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When Friends and Family Get Divorced

Giving advice to divorcing friends can often do more harm than good.

People often feel concerned when close friends or relatives announce that they are getting divorced. What do I say? How do I help? What can I do? We all want to offer support when loved ones are going through a crisis. But divorce seems to be one of those difficult issues in which well-intentioned people are not sure how to help. In this column I want to talk about what you can do and what you shouldn't do. It's easier to begin with what you shouldn't do. Unless you are a lawyer or other professional involved in divorce, do not give advice on legal strategy or tactics.

One of the most common and most destructive phenomena in divorce is what I have come to call the Greek Chorus Effect. It appears that divorcing people attract well-meaning friends, relatives and bystanders, many of whom think they should offer advice on how to manage the divorce. And for reasons I'll never understand, the message invariably encourages suspicion, fear and fighting. "Be careful that he doesn't hide the money", "Make sure you transfer the bank accounts before he can." "Make sure you get the toughest lawyer in town." and "Maybe you should hire a private detective." It seems that laypeople who know little or nothing about divorce but feel it's helpful to give advice, rely on the little they think they know from movies, TV shows and what they read in the other media. At best the average layperson may rely on the misadventures of his/her own divorce. But your own divorce is hardly the basis of comprehensive knowledge.

The result of the Greek Chorus refrain that "you're going to get hurt" is that the divorcing person is panicked and encouraged to act aggressively against the spouse. So the very people who most need reassurance and calming end up frightened and alarmed. So what do your friends really need from you? First, they need reassurance that you will be there for them and that they have your support. But support does not mean support against their spouses. It means that you will be there to listen, to offer encouragement and provide companionship when they need it. Divorcing people often feel isolated because some friends are so uncomfortable that they distance themselves. Divorcing people need reassurance you will not abandon them. They need you to stay close. Staying close isn't the same as taking sides. The divorcing person needs you to support peace rather than fighting.

We know it's possible for divorce to be resolved with dignity and without ugly battles. And we know that the people who make the best long-term adjustment and whose children do the best are precisely those who manage the divorce with grace and dignity. More than 99% of all divorces are resolved by negotiated settlement. Very few ever go to trial. But most people are put through the trauma of preparing for a trial that will never occur because they do not take control of their divorces at the beginning and surrender to the passions of an adversary system. Children need their parents to develop a cooperative post divorce relationship. And this is seldom worked out by lawyers.

Rather, it can only be worked out by divorcing people who make appropriate choices at the beginning. So what should you do? First, encourage optimism not pessimism. You do not have to share your friend's anger at his spouse in order to be supportive of her. Encourage your friend not to demonize her children's other parent. Encourage the long view. Support trust even when he feels betrayed. Encourage sharing the children even if she feels the impulse to punish him by cutting off contact with the kids. Encourage him to pursue mediation and to find a fair lawyer who knows how to cooperate in the search for amicable settlements, even though other friends counsel to hire a "barracuda."

If you are a parent of someone getting divorced, stay out of the fray. Don't encourage fighting. Encourage peace. Spend extra time with your grandchildren but don't say negative things about your soon-to-be-ex-son or daughter-in-law. The key to decent divorce is counter-intuitive behavior. People can act out their immediate feelings of fear, anger and betrayal. This may feel good in the short term but does great harm in the long term. Or, they can manage their feelings and pursue their interests. You can be the voice of reason and reassurance rather than a further source of anxiety.

If you do these things you will make an invaluable contribution to your friend and your friend's children.