Recent research reveals that couples who have supportive friends and family members are more likely to divorce.
No, that last part wasn’t a typo. A study of 7,321 couples published last year in the Journal of Family Issues found that couples who reported having strong emotional support outside their marriage were more likely to split up.
“Individuals who feel they can count on emotional support from family and friends maybe more comfortable ending marriages when they wish to do so,” wrote Marina Haddock Potter, a sociologist at the Pennsylvania State University, “whereas individuals without this support may feel ill-equipped to divorce.”
This might seem counterintuitive — shouldn’t all that support help them stay together? — but in Psychology Today, Bella dePaulo wrote that it’s “consistent with the positive role that emotionally supportive friends and relatives can play in all of our lives.”
All this means is that people who have a great support system don’t feel trapped in a relationship that is not working. The role all of us play as friends and family members is crucial in helping people move on with their lives in a positive, purposeful way.
Our job is to put our own emotions aside and focus on the people who need our help most. Here are a few tips on what we can all do.
Do more than just listen
Of course you should let your loved one talk about everything they are going through. Listening is one of the most important roles we play as supportive friends and family members. Don’t press them for details, don’t be judgmental, and don’t place blame. Just listen.
But support goes beyond that. Ask them what they need. A person going through a divorce often needs help with things like childcare when they have appointments with lawyers and financial experts. They might benefit from quiet time to talk things out with their spouse. One of the kindest things you can do is offer to take the kids for an afternoon or a whole weekend.
Remain as neutral as possible
The person who you’re closest to may want to unload their anger or frustration or sadness about their partner. It might be hard to hear because you think of both of them as friends. Or it might be difficult not to chime in because you thought that the spouse was a terrible person or behaved in ways that led to the breakup. You should be careful about expressing your own opinions about the spouse, especially if they are negative.
It might feel like you’re being supportive if you agree with your friend about how awful their spouse is, but you’re probably not being helpful at all. Remember that your loved one will probably have to maintain some kind of a relationship with their partner, especially if there are children involved. Unloading your own feelings complicates this process.
One other thing to consider: the couple might reconcile. If that happens, you end up being the “bad guy” because you spoke so negatively about the partner. It could damage your friendship permanently.
Help them sort out their options
Divorce can be a complicated, confusing process. If you’re a close friend or family member, one of the most helpful things you can do is help them understand the wide range of options available to someone going through a divorce.
For example, there are different ways to divorce. Most people are familiar with a litigated divorce where couples go to court to argue over things like how assets will be divided and how child custody and visitation will be handled. It’s a bitter, bruising process.
But there are other options that don’t involve a courtroom, such as Collaborative Divorce. Both people still have their own lawyers, but this isn’t a lawyer-driven process. There’s a team of individuals, from mental health professionals to financial experts, who help guide the couple through the necessary steps. They decide on the specifics, rather than leaving things in the hands of a judge.
Avoid giving legal advice
Even if you’ve gone through a divorce yourself, avoid the urge to give legal advice. Only lawyers can and should give legal advice. If you live in another state, chances are the laws are completely different. And myths abound. If you find yourself tempted to instruct your friends on the finer points of the law, you might be hurting more than helping. Encourage them to reach out to a Collaboratively trained attorney and go with them to the consult for moral support and to be their second set of ears. That would be helpful.
I’m an attorney— I’ve practiced law since 1992 and opened my own practice exclusively focused on family law in 2005 — but I only give advice to my own clients. It’s too complicated a topic to handle in a casual conversation. I know that the best thing I can do for friends who are going through a divorce is to provide love, support and guidance about their options for a non-adversarial divorce, assuming there is no abuse.
One more thing to remember: Divorce is designed to be a long process. Feelings change over time. Be prepared to be in it for the long haul-from the decision to divorce, through the process itself, and then aftercare when it’s over and inevitable feelings of loneliness and isolation show up. Check in on your friend or family member often. Remind them that you are always there for them. A quick call or text every now and then will mean more than you could imagine. That’s what good friends are for.