Crisis Communications 101 (or How Not to Be an !@# When Your Friend Gets a Divorce)

When I started this blog, I hoped it would become a place where others could find good writing and possibly some comfort in knowing they aren’t alone in feeling messy and imperfect. I did not realize how much you people need me. Sheesh.

I got this email today from a friend seeking advice:

Dear JennCobbNito,
I just learned that someone I consider a good friend separated from her husband. What do I do? Should I reach out? Should I wait and let her break the news on her own? I assume she’s in crisis mode. If it were any other kind of loss, I wouldn’t hesitate. HELP!
Feeling the Feels

(Disclosure: I didn’t really get an email. It was a text. And it really wasn’t signed “Feeling the Feels,” but names have been changed to protect the innocent!)

As I doled out advice on how my friend should respond, we both realized that I have some decent wisdom to impart. As someone who’s fresh off the separation/divorce boat, I’m close enough to the situation to remember how I wanted people to act and far enough away from my own moment of crisis to have some clarity.

Although each situation is different, I do think there are some basic rules to follow. And so with no further ado, here are my tips for times of crisis. Otherwise known as, “Four Rules for How Not to be an Ass When Your Friend Gets a Divorce.”

Rule #1: Comfort In, Dump Out – I didn’t invent this one, but it’s just so good. If you only remember one thing from this post, let it be The Ring Theory. In a nutshell, your friend who is separated or divorcing is at the center of a crisis. S/he is surrounded by co-centric circles. Depending on how close you are to the person, you might be in the innermost circle, or the next level out, and so on. The rule is: you put comfort into the center of the circle. You dump negative thoughts and words into the outer circles.

Example: When I was in the anger stage of my grief (more about those stages later), I did a lot of blaming, bitching, whining and crying. Occasionally, a close friend or family member would add his or her own blaming, bitching and whining. Most of the time, this actually made me feel worse. Open criticism of my soon-to-be-ex-husband didn’t ease my pain. It just added another layer of confusion and guilt.

What I really needed to hear instead was, “I am so sorry. This totally sucks for all of you. I am worried about your family. I am here to listen. Do you need some chocolate? Or a beer? Or some wine?”

To recap: bitching out, wine in.

Rule #2: It’s Not You, It’s Them – When my husband and I finally decided to separate, there were only a few people I had the energy to tell immediately. Our children. My mother. My brother. My father.

Next on the list, and equally important, were my aunt, my closest friends, my coworkers, other friends who I really wanted to tell myself … but I couldn’t get around to everyone in a timely, tidy manner. I just needed to put one foot in front of the other, take care of my kids, go to work, repeat.

If you find out from a secondary source that a friend is separating or divorcing, please don’t take it personally. It’s really not about your feelings. My ex-husband and I had ZERO conversations about making sure our friends weren’t hurt by our separation. We were completely focused on our children and our own broken hearts.

When you do learn the news, reach out with kind words. Offer comfort. Prayers. Pizza. Wine. Whatever. Wine. But then back away slowly. Your friend will feel better knowing that she doesn’t have to worry about telling you and that you’re now on her team. She’ll reach out when she’s ready. Trust me.

Rule #3: You Can’t Fix This So Don’t Even Try  –  In subsequent texts, my friend and I had this exchange:

Her: You’re absolutely certain it’s not up to me to save their marriage?
Me: I am quite certain.
Her: Because that is my instinct.
Me: No, no, no.
Her: Got it.
Her: But maybe if I just had all the details I could FIX THINGS.
Me: If they can’t, you can’t. If therapy professionals can’t help them, you can’t.
Her: Sigh. Wish I could.

Yes, I know you wish you could. We all wish we could take away pain. I get it. But you have to trust that your friends have done everything they know how to do to save their marriage. And if they haven’t, then that’s still something that only they can control.

Again, offer support. Offer kind words. Offer fried foods. Offer wine. But don’t offer to mediate, relay messages to the spouse or even pass him a carefully folded note in study hall.

Rule #4: Hang On for a Wild Ride – A divorce is the death of a marriage. There’s a grieving process. One day, your friend will be crying and heartbroken and in denial. Days, weeks, months later, he or she will be mad as hell. Eventually, the acceptance will start to sink in and the healing can begin.

Your job? Just hang on. Ride it out with her. Hold her hand while she cries. Stay on the other end of the phone as long as he needs to talk. Go with her to the top of the tallest mountain around and let her scream our her anger. Let him be bitter and pissed. Stand by her side while her world burns down … and then lead the round of applause as she rises from the ashes like the Phoenix.

Because let’s be honest, this person’s life is never going to be the same. And this person you love? He or she will never be the same. 

And here’s a little secret: while this divorce truly isn’t about you … your life will change, too. Your friend will need you in different ways than before. Your definitions of love and marriage will be tested. You might even find yourself holding your spouse a little tighter and a little longer, thanking God it’s not your marriage that’s ending, praying it never will be. 

And that’s not selfish. It’s life in crisis.  Crisis, by definition, is “a time of intense difficulty.” It’s just a time. It’s not forever. For your friend or for you.




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