The Divorce Diaries: “Mum’s Reaction Was: ‘Oh Darling, I Kept Telling You to Get Your Grey Roots Dyed!’” What to – and What NOT to Say – After a Split

Welcome to our new series, The Divorce Diaries. In this fourth instalment we hear from 14 Kiwi women who tell us about the things people said and did after they went through a divorce that helped – and those that didn’t! If you’ve missed our first three instalments of The Divorce Diaries, you can read about the rise of divorces since lockdown last year; a woman who discovered her husband’s affair during lockdown; another who had been trying for a baby for a year with her husband when she learned he’d actually had a vasectomy 20 years earlier and lied about it (!), plus, we find out if divorces are contagious and during which life stages divorces most often happen.

When it comes to learning about bad news, we all have quite different approaches.

Some will immediately pick up the phone, write a card or send flowers. Some will have words that bring comfort to the person who is hurting, while others might not quite get their delivery right, or underestimate the situation and blurt out the wrong thing. Others might feel triggered by the crisis and want to retreat, or use it as an opportunity to talk about their own problems.

Others, petrified of saying the wrong thing – or of feeling the awkwardness of sitting in discomfort – will instead say nothing. They won’t reach out to offer compassion, and instead might actively try to avoid you for a while.

Years ago, I spoke to a widow who said the best thing about having a funeral is that you remember who was there and that they definitely know your husband has died and have acknowledged it. There’s nothing worse, she told me, than running into an acquaintance at the supermarket and making small talk while in your head all you can think is, ‘does she know my husband has died? Is she going to bring it up? Should I tell her? Is she not saying something because she’s scared I might cry? Or does she not know?!? ARRGH’.

Lucy tells me it’s a similar thing with divorce. “I’ll be talking to someone for the first time in a couple of months and it will feel awkward, so I’ll start wondering if they know my husband has left or if I should tell them, or if I’m going to sound crazy if I just blurt it out,” she tells. “Sometimes I’ll just say it and then they’ll say they already knew, and I’ll feel even worse!”

Mel says she much preferred it when people she knew sent her a text message saying they’d heard about the separation and they were sorry and offered some sort of help or kindness. “I didn’t really mind if sometimes people said the wrong thing, it was a relief that I didn’t have to worry about telling them or feeling awkward the next time I saw them,” she says.

Alisha agrees it’s the silence that can be the most hurtful and hard to navigate. “I was so surprised by who the people were who ghosted me after my divorce,” she tells. “Some of the people who I thought were my best friends, just disappeared. One of them later said it was because her husband was good friends with my husband and she didn’t want to make things awkward. I still can’t believe she said that.”

The best response she received was from the mother of one of her son’s friends at school who she had only met in passing. “One morning there was a bag on the doorstep with a note. ‘I heard about your separation so made you this for dinner – it’s gluten free/vegetarian/nut free in case of any allergies. When my husband and I split I loathed making dinner, so I hope this helps you. I have tonnes of Tupperware so please don’t return the container. We can pretend this never happened, otherwise give me a call on XXX if you ever want a coffee or wine x’ It took me three months to text to her to say thank you and could we get a wine, and she’s now one of my very best friends.”

Anna was also shocked by who came through for her – and who didn’t after her divorce. After her husband delivered a double whammy – that he’d been having an affair, and that he was now leaving her to move in with the other woman – her first call was to her best friend, who was there within 20 minutes and has been a godsend. A few days later she called her mother to let her know her devastating news. “I’m not kidding when I say, she said to me, ‘oh darling, I kept telling you to get your grey roots dyed!’ This is why I go to therapy!”

Yes, while most of the women we spoke to agreed that saying something – anything – was better than silence, there were a few things said by friends and family that made them give that a second thought.

So, what did and what didn’t help? Here’s what 10 of you told us:

  • “My brother sent me a big cookie that said ‘F*** that loser’ and it was the first time I laughed in months.”
  • “A friend told me she’d heard he’d been cheating on me but didn’t want to be the one to tell me because she was worried I’d shoot the messenger. We are no longer friends.”
  • “I joined the gym with a newly divorced friend and exercise helped me through it.”
  • “I wanted everyone who said, ‘There are plenty more fish in the sea,’ to shut up.”
  • “Dad changed my locks and installed a security system. Weird. But it really helped me sleep!”
  • “A friend offered her husband up to come over and do any odd jobs I needed around the house. I’m sure she was being nice, but it came across smug and strange.”
  • “One of my friends came over with a DVD boxset of Ally McBeal (there were limited choices at the shop) and it became a ritual every Tuesday and Thursday night that she would come over and we would watch it, silently. Her just being there made a huge difference.”
  • “A friend told me she thought I was making a big mistake and I should think about the children. I was horrified. I was thinking about the children, I didn’t want them growing up thinking this was what a normal relationship was supposed to look like.”
    “Just having friends, especially ones who could relate being there was good.”
  • “My friend who said, ‘Screw this, we’re going to Fiji.’”

What’s the best/worst thing someone said to you? Share your stories, plus any advice you’d like to share by emailing me at [email protected] (responses will be kept confidential and anonymous).

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