Is there a right or wrong way to tell people we’re getting divorced? I can't really see myself doing some big Facebook explosion, but at the same time, we don't know who to talk to about these types of things. We don't come from divorced families. We are all going to need support going through this—my children, my soon-to-be ex-husband, and me. Is there an appropriate way to ask for help from your friends?
--Divorce and Tell
Dear Divorce and Tell,
People tend to think of divorce as a break-up between two people, or a family, but actually, our marriages exist within our communities. In many weddings, the officiant turns to the assembled guests and asks them to support the couple in marriage, an example of how much our unions exist within our social circle. Your break-up does affect those around you. Some people are confused about whether they need to “take sides.” Sometimes friendships that worked within the context of a marriage falter when you’re solo. An in-law may be unsure about the future of her relationship with you, or your ex.
Also, people have very strong opinions about divorce, and marriage, and they often feel compelled to share them, even if they have nothing to do with your actual situation. One of the hardest things for many people is figuring out how to navigate existing friendships, and this can start with trying to decide how to tell them.
Telling others is actually a great opportunity to let your community know how you are viewing your divorce. Some couples send out a group email, a kind of “divorce announcement” that tells friends what’s happening and what to expect. I write about one such couple in Splitopia, whose email encouraged others not to take sides, and ensured their community that they planned to remain good friends.
One of the best ways to deflect unwanted advice and steer the conversation in a productive, supportive manner is to create a “divorce elevator speech.” A term from the business world, an elevator speech is an overview of your skills, start-up, or script idea that you can share quickly. In divorce, an "elevator speech" shares news of your divorce as you would like it seen.
How do you want your divorce seen? Define the divorce as you'd like it understood, and in a way that will give you more strength, not less. Is it amicable? A surprise, but one you're coping with? Share this. I said something like, “It’s amicable, and we wish each other well. We think it’s best for us both. Our son is happier having so much one-on-one time with each of us.”
Maybe you’re fighting but don’t want to be. As the business gurus say, dress for the job you seek. Or, speak for the divorce you desire. “I really want a cooperative, non-confrontational divorce, so that’s what I’m working toward.”
You divorce is due to an affair that’s common knowledge? You still get to decide how much of this you'll discuss, and in what way. If your ex had an affair, you can address it in a way that casts yourself in a positive light, and avoids too much criticism of your ex. Criticisms often stick to those who voice them, and this is your chance to focus on what you want.
Believe it or not, most people tend to think about you divorce in terms of how it affects them. Your elevator speech is your chance to tell them. Identify what part they can play. Do you want emotional support? Help redecorating? Fix-ups? The call to action steers the conversation away from the “why” of the divorce, and toward a “what’s next?”
What you share and ask for depends on the person across the table, or platter of cake pops. A date, for example, is mostly interested in whether you're emotionally ready for a relationship, and what you like to do at night. A good friend probably wants more information on how you're doing and what you might need. A parent of a child's friend? Probably most interested in when you have your child and can arrange a playdate.
As TV reporters say, “Back to you!” Your "closer" gets you out of the conversation before saying anything you might regret. Your call to action may serve as a graceful close. If not, have a ready question that shifts the attention from you to the other person. Most people will stop talking about you if given a chance to talk about themselves.
Even a clunky transition will work: “Speaking of family, how are your kids?” Or, “Thank you for asking. What’s new with you?”
Like a business, a divorce matures. How you talk about it should change, too. Imagine you have a performance review three months after your split. You've told your boss about your divorce. Now? You might say to your boss, “As you know, my husband and I decided to divorce. I’ve been putting in extra time with my free nights, and my department has shown record profits. I’d like to discuss the possibility of raising my compensation to reflect my contribution.”
For more advice and tips visit my new "divorce wellness" website, Splitopia.com. You can also order "Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well."