Breakup, Separation, and Divorce During COVID-19

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented support.

Posted Apr 20, 2020

Several clients and a close friend are going through a breakup, separation, or divorce. These life-altering events are incredibly painful during normal circumstances—but even more agonizing during a pandemic.

"I don't have a right to feel sad when people are dying" is a sentiment I hear from many grief-stricken clients impacted by an issue unrelated to the virus. They feel guilty asking for support. Yet one heartbreak does not compare to another, and each needs attention.

Many devastated individuals are home alone. Online communication may be their only connection to the outside world. Yet online correspondence is intricately linked to social media. This may increase the possibility that they stumble across an ex's post with someone new. "I can't get away from it," says a client of mine who is struggling with a separation. Dealing with heartache is difficult, and feeling inhibited from asking for support may intensify the feelings of isolation.

Often a person's support network is intertwined with a partner's, so during a breakup, separation, or divorce, the loss of these relationships hurts. Distress about who is "appropriate" to contact is painful and may compound the loss.

Also, the loss of future plans with a partner is a painful element of a breakup or divorce, made more difficult by the current state of global affairs. "We were going to relocate to Colorado to be closer to family," a client tearfully explained in session. The intensity of the unknown regarding the future is overwhelming, and facing what lies ahead alone may be terrifying.

A common coping mechanism during a breakup or divorce is "getting out there." Going out with friends, getting a massage, or engaging in retail therapy are helpful distractions. Currently, many of these activities are not available. Attempting to move on may also be complicated because face-to-face contact is limited. Pursuing a new relationship and creating new memories is an important component of recovering from a past relationship, but it is almost impossible during the quarantine.

Supporting the broken-hearted during COVID-19 is critical. There are five things a person can do to support a friend or loved one in the throes of heartbreak.

First, listen with an open heart. Refrain from telling him or her what to do and simply listen. Abstain from judgment or advice and attempt to empathize by honoring how the friend feels.

For example,

  • "You are hurt. I would be too. What happened is not OK."
  • "You are mad at yourself for wanting her/him back. I get it. It's confusing."
  • "You feel thrown away like you don't matter. I understand. It's an awful feeling."

Listening to the friend's feelings as he or she talks may be more effective than immediately offering advice. When a friend feels understood, he or she feels less alone and more connected to the person who understands. This allows him or her to feel close to the supportive person and more comfortable reaching out in the future.

Often when recovering from a severed relationship, a person feels conflicted and confused, so empathizing with these emotions assists the friend in feeling "sane." He or she may spiral through a range of emotions; anger, confusion, regret, guilt, sadness, acceptance, and then back again. Empathize with each feeling state, then encourage and reassure the friend.

Second, distract the friend. Get creative. Online shop together, play online games, watch Netflix over FaceTime. Check on the friend frequently, but make sure the friend knows there is no pressure to return the call. Sometimes, a person dealing with a divorce is not up for talking. Saying, "Hey, I'm thinking about you, and I love being your friend. No need to text back. I just wanted you to know," may be enough for the time being.

Third, help the friend create ways to invest in the future. Maybe the friend is super funny. Encourage him to enlist in an online improv group. Perhaps she is crafty. Recommend she start an online business tailored to functional décor for college students in tiny spaces. Whatever the friend's gift is, inspire him or her to pursue it.

Fourth, get the friend chatting in social groups he or she may not ordinarily belong to. Start a group chat with old college friends or people from an extended social circle. Help enlarge the friend's social network. If the friend does not find this appealing, it's OK. Reassure the person that there is respect for his or her process and timeline.

Fifth, get the friend outside. Invite him or her to go for a walk. Maintaining social distance is easy on a wide river walk or broad hiking path. Being in nature releases endorphins and reduces anxiety, so it may help the friend feel better. Laughing is an equally helpful mood enhancer. Like nature, laughing increases endorphins and reduces depression. Sharing comedic sketches with the friend may boost his or her mood.

Taking care of each other is important. Supporting vulnerable people during the COVID-19 crisis is everyone's job. The world may be a better place after this excruciating time. Reach out, empathize, and connect.