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What to Say to Someone Getting a Divorce — and NOT Say

Here’s a big update: After 10 years of marriage, I’m getting divorced. But wait — before you say anything, please read this guide to what to say to someone getting a divorce… and what NOT to say. I’m very much hoping these suggestions will help many out there to avoid some hurtful conversations.

Divorce is a transition like autumn coming.
This is a time of transition.

What NOT to say when someone is getting divorced:

1. “Divorce? That’s so sad.”

Please do not assume that a divorce or separation is sad, even when there are kids or complicated logistics involved. Yes, there are many parts of separation which bring tears and pain, but overall, divorce can truly be a positive, important step.

Because divorce is extremely difficult and expensive, people do not do it lightly. When couples choose to separate, they do it for crucial reasons, and in many cases, have a happy future ahead. The path is not easy, but it doesn’t have to be sad.

What to Say Instead:

“Ah! Thank you for sharing that. If you’re willing to say, how has it been going so far?”

Instead of declaring, “That’s so sad,” or, “I’m so sorry to hear that,” use the statement above. First, acknowledge the important fact that this person chose to share with you that they’re getting divorced — “Thank you for sharing that.” — and then ask the kind question with no assumptions, “If you’re willing to say, how has that been going so far?” to demonstrate your support by learning what tone and response would be most helpful.

It is indeed possible the person IS sad about their separation, but please don’t assume until you hear the person’s own feelings about the situation. After all, it is their own life, and thus it is their right to interpret it in the way they see most fitting.

Reflecting on separation.
Reflecting on separation.

2. “I feel so bad for your kids having a broken home. Poor things!”

Shouting from the rooftops: please do not ever make a declaration about how awful the separation must be for the kids — and absolutely never say something like this in FRONT of the children, themselves. Let’s unpack why.

As explained above, divorce is extremely logistically, emotionally, and financially difficult. In the vast majority of cases, it is a path chosen for a series of very important and specific reasons, one of them often being that it will make life overall better for everyone involved — including the kids.

Therefore, by labeling a divorce “bad for kids” or “breaking the home,” you are implying that the parents are willfully choosing something that will harm their own children. This is a cruel, heartbreaking, and ignorant message, and helps no one.

In our case, my co-parent and I have worked diligently with counselors for months to make sure we have put every possible thing in place to support our children during the divorce transition, after having rigorously deduced, over a period of years, why the separation was necessary. Yes, there is sadness and difficulty for all of us that comes in waves — yet compared to the alternative, this is the best course of action.

Now, what possible good could come from directly telling a child, “It’s so sad that your parents are divorced and live separately?” As my friend’s son replied to the teacher who said this to him, “Sad? No, it’s not sad. My parents both love me, and I have two happy homes.”

What to Say Instead:

“Let me know if you want to schedule any play dates with the kids, or if you’d like to all come over for dinner soon. I’m happy to cook!”

If you’re worried about the kids, politely offer to help with childcare, cooking, or fun activities during the objectively difficult time of transition. A warm meal or play date is kindness; unwarranted judgment is not.

Golden light for the future.
Golden light for the future.

3. I’m SHOCKED! You seemed so normal/good/happy!

Yes, someone did really gasp to me, upon learning of my divorce proceedings, “But you seemed so normal!”

Normal?! What is normal? If you ask me, what is normal is each individual person having a complex life, much of which they don’t share with acquaintances.

Statements like, “I’m shocked,” or “I’m so upset to hear this,” serve to center your own feelings in the conversation, and can land painfully. They make the recipient feel like a freak in their own life, when in fact what they are most likely doing by divorcing is making an important and difficult choice, after careful consideration.

What to Say Instead:

“That can be such a big transition, but it sounds like you are doing what’s best for your family, and that’s so important.”

Acknowledge that the separation is a momentous decision that has been made with care and thought. Please center the experience, thoughts, and emotions of the individual sharing this personal information with you — not your own shock. There’s plenty of time to release your own feelings with your own support network.

Growing in new ways.
Growing in new ways.

4. “Is the divorce because of ___?”

You can conjecture all you want about the reasons behind a breakup, separation, or divorce, but the bottom line is that there was likely a good reason for moving apart — in fact, probably several good reasons bundled together — and that it has been building for many years. The other bottom line is that if you don’t know the reasons already, it is likely not appropriate to inquire about them.

What to Say Instead:

“I’m here to listen whenever you want.”

Do you have a right to know the reasons behind why another adult chooses a certain path? No. However, if you are truly interested in being a friend and support to the person, show up as kind and trustworthy through your words and actions over time, and you may well become a confidante.

I will add the caveat that if you’ve gone through a divorce or separation, yourself, it IS appropriate to share that information, because it demonstrates you have a level of background knowledge about the process that powerfully increases trust and affinity.

Walking a path forward.
Walking an important path forward.

5. “I bet you wish it turned out differently. You must have a lot of regrets.”

Speaking for myself: I have zero regrets. I am so thankful for everything experienced and learned in our decade of marriage — especially our two wonderful children! — and wouldn’t trade any of it. Saying something like, “You must have regrets,” or, “I’m sorry it got to that point,” negates the powerful growth that was gained in every step of the journey.

What to Say Instead:

“I wish you the best as you close that important chapter and start a wonderful new one.”

I’ve found it very helpful to see divorce as a transition from one rich chapter of life, into a powerful new chapter. Both are important chapters in the book of one’s life — just different.

Looking out over everything.
Looking out over everything.

6. “You should try just a little harder/longer to make your marriage work. Don’t quit and give up!”

In many cases, making the mental, emotional, and logistical decision to separate takes years. In Massachusetts, the legal aspects of getting divorced take, at minimum, ten months. Logistically, figuring out joint custody agreements, new living situations, and untangling all the bills and accounts and intertwined pieces takes… a loooong time.

This is all to reiterate that most people do not walk the path to separation mindlessly. Huge amounts of time and effort go into doing it, often with the support of trained professionals. In our case, I am forever thankful to the therapists, counselors, mediators, and cooperatively-trained lawyers who helped us make the best decision for our family, and to do it in a responsible, non-adversarial manner.

(If you or someone you know is looking for a qualified therapist to help, click here for my top tip on finding a therapist in MA who takes health insurance.)

Now, what about the concept of “quitting” or “giving up?” Listen: There comes a time to let go of certain things in life. As trainer Elise Joan explains by metaphor: Take a big deep breath in and hold it. That air is nourishing and healthy and good, right? But what would happen if you kept holding on to that inhalation past the time it needed to end? It’s vital to move on when a cycle is complete. Breathe!

What to Say Instead:

I’m going to paste in, below, the response from our children’s camp, the day I shared with them that we had just told our children about our separation:

“Thanks so much for sharing this update with us. We will be ready to hold any big feelings your kids may have this month, and are glad you all are moving your family through the shifts that you need. We are so happy to have your children with us this summer!”

This message from the camp made me tear up, because it was so perfectly compassionate and kind. I’m sharing it here in this section because I was particularly moved by how well it acknowledged that our family was making an informed, mindful decision that was for the best.

Thankful for good friends during this time.
Thankful for good friends during this time.

7. “Ugh — when my parents/friend/sister/etc. got divorced, it was awful for me/the kids/everyone.”

While most divorces are logistically difficult and emotionally fraught, the specific aspects of each vary wildly. Please do not project what happened in one divorce onto another, because in most cases, it’s comparing apples and oranges — or apples and baboons — since each separation situation is so different!

What to Say Instead:

“Ahh, that can be a lot to deal with! I saw some crazy stuff when my cousin got divorced, but your situation is very different, I’m sure. Sending you so much energy, and I’m here to talk if you ever want.”

It can be helpful to share with a divorcing friend that you’ve had personal experience with being around a divorce, but please make sure to clarify that you fully understand how different each relationship and separation is before juxtaposing them.

Rather than sharing unsolicited piles of wrenching details about the other divorce you witnessed, give a kind invitation for the other person to share more about their own situation, if they feel comfortable doing so. If, after you hear those details, it seems helpful to share more about the other divorce you witnessed, do so — but really focus on whether the information you’re about to share is HELPFUL.

Sunset on one chapter, and sunrise on another.
Sunset on one chapter, and sunrise on another.

8. “What about [minor logistical question]?”

Why is it a misguided idea to bring up minor logistical questions to someone who is in the process of divorcing? During the past year of dealing with divorce proceedings, I’ve experienced an often-debilitating brain fog, which made it difficult to think through or deal with many daily tasks — a symptom I’ve heard is quite common for such a massive life change. Things are better now (thank you, therapy, daily meditation, loved ones, and time!), but the reality is that the logistics and emotions of a divorce are so all-consuming, that details such as who will mow the lawn when become of lesser importance.

What to Say Instead:

“Ah, I know divorce can be a lot to manage! Would you like me to [insert task and time frame here] for you?”

Because of the brain fog that comes from such a big life change, it’s a great help to get assistance in tasks from kind people during divorce. Even better than vaguely saying, “Let me know if I can do anything,” is giving a specific task and timeframe suggestion. For example, “I’d love to mow the lawn for you this month to take that off your plate. Would you be ok with that?”

Here's to happiness and kindness!
Here’s to happiness and kindness!

What to say to someone getting a divorce, in sum

I hope this guide has been helpful in terms of what to say to someone going through a divorce, and what NOT to say. If you’ve had experience in this realm, what would you add to this list? Do share!

For a printable PDF of these “what to say about divorce” guidelines, click here for instructions to download. You can also read my whole collection of divorce stories here.

If you enjoyed these photos, check out more about Boston’s Arnold Arboretum in autumn.

 

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Cc

Saturday 12th of November 2022

This is clear, succinct, and helpful to all of us. I love the concrete examples of why the statement is not helpful, and what to say/do/think instead. Please consider formatting this as a PDF with full attributes, that can be downloaded and shared, including the beautiful pictures of the Arboretum.

Lillie Marshall

Tuesday 15th of November 2022

Hi CC -- the text-only version of the printable PDF is now available: https://drawingsof.com/product/divorce-what-to-say-pdf/ . Would you like me to make the photo one available as well?

Lillie Marshall

Saturday 12th of November 2022

Thanks so much! I’ll set up the PDF download and link it from here when done. Great idea!

Dave M.

Wednesday 9th of November 2022

Thanks for sharing this wisdom and practical advice! Sending love and support in your transition :)

Lillie Marshall

Wednesday 9th of November 2022

Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to leave a kind comment!

Mary

Tuesday 8th of November 2022

This is a great post - thank you for giving such clear and specific advice. I’ve recently been surprised by two people (different relationships) telling me they were getting divorced, and I blurted, “I’m sorry to hear that.” I understand that divorce is often the best option, so I amended to, “I’m sorry it got to that point.” I was trying to be compassionate while scrambling for the right thing to say, so thank you for the better examples.

Lillie Marshall

Tuesday 8th of November 2022

Glad to help! Yes, I would advise against any variation of, "I'm sorry," as it implies sadness. Further, "Sorry it got to that point" implies regret, and as I shared, I don't regret any part of the journey, because I learned so much in every step of the way -- and others may feel the same. Thanks for being open to the other suggestions for what to say!

Dierdre

Tuesday 8th of November 2022

Thank you for sharing. As SKP said it’s insightful not just for divorce but other life events. Definitely helps me reframe my mind around the situation.

Lillie Marshall

Tuesday 8th of November 2022

Thanks! May we reframe many things to better match the complexity of human life!

SKP

Tuesday 8th of November 2022

Thank you for sharing. This is very helpful not only for divorce but other situations involving the grief cycle. I find it is more helpful when a friend shows up with a cooler of sparkling water and juice boxes rather than 10 text messages asking what I need.

Lillie Marshall

Tuesday 8th of November 2022

Well put! Whether or not it's holistically sad, divorce is very much in the grief cycle because of what a life-rocking change it is. YES to just showing up with concrete help!

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