needs you most.
Learn how you can become a Marriage Champion or mentor: FocusMarriageChampions.com.