How Women Can Support One Another During Divorce
The night my marriage ended, like, for real emotionally ended, not legally ended, I left my house with two dogs and a toddler in tow. Taking the kiddo with me had been a given, and thus something I had planned for. We had a place to go, people that were expecting us, and snacks and cartoons to help him ease into his unexpected slumber party at our friends’ house.
The two canines I left with were a different story; not only had I not anticipated bringing them with me when I left, I managed to bounce from the marital home without anything for them beyond their leashes. Practically speaking, this translated into dropping my three year old off with my friends, then driving through the February night looking for buddies willing to take in my geriatric Labrador and a Pitbull puppy, friends who loved me enough to not only take in a dog or two on approximately zero minutes notice, but who would also go through the work of figuring out how to feed the monsters while I figured out the next steps of unraveling my life. You know, no big deal.
I had been pretty tight-lipped about the distress going down in my marriage, open with only a few very, very, very close friends who were unlikely to feel divided in a ‘his vs hers’ divorce division of friendships. Amongst the handful of friends who knew the details of what was going down were two women who were walking the same path I was, who had made the decision to leave marriages gone south and strike out for the unknown. Scratching my Pitbull behind the ears, I dialed one of their numbers. Within minutes, my Lab was greeted with open arms, treats, and the promise of kibble.
Meanwhile, a few blocks away, the friends who were hosting my son and I for the night had thrown up the Bat-signal to other close friends in the neighborhood. I called base to check in on the kid and was told to come back, that a crate had been tracked down and the puppy was welcome. By the time I had the car in park, neighbors were walking up the street with a massive dog crate to corral the puppy, and warm arms to wrap up a very rattled me.
The love, shelter, and kibble my family received that night taught me some incredibly powerful lessons about how to support women going through divorce. It’s hard to put into words the massive impact the very tactical, logistical-focused support, in addition to the hugs and warm words, made on me that evening. Knowing that other people would swoop in and help with the burdens ahead gave me a tremendous shot of courage to move forward. Here are the big lessons I learned from that evening, and the years that have followed as I built my New Normal:
1. Say “Yes, And”
Divorce is an emotional rollercoaster, yes, but it’s also a logistical nightmare. If you have a girlfriend going through the wringer, take a lesson from improv and say “Yes, And” every time she even hints at needing help. If she mentions that she’s going to have to juggle picking up her kid, a late-night meeting, and finding time to get toilet paper, Instacart that TP over to her house while you offer to pick up Jr. If she mentions feeling exhausted (which she is, by the way, even if she’s hiding it), offer to have her kids over for a playdate on Saturday so she can take a nap. “Yes, I can imagine you’re tired! And, I’m going to swing by Saturday to get the kids for a playdate!”
Take initiative. Your girl’s nervous system is fried. She may have a hard time articulating what she needs—- hell, she may not even know what she needs! When she looks or sounds frazzled, acknowledge her feelings— Yes! I hear you!— then add an “and here’s how I’m gonna help!”
2. Help keep track of the “little things”
I bounced around for about a week while finding a townhouse to rent and sorting through my emotions about filing for a separation vs. a full-blown divorce. In that time, my brain was shot and I was doing everything I could to keep track of the details for my kid’s school minutia. As my host friend and I were bathing our toddlers together, cracking jokes to keep things light, my phone pinged with a reminder for “100th Day of School” celebration the next day. Oh, F-my-Pinterest-mother-loving mind I thought. Like any self-respecting overachieving mom, I took to the internet to try to come up with a last-minute hack to send my kid to school appropriately donned to celebrate the 100th day of PreK. The Interwebs were chock full of great ideas, all of which required a Martha Stewart level effort that I simply didn’t have the energy to muster. I shook my head and shook it off. My 3yo was not going to remember the day when he was a college freshman, so I could write myself a pass for not remembering it during this very crazy week.
I woke up the next morning to my friend cooking breakfast for me and our respective preschoolers and was greeted not only to coffee but to a shirt for my son, perfectly puff painted with a caterpillar with a 100-segmented body, and the words “I inched my way through 100 days”. Up to that moment, I had not had a true snot dripping ugly cry about the events that had unfolded since the night I left. I had been relatively composed, focused on details and keeping things smooth and light for my son. The sight of that puffy painted insect broke the dam. I turned from the kids, and buried my sobbing face in my hands, my shoulders shaking with the enormity of the love my community was pouring over my son and I (and our dogs!). My friend wrapped me up in her arms and said “Your son is not going to miss out on anything because of this. We are not going to let him.” Her actions, her attention to detail, and the love she showed in helping me keep track of the minutia of kid-rearing in the midst of chaos is kindness I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
3. Offer physical space
I am not going to waste word count explaining the importance of offering gal pals a place to stay. Even if they don’t need it— or you think they don’t— the offer will mean the world to them.
An important caveat: Don’t make the offer unless you are prepared to follow through on it. If you can’t host, there are tons of other ways to pitch in. Having to reconfigure plans if having a place to stay falls through can be beyond stressful, and strain friendships. Offer help that you can follow through on, and know that other folks will help out in ways you can’t. It takes a village. You aren’t the only villager.
4. Pick up the tab, if you’re in a place to do so
Sometimes a girl just needs a night out. But lawyers’ fees, moving expenses, and all the rest of divorce-related crap cost a ton of money. If you’re in a position to take a girlfriend out for happy hour, treat her. Half-price pinot can go a long way in making a lady feel fancy!
5. Be okay hearing the messy details
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but divorce is not a pretty situation. In some cases, things are amicable and parties go their separate ways with minimal fuss. As a professional Divorce Coach in a family law firm, I will say in my most hoity-toity “trust me I’m a professional” voice, that THIS IS NOT GENERALLY THE CASE! So, with this in mind, make it known that you are a safe person to vent to. This is not just an “I’m here for you let it all out” invitation. Anyone can do that. A truly supportive friend is a listening ear and a tight lip! Make it clear that whatever is shared with you goes no further, and then stick to that promise. Close groups of friends share information, naturally. But this sharing, even when done out of concern, can cause stress for a woman trying to keep track of who knows what details. Make it clear to your girlfriend that you are a “black hole” friend— what comes in will never leave. You can be a safe person and can be trusted to keep whatever is shared in strict confidence. If this is a promise you can’t make, be candid. Say “I’m afraid I’ll share too many details with our close friends, we’re all so worried”. Be clear that you’re here to offer love in other ways (puffy paint, anyone?). A betrayal by oversharing is heartache your gal doesn’t need.
No matter how you offer support, know that any act of loving kindness will seem huge to your friend. Yes, love is hot tea and a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on. But love is also sofa cushions arranged on a wooden floor, next to a spare crib set up for your scared toddler. It’s holding your purse and sending you tight-lipped smiles from the back of the Courtroom while you try to hold it together testifying against the person you thought would be your Forever.
Sometimes love looks like a glass of wine and tear stains on the cocktail napkin. Sometimes it’s a battery of texts with question marks from your girls following the hot date you had planned with your latest Bumble interest. It’s shooting straight and giving tough talks about safe sex; reminders that you may need if the last time you went on a first date was a solid few decades ago. It’s laughing and trying on cocktail dresses at Goodwill to help you prep for your re-entrance into the dating world.
Love is what your friend needs right now. Chances are, you’re already giving her what she needs.