Statistically speaking, you will at some point have a friend or friends going through a divorce. You’ll sense their pain and the disruption to their family, but it’s hard to know what kind of help to offer or even whether to get involved at all, particularly if you are close to both members of the couple.
And yet hardly anyone feels more vulnerable and in need of companionship as people do when a marriage implodes. Problem is, your divorcing friend will be so busy scaling the steps of each day, she’ll have no idea what to ask for, let alone how to ask for it. The end result is a cooling off of friendships at the precise moment when she’s in desperate need of warmth.
I knew that separating from a two-decade marriage would be heartbreaking for my kids, cataclysmic for my finances and emotionally wrenching, just for starters. But I never considered, until I went through it, how radically the fabric of my social life would be altered as well.
Friends disappeared, especially the married ones, particularly those whom I met through my ex. Dinner party invitations, which used to be plentiful, practically ceased. When I did get the rare invite, showing up as a recently uncoupled woman at a table full of married friends felt not unlike walking into a bathhouse as a leper.
Going out for a quick drink with a friend after work, at the exact hour my children expect dinner, became challenging if not impossible, particularly with my ex living in a different state. Dating, even when I met someone I actually liked, felt nearly futile. You’re reduced to sneaking around like teenagers whenever your actual teenagers are elsewhere.
And yet, of course, good friends don’t want to disappear. They want to help. Many of mine emailed in the wake of my separation, asking, “What can I do?” Though I had no idea how to answer this at the time, now that I’m nearly a year and a half into my separation, I can tell you what things friends have done, of their own accord, that have made a huge difference (which you could do, too):
1. Invite your friend and her young children for a cozy family sleepover, especially on weekend worknights.
First of all, sleepovers are just fun, no matter the excuse, but they can also be a necessity. Work obligations on the weekend are becoming the norm rather than the exception, with the expectation being that your spouse can watch the kids while you’re working: a logistical nightmare for single parents.
My Brooklyn-based friends Tad and Amanda let me sleep over at their home one Friday night before the Brooklyn Book Festival, where I was scheduled to opine, early the next morning and far from my home in Harlem, on the topic of gender discrimination and publishing. They then watched my little one while I was busy speaking. Tad and Amanda also still invite me to dinner. Often. They actually deserve their own essay, but we have ground to cover here, people.
2. Help pack moving boxes, and keep the jokes flowing.
Never underestimate the power of your presence and humor to diffuse a difficult moment. Abigail showed up at my apartment as I was packing it up to move and just sat there for three hours, cracking jokes, sharing stories, creating piles for Goodwill and keeping my mind from sinking too deeply into the maw of what it means to permanently wrap family portraits in bubble wrap and to dismantle the home where one’s marriage has unraveled.
3. Sunday brunches are the perfect antidote to the Sunday blues.
Sundays can sometimes feel like the loneliest days of all during a divorce, especially if a languorous brunch with your spouse and kids had been a longstanding tradition. My friends Jesse and Sarah invited me, in the immediate wake of my separation, to a series of convivial Sunday brunches they threw after the birth of their third child, when they, too, couldn’t get out much. It was a potluck kind of thing, but Jesse always had soup on the stove, whose ambrosial odor, when I close my eyes, I can still smell.
4. Invite your friend out for breakfast/coffee/whatever.
A person going through a divorce sometimes just needs an empathic, non-judgmental ear. Provide that to your friend, and you’ve given them everything they actually need. I promise. My friend Abby invited me to breakfast, just the two of us, to talk. Or rather, to be more accurate, she invited me to breakfast not really to talk herself so much as to listen, intently and with presence.
5. Help with medical appointments and creating pockets of calm.
If your friend works full-time and is going through a medical ordeal at the time of her divorce (as I was), finding time to deal with appointments, let alone creating pockets of medically-mandated calm, can be a challenge. Ariel — whom I bumped into at a film screening, after having not seen her in years — invited my young son to sleep at her apartment the night before my early morning M.R.I. at Sloan Kettering, so I could show up at the appointment without dragging the kid along and also so I could spend a quiet, healing night cozying up by the fire at another friend’s home elsewhere.
6. Offer to take the kids when your friend has to travel for work or family obligations.
Don’t underestimate the importance and kindness of taking a young child off the hands of a single working parent going through a divorce. Babysitters are expensive. Plus the kid learns something and feels more connected to a diverse web of support being in a new home with a new, loving caretaker.
Meg and Richard offered to watch my 8-year-old for an entire weekend when my writing partner and I had to hole up in a hotel to work on a script we’d been hired to write. Meg planned playdates for him. She took him to a shadow-puppet class. She was, in short, a better and more patient mother than I, meaning both my son and I benefited. Kipp and Anne housed and figured out a way to get my kid to school, far from their own neighborhood and their own kids’ schools, when I had to drop my eldest at college.
7. Keep longstanding holiday traditions, but be willing to adapt as necessary.
Rituals and holidays are important, but they often get lost in the wake of a divorce. Friends and their invitations are crucial to keeping them going.
Robin and Eddie invited our truncated family for Yom Kippur breakfast. Adam and Martha let me take over my ex’s role as the yearly reader of the Passover story. They hosted and cooked the holiday dinner at their home. They allowed me to screw up the order of the service, shorten bits of it and add in new traditions. They also kept inviting me to the regular celebrations we’ve always done with them as a family, like Christmas Eve dessert and charades.
8. Show up for dinner, whether you’re invited or not.
Dinner can be a painful reminder of who’s missing from the table. Friends who show up and bring their presence and joy are welcome anytime, even when we haven’t planned on their arrival. Feeding an extra mouth, particularly when you’re already cooking for three or four anyway, is not only easy, it’s appreciated and cherished.
My friend Soman showed up at my home for dinner often after my separation. Sometimes he brought his own food, not wanting to impose. But truly that is not necessary. Just know this: you’re not imposing. At all.
9. Help out with household chores.
Household chores can feel overwhelming when you’re the only one doing them, particularly if you’ve had to downsize to what I call a “divorced lady apartment,” which may lack some of the amenities of the former family home.
My new divorced lady apartment, for example, does not have a dishwasher, so one night Randy, stealthily and without having been asked, left the table where I was hosting my first formal dinner party in the new place and washed every single dirty dish in the sink. I can’t stress enough how thoughtful and moving this gesture was.
10. Play matchmaker.
If you have two middle-aged friends who are both single and in the same age range with even passingly similar interests, by all means, give it a whirl! Alchemy is impossible to predict, but what a gift it is to help ignite.
My friend Amanda (a different Amanda) set me up on a date. It didn’t work out, but it was a valiant try, and I truly appreciated the thought and effort. She also set up another divorced friend of ours on a date, and now those two are inseparable.
11. Help with pick-ups and playdates.
A working parent on a budget will have to rely on group after-school care instead of babysitters. Babysitters are often happy to do overtime, but after-school caregivers are not. My friends Cris, Margaret, Helena, Tiffany and Brian — all parents in my son’s school — have helped out innumerable times with after-school pick-ups and playdates when I couldn’t get out of work on time.
12. Take your friend on a date.
As wonderful as friends of the same gender can be, sometimes it’s nice, every once in awhile, to have the company of someone of the opposite sex, particularly if that someone is an old, dear friend.
Dan was my “date” to a concert when I needed one. Peter took me out to dinner. Eric invited me to see Buster Poindexter at the Carlyle. Donal took me on a sunset walk on Venice Beach. Michael took me to a guitar shop in downtown L.A., where we jammed on the most expensive acoustics we could find.
13. Pick up the phone.
Even if you don’t live in the same state as a friend going through a divorce, that doesn’t mean you can’t be present in his or her life. We’re all so busy texting and emailing, we forget how soothing it can be to hear the sound of a friend’s voice on the other end of the line, saying, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about you. How are you doing?”
My friend Ayelet, who lives across the country, checks in on the phone, often, as well as whenever she comes into town. My Aunt Marilyn calls to say she loves me and is proud of me, even if I’ve done nothing worthy of her praise. My London-based friend Josh and I used to speak every Saturday, whenever I was out walking the dog.
14. Accept new partners, even short-term ones, without judgment or prejudice.
Often friends who knew both people in the couple are hesitant to go out as a foursome with the interloper, particularly if the budding relationship is new and strictly casual. And yet there is joy to be found in the simple act of introducing a new beau, however impermanent, to old friends.
My friends Kammi and Brad invited the man I was seeing out for dinner with us, and not once did either of them pull me aside to say, “You do realize he’s a decade younger than you, right?” They just said, “Way to go,” and kept pouring the wine.
15. Offer your empty home when the ex visits.
If one spouse has moved away, it can get tricky figuring out what to do when he comes back into town for the holidays. Boundaries during the early stages must be tightly drawn, so the kids understand that Mom and Dad will not be getting back together.
My friends Soman, Donal and Sasha all offered their empty homes when my ex visited during Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was good for the kids to be in their own home, good for their father to get a glimpse into their daily lives and good for me to get away on a mini-vacation in my own city while still being geographically close enough to spend time with the kids, too, during their break.
16. Join that class your friend’s been dying to take.
Your divorcing friend might be trying to spread his or her wings, post-separation, in ways you might find odd or amusing. Instead of judging, try joining.
Julie agreed to take a Level 1 improv class with me a month after my separation. It was something I’d been wanting to do: to learn how to say “Yes, and…” after so many years of “No.” Though improv wasn’t really on Julie’s bucket list, she gamely agreed to join me every Monday night, from 7 to 10 p.m., for eight weeks straight. The best part of the class? The dinner we would grab at a noodle shop beforehand. It was my weekly cry. And what a gift that was.
17. Hire your friend to do odd jobs, particularly if he or she is having trouble making ends meet.
Finances, post-separation, can be particularly brutal, especially if one parent has taken time off from work to care for children or if she is shouldering, as I was, the majority of the financial and logistical burden. Money between friends can get dicey, but people often have hidden talents you might find valuable. Hire them.
I’m an ex war photographer, so my friend Diana, who knew I was in particular trouble one week, hired me to take a series of headshots she needed for work, paying me in full prior to the shoot. Jon and Marjorie hired me to shoot their daughter’s bat mitzvah. Holly hired me to shoot her family Christmas card.
18. Start a new tradition in an old way.
One of the rare joys of starting life over from scratch is rediscovering who you were before you got married. Equally reinvigorating is starting new traditions. These two can be combined, and you can help your divorcing friends combine them.
Katie and Larissa, two old friends from college, suggested we get together once a month after work to catch up. We meet at one of our old haunts from the early ’90s that’s miraculously still standing and we drink cheap wine and share stories of our loves and lives. The time warp back to our early days, pre-kids, is the one time, every month, when I momentarily forget I’m getting divorced.
Deborah Copaken is The New York Times bestselling author of The Red Book, Between Here and April, Shutterbabe and Hell Is Other Parents. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, Slate and The Financial Times, among others.