By seeking to understand the reason and purpose behind an affair, both the betrayed and the betrayer can approach healing — and even redemption — with insight and wisdom.
And that’s true regardless of whether or not they stay together.
How infidelity changes you depends not only on who you and your spouse are heading into the affair, but who you are committed to becoming once the affair is exposed.
No matter what circumstances led to the affair, no one in its wake will be left unscathed. Yes, that goes for the cheater, too.
Again, there are always reasons — not excuses — and a purpose behind the unfaithful spouse’s choice to stray. But “once a cheater always a cheater” doesn’t have to be part of the aftermath.
If you have been betrayed by your spouse, you can probably imagine how infidelity changes you. You may already be living it.
If you are the betrayer, you may not have thought about the impact on your spouse and family. And you may not have even considered the lasting effects on your own life.
The effects of infidelity run the gamut from emotional to physical to neurological. The agony isn’t just in your head; it’s in your body.
Let’s first look at how infidelity changes you if you were betrayed.
Your self-esteem and self-worth are shattered.
You wonder why you weren’t “good enough”...and why someone else was “better.” Because your self-esteem is destroyed, you start looking for ways that you caused your spouse to stray. Surely it must have been something you did (or didn’t do).
You feel stupid...and wonder how you didn’t see the affair.
Trust is never quite the same again.
The affair is always in the back of your mind. And even if you stay together, trust isn’t as unencumbered and naturally given as it once was.
You’re afraid to love again.
The prospect of either falling in love again with someone else or staying with your spouse is frightening. You never want to give your power to someone again.
Because you become afraid to let your guard down, the world becomes a less happy and promising place in which to live. Holding onto the notion of love is a challenge because you now associate it with unbearable pain.
Your brain takes a beating.
Neuroscience has shown that the rejection from infidelity has both short- and long-term consequences to brain chemistry. Because love is actually as addictive to the brain as cocaine, being cut off by the dagger of infidelity impacts the addictive neural pathways in similar ways.
You physically hurt.
Referring to the same neuroscience, breakups and betrayals activate parts of the brain that respond to physical discomfort. The emotional experience becomes integrated into the physical experience, and you hurt...everywhere.
You can’t stop obsessing.
Women are especially prone to rumination, constantly replaying all the possible causes, scenarios and consequences of the affair. They are also more inclined than men to feel somehow responsible for a spouse’s infidelity.
Your eyes are opened.
Despite how infidelity changes you negatively, it also affords you clarity after the shock and anger are mitigated. You begin to see what you may have ignored, and learn how you make choices in mates. This allows you to make better choices if and when the time comes to trust again.
Now let’s look at effects of infidelity on the spouse who is the betrayer.
At some point, most, if not all of the people in your life catch on to what is happening. You have failed to protect and defend the very values you swore to honor, and everyone knows. Even people who don’t know you seem to know. And God forbid the news hits social media.
Your spouse has permanent ammunition against you.
No matter your reasons for straying or your efforts toward penance, you will always be “the one who cheated.” Your spouse may use that sin as a dumping ground for everything involving blame, anger, judgment and abuse.
Your children may blame you.
Children will not know how to properly process their fears and sense of loss without professional help, especially if they know something damning about one or both parents. Even as adults, they may reach back and blame you for their own choices or unfulfilled lives.
You can’t trust others to be loyal to you.
As you try to balance your ability to cheat on your spouse against what you know to be a personal core of goodness, you have to face the irony. If you are capable of doing something so unthinkable, what’s to keep someone else from doing the same to you?
Everything you do is questioned.
You know you can’t blame your spouse for not trusting you, but you also can’t live forever under a microscope. Short of having a spouse-appointed chaperone, you will always have the company of “who, what, where, when and why.”
If you and your spouse decide to work on your marriage, you will have to be painfully, humbly transparent while your spouse inches toward a new kind of trust. And that means answering a lot of questions.
You lose credibility.
You may do a lot of soul-searching to answer for your infidelity and take responsibility for it; but there will always be those who resort to the “once a cheater always a cheater” conclusion.
Your confidence may get a boost.
During the affair, that is. After all, neuroscience reminds us that people who are addicted are seeking a dopamine rush. And settling into a long marriage isn’t known for those feel-good jolts.
An affair, on the other hand, can reawaken the confidence that comes from a dopamine rush. As with an addiction, however, that confidence can easily come crashing down in a pile of guilt. And that guilt can play a huge role in your attitudes and behaviors going forward.
That’s not to say, obviously, that infidelity is a viable consideration for marital improvement and personal growth. But recognizing the many ways that infidelity can change you can help both spouses in the painful aftermath of an affair.
And, hopefully, having the awareness up front will take the consideration of infidelity off the table altogether.
I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a divorce and life coach. I can help you understand more about how infidelity changes you so you can move forward with your life. You can join my newsletter list for free weekly advice.
Looking for more information about the repercussions of cheating? You’ll find what you’re looking for in Surviving Infidelity.
Saving an unhappy marriage takes tremendous commit & a willingness to work hard on your own issues.
The bliss of “dating/engagement/wedding” is hardly a trustworthy predictor of a marriage’s success post-Honeymoon Phase. Saving an unhappy marriage may not be on a wedding-day radar, but it sometimes becomes the unexpected goal not too far into the marriage.
Anyone who has ever aspired to grow-old-together love has witnessed at least one iconic couple so interwoven at a soul level that the partners are veritably “one.” They speak and move in unison, respond with impeccable timing, and somehow, inexplicably, look alike.
The deeply-entrenched love of elderly couples who have been together almost their entire lives can be so inextricable that the spouses can’t live without one another. Literally. The stories of spouses dying within months, weeks, even hours of one another are so poignantly common that they have their own name: the widowhood effect.
Whether these beacons of hope are grandparents, friends or movie characters, their mastery of commitment gives witnesses pause to consider their “tricks.”
Were they always this happy? Did they ever fall on tough times? Did they ever get bored or angry with one another? And did they ever have to worry about saving an unhappy marriage?
Relationships are organic in the sense that they are always in motion. Even stagnancy bears an undertow of change. Love relationships course through different forms of love. Many are to be expected – the giddy stage of romance, the power-struggle stage, the sunset years.
Most couples, however, commit during the romantic stage of love when they are marinating in matchmaking brain chemicals and hormones. They see all that is perfect and possible, and brush off the negatives like dandruff off a shoulder.
Give them a couple years, however, and that chemistry starts to wane. Suddenly reality sets in, and, even if the spouses aren’t incompatible, they don’t “recognize” their relationship. It doesn’t look or feel as it did early in their relationship.
They have power struggles, and the discomfort is often mistaken for unhappiness and/or boredom. They fight to “get back to where they once were” instead of embracing the course of love and working together to keep it vital.
Suddenly they are second-guessing their decision to marry and wondering if it is worth saving an unhappy marriage. Because they don’t recognize where they are in their relationship, they may be convinced there is nothing to do to save the marriage. And not having the “feeling of being in love” can cast a dread on the prospect of working on their commitment.
Some couples, of course, allow years to go by while negative emotions fester and morph into contempt, criticism and defensiveness. According to marriage expert Dr. John Gottman, couples wait an average of six years before seeking help for their issues. Perhaps one or both partners believes they shouldn’t (or don’t) need help at all.
So the big question is:Is saving an unhappy marriage possible? And if so, how?
The answer is a cautious “yes.” The caution is because the success of saving a marriage is contingent on the commitment of the partners to...well...save their commitment. Surprisingly, if even one person in the relationship is committed to growth, change and working together, there can be great hope for the marriage.
Here are 7 strategies for saving an unhappy marriage:
Seek help early.
Don’t wait for those negative emotions and behaviors to take root. It is far easier to guide couples in developing compassionate communication skills than it is to untangle resentment that has had plenty of time to deepen.
Learn to listen.
This is so important no matter how silly it sounds. It is so easy when falling in love to hear what you want to hear, and to move forward in the spirit of everything being rosy.
But too often people don’t know how to truly listen – to themselves or to their spouses. They get lost in blame and a need to be right, and fail to hear with their hearts.
Everyone has triggers, fears, and painful memories. By learning to communicate those deeper realities with responsible expression and compassionate reception, intimacy and love grow. Too many relationships are lost simply because people don’t feel heard.
Prioritize your marriage.
Saving an unhappy marriage takes work. And making that investment can seem like a contradiction in terms if one or both of you is really
But if you are committed to making your marriage work, you will need to infuse it with dedicated time and energy. Even ten minutes a day that are completely devoted to emotionally connecting with your spouse can work wonders. Remember the power of listening discussed above.
Replace the “divorce” mindset with a “marriage” mindset.
This is a decision that you are going to choose your thoughts.
Remember that you didn’t get to this place overnight, and you’re not going to get out of it overnight, either. Take the time to rediscover the reasons you got married in the first place. And repeat them and expand on them...over and over. As you work from this commitment mindset, you will likely discover new reasons to add to the list.
Work on yourself with no expectations of your spouse.
Yes, the objective here is for both spouses to be committed to the recovery of the marriage. But your work can’t be contingent on your spouse’s. That may seem like a big risk – and it is. “What if I do xyz, and s/he doesn’t do her/his part?” Yep. Could happen. Or maybe you won’t both evolve or “get it” at the same time.
But if the character and behavior traits you are working on are all positive traits, how can you lose? And if you start growing and demonstrating the results, your spouse may take notice and begin to change, as well. Either way...do your own work.
This can be so difficult, especially if your spouse has done something that you believe is more egregious than anything you have done. But relationships are always a common ground where two people come to work out their lives by learning, struggling and growing.
There is always responsibility on both sides. Owning up to yours will help to diffuse defensiveness on the other side while sharpening your self-awareness and -accountability. That goes for the little things as well as the big things.
Be transparent and accountable.
Leave your pride at the door. Transparency and accountability require self-reflection and an examination of your thoughts, behaviors and intentions. There is no room for convenient omissions of details and information.
Your goal needs to be bringing you and your spouse onto the same page. Your intentions, therefore, need to be pure and for the good of the relationship. Your personal commitment to this – especially if you have violated your spouse’s trust – will speak volumes about your commitment to the good of your relationship going forward.
Saving an unhappy marriage is a commitment to a lot of hard work. But assuming that the marriage is not abusive and you can still see through the clouds misery to the memory of loving light coming through, there is hope.
Seeking help for saving an unhappy marriage can help define areas that need work, while giving you tools for working on them. It’s amazing how the “impossible” becomes “possible” when problems are identified and a plan of action is made to overcome them.
I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a life and divorce coach helping people just like you who are looking for advice and support about how best to handle an unhappy marriage. You can join my newsletter list for free weekly advice. If you’re interested in working with me personally, you can schedule a FREE 30-minute conversation with me in my Time Trade calendar.
Looking for more ideas for what to do about your unhappy marriage? You’ll find what you’re looking for in Unhappy Marriage.
Co-parenting without power struggles is more than a nice idea. It’s a must for your kid’s happiness.
Power struggles are often one of the reasons people divorce. But when children are involved, that push-and-pull has to stop.
Co-parenting without power struggles is more than just a nice idea. It’s something that has to happen if your children are going to survive the family break-up with any sort of normalcy and healthy development.
Ideally, co-parents approach the arrangement as an equal partnership in raising their children. Both adults contribute financially, emotionally, and with physical presence. They abide by their divorce and custody decree, communicate openly and civilly, and leave onlookers wondering why they ever divorced in the first place.
But the picture is rarely painted in such bright, unicorns-and-rainbows colors. More often than not, divorced co-parents are hanging onto unresolved marital issues. And insofar as they have to stay connected because of the kids, they battle the remaining issues out on the parenting field.
Common experiences of single co-parents include:
lack of consistency
power struggles and power plays
jealousy over an ex’s new love interest
financial irresponsibility and/or one-sidedness
differences in parenting values
disparagement of one parent by the other to the children
Co-parenting without power struggles may seem like a tall order after looking at that list. And in reality, it is -- if only in the sense that it calls upon adults to...well...act as adults. No matter what their “adult” issues are, their children have to come first. Unequivocally. Non-negotiably.
And in that regard -- assuming that both parents are wholeheartedly committed to the highest good of their children -- divorce can actually evoke the best in two people who couldn’t be the best of themselves in their marriage.
But what if only one parent is committed to co-parenting without power struggles? How is it possible to achieve a two-sided effort when only one parent is onboard?
No matter what, children learn from and emulate the behavior of adults, and especially their parents. Even if only one parent is aware and willing to behave as a responsible co-parent, the children can still benefit in their formative and longitudinal development.
The ability to co-parent without power struggles assumes that the situation is not impaired by an unfit parent, parental alienation, or an uncooperative/unreliable/controlling parent.
Even if there are acrimonious feelings left over from your marriage, as parents you can still rise above yourselves and focus on being good parents who cooperate for the welfare of your kids.
Below are 10 tips for co-parenting without power struggles:
You can’t change your ex.
If you could, you probably wouldn’t have divorced. The only person you can control and/or change is yourself. So keep your side of the street clean, be an example of responsible behavior to your ex and kids, and keep your focus where you actually have control.
Keep the marriage out of parenting.
You’re not married to one another anymore, so don’t drag your unresolved issues into what remains: parenting your children.
Find a counselor, talk with friends, do what you have to do to get to a tolerable acceptance of your marital issues. But keep it away from your kids, and commit to providing a united front for their good.
Focus on your kids’ needs, not your own.
Obviously, you have to honor yourself and practice self-care in order to be a healthy parent. But in terms of co-parenting, the litmus test of all decisions, both individual and collective, ultimately comes down to the needs of the children. Not their wants, necessarily, but their needs and highest good.
Never fight in front of the kids.
Never speak negatively about the other parent in front of the kids.
Instead of risking a he-said-she-said fallout when your ex shows up late for the umpteenth time, or skips a child support payment, or conveniently forgets an agreement, keep a record.
This doesn’t have to be something that is spiteful or intended to be held against your ex. It’s just a lot easier to prove your case or resolve an issue with receipts, timestamps of phone calls, etc. If everyone is holding up his/her end of the deal, all that proof can collect dust somewhere. But at least it’s available.
Choose your battles.
Remember that good parenting, like anything else, exists on a continuum. Just because two people do things differently doesn’t mean one is “right” and one is “wrong,” or that one is “good” and one is “bad.”
Embrace those differences that broaden your child’s perspectives and life experiences, and learn to let little things go if they aren’t detrimental and habitual. And most importantly, be aware of whether or not you are involved in a power struggle, and do your part to bring the focus back to the kids.
It takes a village -- it really does -- so always be building one. Don’t rely solely on the other parent. Both of you should have a support system that cares about you and your children, and on whom you can rely.
Establish fair boundaries.
It’s only natural that single parents are going to miss their children when they go with the other parent -- especially early in the divorce. But remember that a break-up is devastating to children on countless levels, and their closest sense of “family” is having a healthy relationship with both parents.
Both parents need their children, and children need both their parents. Be kind to your ex (and generous with visitation) and you will inevitably be kind to your children.
Be an example.
It can be so difficult to be responsible and reliable when you feel alone as a do-gooder. But co-parenting without power struggles depends on each and both co-parents being self-aware and self-accountable, even when the task seems more one-sided than fair.
In those moments when you want to scream, “Why should I...when you don’t…?” remember who is watching...and learning. That’s who needs to witness the example you set.
Divorce is hard enough, especially when two people part with stewing, unresolved bitterness. Having to co-parent children can feel like a test of your already stomped-on spirit. You may not want to share the same planet with your ex, let alone what you love most -- your children.
But by shifting your perspective, you can actually embrace co-parenting -- without power struggles -- as an opportunity to ensure that your children grow up happy and healthy, reflecting the best qualities of both their parents.
Few things are as rending to love, let alone marriage, than the scourge of infidelity. But besides the jilted spouse, who does infidelity affect?
There is no question that infidelity undermines the very foundation of committed love. It wipes out trust and replaces it with shame, embarrassment, anger, depression, and often irrevocable loss of intimacy.
When a spouse cheats, the question of “Who does infidelity affect?” is rarely the frame of reference for the choice to stray.
Being self-consumed with one’s own needs and/or lack of fulfillment in the marriage can blind one to the harm done to others. It can even blind one to the long-term harm to oneself.
Who does infidelity affect? It affects far more than you would think, including family and friends close to the marriage.
But the most sensitive barometers of change, especially change that “doesn’t feel right,” are children.
They may not have finely honed communication skills or the authority to make life decisions, but children are incredibly perceptive. And what they perceive becomes formative in their neurological and emotional development.
The emotional reaction to parental infidelity is similar to the reaction to parental divorce...except deeper, and with potentially more enduring scars.
Infidelity affects the entire family. For children, it undermines their entire construct of who their parents are as people.
While divorce is devastating for children, it doesn’t necessarily carry with it the loss of trust that parental infidelity does.
Infidelity creates a feeling of betrayal in children, even when they don’t know what’s happening. They are acutely intuitive, and can tell when a parent’s emotional energy is being directed outside the family.
The question “Who does infidelity affect?” is incomplete without considering how it affects those in its wake.
For children, subtle changes are unsettling, and can leave them feeling anxious, frightened and rejected, and even blaming themselves. “Did I do something wrong?” “Doesn’t Daddy love us anymore?” “Is Mommy mad at me?”
The child who suddenly doesn’t have a parent’s attention, or is privy to hushed phone calls and other unusual behaviors, can develop an array of anxious behaviors.
Clinging, thumb-sucking, temper-tantrums and night terrors can all signal the child’s deep-rooted fear of losing his or her family according to family therapist Dr. Pittman.
Older children, beset by anger and/or a sense of betrayal, may react by acting out. Angry outbursts, underperforming at school, disregard for rules, disrespect when communicating with adults – even if they are not “in” on the truth, they will respond to their own perception of it.
Perhaps the most telling longitudinal effects of infidelity on children have to do with how they come to view future relationships.
Despite believing infidelity to be wrong, children of unfaithful marriages will tend to be unfaithful themselves. It’s as if the behavior is “handed down.”
Interestingly, the responses of children tend to be unique to the gender of the cheating parent.
When the father cheats, sons seem to “inherit” the behavior, and are more prone to cheat themselves. Daughters tend to grow up unsure of themselves and relationships, with an undercurrent of anger toward men.
When it is the mother who cheats, children are in danger of losing their confidence in the entire concept of marriage and family. (A reflection, no doubt, of the long-held perception of mother as foundational to “home.”)
Some of the consequences of infidelity for adults on both sides of the wound include guilt, shame and embarrassment. Even the person cheated on may feel displaced guilt, wondering if s/he somehow “caused” the cheating spouse to stray.
Both parties are likely to feel shame and embarrassment — albeit for different reasons — that this is happening to their marriage and family.
Infidelity is a lonely and isolating existence. The hiding, secrecy and looking-over-one’s shoulder are exhausting, to say the least.
And for both the offending and offended parties, the inevitable separation from friends and family in order to maintain the dark secret can breed depression and diminished self-esteem.
Even if a couple decides to stay together through and after the infidelity, there is inevitable loss of trust and intimacy. Something sacred to the marriage has been shared elsewhere, and that violation can impart irrevocable damage to a couple’s ability to restore intimacy.
This doesn’t mean that healing isn’t possible, or that building a stronger-than-before relationship is out of the question. But that outcome is the result of both parties being willing, determined and committed to save their marriage at all costs.
When the depth of betrayal and emotional pain are just too much, divorce is often the end result. And when that happens, the question of “Who does infidelity affect?” morphs into the question of “What are the effects of divorce after infidelity?”
When considering the effects of infidelity, there is one person who is often disregarded: the person outside the marriage who participated in the infidelity. It can be easy to dump the blame and ensuing disdain onto this “intruder,” as if s/he accomplished the affair single-handedly.
Whether “the other person” is single or married, s/he is just as affected by the infidelity. And at no time is that more starkly evident than if and when the partner in the affair decides to end it and return to his/her marriage.
Even if the partner ends the marriage, ending the affair leaves “the other person” to recover from an unconventional break-up. And if that person is married, as well, but was placing future hopes on the “other” relationship, there will be another family struggling to heal for reasons that are the same but different.
Infidelity doesn’t “just happen” any more than marriages “just end.”
There are always underlying signals and contributors, even if rooted in family-of-origin issues. And it certainly doesn’t exist in a fantasy-filled vacuum. Its most dramatic effects may be experienced in the gut-wrenching present; but its unpredicted, unseen effects may be most telling years ahead...when a child is left to make choices out of life lessons.
I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a divorce and life coach. I help people navigate the repercussions of infidelity and make the best decision about the future of their marriage. You can join my newsletter list for free weekly advice. If you want to learn more about working with me, schedule a FREE 30-minute conversation in my Time Trade calendar.
Looking for more information about the repercussions of cheating? You’ll find what you’re looking for in Surviving Infidelity.
Despite how overwhelming your grief is now, you can make your way through it and feel better again.
Dealing with the difficult process of grieving a failed marriage is one of the most traumatic life experiences you’ll ever undertake. Your grieving will begin long before you ever get to the divorce decree and will probably last well beyond it too.
Yet the difficult process doesn’t mean there aren’t things to do when dealing with grief before, during and after divorce.
You don’t have to remain mired in your misery over the end of your marriage and the life you knew. There are things you can do to help you heal and move through your heartache, so you can feel better.
In fact, here are seven things to do when dealing with grief to help you heal:
You won’t necessarily go through all of the stages in the same order as someone else. However, the knowledge you gain by this research will help you know that what you’re experiencing is normal and allow you to focus less on fear and more on feeling better.
Learn from the experience of others
There will be times when the heartache you’re experiencing is overwhelming. And one of the most soothing things to do when dealing with grief is to remember that although everyone’s divorce experience is different, the pain that it causes is similar. Hearing other people’s experience of divorce is incredibly comforting because you’ll immediately know you’re not alone in your pain.
The easiest ways to learn about other people’s divorce stories is by reading about them online, joining a divorce support group and/or making an appointment with a therapist or divorce coach who has personally experienced divorce.
Keep a journal
People experience the stages of grief in different orders, and some people skip a step or two altogether. Keeping track of your journey through the stages of grief is another thing to do when dealing with grief from divorce. This practice can help you understand how far you’ve come and mentally prepare you for what lies ahead.
Speak to friends and family who love you
Have honest and open discussions about what you’re experiencing as you heal from your divorce with the people close to you. Talking about your feelings can help them understand not only what you’re going through, but also how they can best support you.
Be kind to yourself
Divorce is traumatic and recovering from your heartbreak won’t be cut and dried. Before you come out on the other side of your divorce grief you’ll do an awkward dance of “one step forward and ten steps back.” So, know that when you do take a step or two back every once in a while, it is a normal part of the healing process.
Giving yourself some slack is one of the most important things to do when dealing with grief about divorce.
Exercise, fuel your body, and rest
Your physical well-being is largely influenced by your emotional state. Eating enough healthy food, getting enough rest and exercising regularly are basic requirements for dealing with any kind of grief.
However, it’s important that strike the right balance for you. It is possible to overdo and underdo caring for your physical well-being when you’re dealing with the heartbreak of divorce. Pay attention to what your body needs in addition to how you feel emotionally and you’ll find your way to best caring for yourself.
Run with the lessons you have learned
Another useful thing to do while dealing with the grief of divorce is pausing to assess what you’re learning about yourself. When you do, you’re likely to realize that you have emotional strengths you couldn’t have imagined at the beginning of your divorce journey – before you had to survive the hurt, anger, despair and fear.
It does get better! I’ve done it and every one of my clients has done it too.
Doing everything you can to deal with the excruciating pain of divorce may not be glamorous and may involve a lot of ugly crying, but there is a reward for all your efforts.
For surviving one of the most brutal processes possible, you’ll be awarded the qualities of acceptance and hope. You’ll slowly regain interest in your life and accept that the one you’ve been grieving will make way for a different life that is at least as fulfilling as the one you’ve said goodbye to.
Every experience in our lives leaves its mark. You can utilize the negative experience of your divorce to leave a positive mark on the rest of your life.
These 8 suggestions will help you know how to help your friends dealing with grief about divorce.
Many of us struggle to know how to help friends dealing with grief over death. Knowing how to help friends dealing with grief over divorce can be even more challenging. And yet, while the circumstances of the loss may be different, the compassion called for is the same.
Advice on going through the grief process of divorce usually starts with defining the grief process itself. And whether the griever is mourning the loss of a life or the loss of a love, the stages are still basically the same.
Divorce, like death, has effects that ripple outward like a pebble thrown into still water. You expect the disruption to the immediate family, but there is always a broader circle that feels the effects. Those on the outskirts of the divorce experience their own loss and shift in normalcy, and these can affect their responses to those divorcing.
Knowing how to help friends dealing with grief over divorce can be tricky if you let your own feelings or judgments get in the way. It is common to intellectualize a divorcing friend’s emotions, or to try to make the friend happy or distracted from them.
It is only natural to want those we care about to be happy. But, as the saying goes, there is a time and place for everything. And that includes emotions.
In the early stages of a divorce, it’s important -- even necessary -- for a person to feel his or her emotions. The pain may be guttural, the talking may be erratic, the strength of emotions may seem alarming. But the emotions need to be felt if there is going to be healing and progress.
And that means you may have to do some introspection if you are going to know how to help friends dealing with grief over divorce. If you are uncomfortable with their emotional state, you are likely connecting their emotional state to your own. And doing so will only lead to more resistance, distraction, and ultimately the persistence of the emotions.
Your job as a friend is to provide a place for your grieving friend to simply, safely be. Chances are your grieving friend is already questioning his or her own worth, feelings, behaviors and choices. Having a no-judgment zone is a remarkable gift that can be a saving grace during a deeply painful time.
Here are suggestions – both do’s and don’t’s – for how to help friends dealing with grief over divorce:
Listen, listen, listen.
People who are grieving are winding through multiple emotional stages all at once. And they often can’t make heads or tails of what is going on inside their hearts and minds at any given moment.
Being able to tell their stories, albeit over and over, helps them to process their experiences in the context of their feelings. And being able to hear themselves while a trusted friend hears them as well is incredibly validating and clarifying.
As a listener, your job is to offer a sympathetic, empathetic, non-judgmental ear. You are not there to fix things. You are there to be a safe place for your friend to be heard at a time when the rest of his or her world seems to be vanishing.
Hold off on the pep talks.
It takes a lot of self-control to pull back on the desire to lift a friend’s spirits with laughter and hopeful “-isms.” It also takes very clear and intact boundaries.
Remember that it is not your job to ensure your friend’s happiness. It is an incredible act of friendship to remain undaunted in the presence of someone who is emoting from a place of suffering.
And it is an even greater expression of selflessness to allow that person the dignity of arriving at and owning conclusions on his or her own.
Be patient and supportive.
Avoid placing timelines on your friend’s emotions or conditions on his or her decisions. Separations and divorces can be complicated and full of surprises, including changes of heart.
Instead of shaking your head or rolling your eyes behind your friend’s back when the process isn’t linear, look into his or her eyes and say, “I am here for you, and I will continue to be here for you, no matter what, no matter when.”
People going through break-ups need to have the freedom to explore their options without worrying that their support systems come with a list of conditions.
Learn about the divorce process.
What an amazing expression of support and solidarity it is to learn, on your own time, about what a friend is going through! Imagine what it would be like to receive a terrible medical diagnosis and realize that your friends were busy researching it and exploring options on your behalf.
Learn enough so that you can be helpful and insightful when warranted, and enlightened and supportive throughout.
Reassure them of your love.
You may think the “love you” that closed your phone call the night before would be enough to hold someone over for a while. But there are times when “more is more.”
Those grieving over divorce are often starved for love, and often question their own lovability. The simple reassurance of that you love them as they are is a gift that is never forgotten. And what more impactful time to bestow that gift than when your friend has just done an “ugly cry” or spewed a litany of anger over his or her ex?
Anticipate the pain to come...and be there.
Divorces that involve children have another level of agony to them. And once the exhaustive proceedings have come to a close and the “new normal” has been decided upon, there is that first feared day when it has to go into effect.
Children can’t be two places at once, so either each parent is going to feel a sinking loss the day the children walk out the door to go with the other parent.
One of the most compassionate gestures you can make is to anticipate that pain...and be there to help your friend through it. Plan something to do together for the first several times the children are with the other parent. Watch a game together, have a grown-up slumber party, cook dinner together, go to a support group together. Just. Be. There.
Help with the chores.
Few people will have the courage to ask their friends for help around the house. And yet, for a newly divorced parent -- especially one re-entering the job market for the first time in years -- the day-to-day list of things to do can be exhaustive.
It’s always a telling sign of empathy and true friendship when someone is willing to do the behind-the-scenes grunt work that ultimately helps the most during times of illness, change or grief.
You can even choose to make a fun event of it. “Hey! While the kids are away this weekend, how about we order in, watch movies, then put on some 80’s music while we knock out that honey-do list of chores? I’ll bring my laundry with me, if that will make you feel better!”
Help with the kids.
Every parent knows that it takes a village to raise a child, and ideally two adults to make each day’s routine possible.
Being tossed into single parenthood at the drop of a gavel turns the lives of everyone involved upside down. Suddenly both parents have no choice but to work, both have households to maintain, and the kids’ demands don’t decrease just because their parents divorced.
Something as simple as babysitting or picking the kids up from school can make all the difference in a single parent’s ability to get back on his or her feet while re-creating a sense of normalcy.
If you are still wondering how to help friends dealing with grief over divorce, take a moment and put yourself in their position. Try to feel what they are feeling. Imagine needing what they are needing. Reach into the recesses of your empathy and ask yourself what you would likely most need and want, but wouldn’t know how to ask for.
And start there.
Looking for more help dealing with the painful realities of divorce? You’ll find what you’re looking for in Dealing With Grief.
I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a life and divorce coach. For more than 10 years, I’ve been helping people just like you who are looking for advice and support in healing from divorce. If you’d like free advice, you can join my newsletter list. If you’d like to learn more about working with me, you can schedule a FREE 30-minute conversation with me directly in my Time Trade calendar.