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If you’ve ever had a friend or colleague go through a divorce, you’ve probably found yourself searching for the right thing to say. The problem, though? Your well-intentioned response might be received as hurtful rather than encouraging.
To help, we’ve reached out to relationship experts to help better frame these difficult conversations. They’ve shared with us the things you should never, ever say to a friend going through a divorce, as well as some better responses. Here’s their expert advice.
1. “I know exactly what you’re going through.”
Sure, you may have gone through a divorce yourself, but it’s important to realize you and your friend each have different situations, exes and emotions, says Christina Hibbert, Psy.D., clinical psychologist and author of “Who Am I Without You?” When you say this, it can make the other person’s experience feel minimized or discounted, Hibbert explains.
Say this instead: Hibbert suggests saying something such as “I understand what you are saying” or “I can empathize with what you’re experiencing, and it is so hard.” You can also remind your friend you are there for him or her.
2. “Move on, there are other fish in the sea.”
Trying to force someone to move on before they’ve had a chance to feel, understand and grieve the loss of their marriage is always a bad idea, Hibbert says.
“There is much healing that needs to take place before a new relationship has a chance of working out, including working on damaged self-esteem,” Hibbert says. “These things take time—as much time as your friend needs.”
Do this instead: Simply allow your friend to be where he or she is, and simply be there for him or her, Hibbert says.
3. “Well, you weren’t happy anyway.”
It doesn’t matter whether your friend was happy or not in the marriage, says Ebony Butler, PhD, a psychologist and wellness expert. Many people still experience grief during and after divorce.
Say this instead: Butler suggests asking your friend if there is anything in the situation that they find peace with. You can also ask your friend how he or she is doing with the changes, she says.
4. “Just pray about it.”
Many people assume that those going through divorce haven’t prayed about their relationship prior to the point of divorce, Butler says.
“Sometimes, people have prayed so much, and the divorce still happened,” she says. Also, your friend may not share your religious or spiritual beliefs.
Do this instead: Offer to help your friend feel better or get to a better mental space. Don’t assume religious or spiritual advice is important to them, Butler says. If you sense it is, though, ask first before offering any religious advice.
5. “I never liked that jerk anyway”
Never verbally trash your friend’s spouse, whether they deserve it or not, advises Robyn King, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. That includes saying other things like “he’s such a loser” or “good riddance.”
“Even though it sounds like you’re supporting and being loyal to your friend, you’re actually disrespecting the person your friend is married to,” King says. “She can say whatever she wants, but you must bite your tongue because these kinds of of put-downs can come back to bite you later, should your friend and her spouse reconcile.”
Do this instead: Listen to your friend without judgment, says King. Validate how she’s feeling. You can do this with expressions like “It’s normal to feel that way.”
King also suggests asking your friend what she needs from you. Maybe that’s just listening, or perhaps it’s helping—which could be in the form of problem-solving, finding a counselor or running some errands for her.
6. “You have to go through the stages of grief.”
People may grieve a marriage while they are still in it, and plan accordingly, points out Nicki Nance, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist and an associate professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla.
“By the time they file for a divorce, they are well into acceptance,” Nance says.
Do this instead: Be a friend, not a counselor, Nance suggests. “Accept whatever feeling they are expressing in the moment, and assure them that they are normal, no matter how crazy they feel.”