METEREtte Harrison, a novelist who also works in the financial industry, was shocked in 2020 when her husband of 30 years filed for divorce. A mother of six children, she estimated that she also lost half her friends between those who cheated on her and others who expressed their judgment about the breakup.
According to a 2013 longitudinal study led by Rose McDermott, an academic at Brown University, if people in your close social network get divorced, the risk of your marriage ending increases considerably. This may partly explain why those in marital crisis find themselves abandoned by their nearest and dearest. But loved ones missing can also be because they just don’t know how to help.
In addition to losing her marriage, losing friends was almost too much, says Harrison. But when her supporters offered to help, she too was taken aback. “I didn’t know what I needed even when people asked,” she says.
A friend offered him a bed until Harrison could find an apartment; another gently guided her through a candid assessment of her financial situation. A third texted every day for a year, a simple exchange of messages that Harrison said he relied on to quell his panic in the first few months. His older brother, Mark Ivie, set up a recurring monthly payment for rent and food, as well as an Amazon wish list, which he shared with other family members.
“I absolutely couldn’t have done it without their help,” says Harrison.
From big gestures to small acts of kindness, experts say there are many ways to help those affected by the embarrassment, shock and financial panic of a separation or divorce.
Listen… over and over
Although it’s often assumed that those in early separation need space, Ashley Mead, a psychotherapist who specializes in divorce, recommends connection. But the right kind of listening requires finesse.
“Divorced people are losing the person they have been most connected to in their entire lives,” Mead says in an email. “They are often desperate and feel incredible shame.”
“Introduce yourself,” adds Mead, who recommends refraining from offering advice, suggestions, or any hint of “I told you so.” If you don’t know what to say, try this: “I know I can’t fix it, but I’m here for you,” she advises. “We have a tendency to want to fix bad things for our friends, but trying to cheer someone up is often about soothing our own discomfort and doesn’t help those trying to ease difficult emotions.”
Erika Anne Englund, a US-based divorce mediator, says to “be the kind of listener who helps people come to their own conclusions: make sure your friend has a place to vent, cry, laugh and think out loud.
“Don’t stop inviting divorced friends to parties just because they’re single, and call them on holidays even years after the divorce is over,” says Englund.
When Amy Armstrong, a family therapist, went through her own divorce, finding friends who were able to listen without turning her story into drama, or gossip, was a lifesaver. “A supportive person helps you see yourself in a bright next chapter, not someone who urges you to complain or stay in victim mode,” she says.
When looking for a support team, Susan Pease Gadoua, a therapist who also runs ongoing support groups for divorcees, recommends reaching out to people who aren’t afraid of strong feelings or the time it can take to process them. “People have two to four months of bandwidth to deal with the pain of others, but recovering from a divorce in less than six months is fast,” she says.
For those who question their conversational skills, good listening doesn’t require nonstop chatter. Watching a movie together can be very comforting, as can talking while you walk. “Don’t trash talk, encourage, or problem solve,” says Abby Medcalf, a psychologist and founder of the podcast. relationships made easy.
“Connect with the feeling, not the situation,” says Medcalf. “Ask, what makes you the saddest, the angriest, the most fearful?”
“So, listen carefully, with all your attention,” she says.
Offer a hand, or just validation
Divorce often means that driving a carpool, paying bills, and many other requirements of daily life now fall on one set of shoulders, not two.
“Divorce is a huge life transformation. Helping in small ways can have a lasting impact,” says Mandy Walker, divorce counselor and mediator.
Looking for creative ways to offer support? Consider what soft skills you might have. Can you babysit one night a week? Can a CV be edited? Do you know anything about car repair? Are you useful? If you can’t offer your own skills, it can be helpful to put together a list of people to fix it.
Feelings of pain and loss after a separation or divorce are a normal part of the healing process. There’s a timeline for divorce recovery, Medcalf says, and keeping track of gradual changes in feelings can be helpful if a divorced friend or family member is too distraught to see improvement. “The most generous thing you can do is put aside your own fear of strong feelings and steer people away from despair,” she says.
Money can help, more than you think
The economic impact of almost all divorces hits hard; studies show that earnings can fall, especially for women. Details about spousal and child support take months and sometimes years to iron out. And even if it is granted, there is no guarantee of those payments. According to a 2018 US Census report, fewer than half of custodial parents owed child support receive what they are awarded, and there are few recourses for most in these situations.
Sydney Petite left her marriage in July 2018 with three children, including three-month-old twins. Now that she is the sole custodial mother, she received child support from her ex-husband, but received no payment for nearly three years.
“I learned, clumsily and quickly, how to ask for help,” says Petite, who runs a public relations firm. A friend lent her money to get a lawyer, a private school offered her oldest son free tuition, and she hired a nanny to help with the kids, deferring payment until Petite gained economic traction. Since her divorce, the former stay-at-home mom has paid off all of her loans. “I am where I am today thanks to unexpected support,” he says.
This article originally appeared on The New York Times.