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How do you help someone going through a divorce?

When someone is getting divorced, the concerns are often pretty obvious: the welfare of the children and future relationships with them; a place to live; money; a job; and so forth. But, for many of us, how to respond and be there for someone in this situation is complicated — and not only because of her emotions, but because of our own as well.

Recently, I spoke with a colleague about how friends and family can be supportive when a divorce is taking place, and about the challenges we can face in providing that support. Marie Wetmore, a life and career coach who assists clients dealing with transitions and stress, has heard first-hand what people most want when splitting up.

We discussed how reaching out — even to people we know very well — can be an awkward step. What should we say? What shouldn’t we say? Divorce is a very sensitive topic to bring up. It can seem “too sensitive” — even taboo. And people often don’t know how to handle it. Maybe we’re even worried about getting close, afraid of what another’s divorce may suggest about our own marriages. We wonder, “Could that happen to me?”

We may respond by pulling away, and allowing the relationship to disintegrate.

On the other hand, we may overdo it. When your friend talks about her divorce, do you top her stories with tales of your own, or some War of the Roses story you have heard about? Do you give advice when it hasn’t been asked for, or act like an expert when you’ve read exactly three articles on the subject? If you are not honoring where she is, it may be your friend who pulls away. Without realizing it, you may lose the trust of someone you really care about and want to help.

So, what to do?

There is a middle ground. Don’t back away or drop the relationship. Instead, be sure to be around and available, and answer the phone or call back. Open the door to conversation, but without putting pressure on her. Listen, without judging, because when you’re getting a divorce, just being able to talk is so important. Propose meeting for lunch or doing something else she’ll enjoy. The requirements of day-to-day living can be overwhelming to someone going through a divorce. Offering to help with the practical necessities can alleviate the burden more than one might imagine.

Can you offer to babysit? Of course. For some, the biggest challenge is childcare, so if you can handle that for a few hours, and your friend can attend a therapy session, run errands, or get to an aerobics class, it will be a big help to her.

If you’ve got the contacts or the research skills, offer to check into lawyers, financial planners, or support groups. Maybe a move is planned, and you can help with the packing.

Let her know that mediation is an option, and that she doesn’t have to have a contentious divorce.

Wetmore related how, when a friend was going through a divorce, the woman didn’t know anyone else who had been in her position. When she did eventually find someone to connect with, it helped a lot to have a person who could say, “It was hard, but this is what it’s like, and it’s better now.” So, if you know someone who is divorced and in a good place, and someone else going through it now, ask whether they would like to be hooked up in order to talk.

Many divorcing spouses struggle with a sense of failure. And even those who don’t will still have their fears, frustrations, and disappointments. You should listen and let them vent. But, you can also gently remind them that ultimately, divorce can open up possibilities for creating a happier life. While their emotions will rise and fall like waves, the storm will pass. Make it known that throughout, your love and friendship are constant, and you are there for them.

Lee Chabin, Esq., a Divorce Mediator and Collaborative Divorce Lawyer, helps clients end their relationships respectfully and without going to court. Contact him at lee_chabin@lc-mediate.com, (718) 229-6149, or go to lc-mediate.com/home.

Reach Marie Wetmore at marie@lionssharecoaching.com.

Disclaimer: All material in this column is for informational purposes only.

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