Helping a friend through a break-up

The partners at CFLP have a combined total of nearly sixty years’ experience of dealing with people going through relationship breakdown. In professional terms though, we’re simply lawyers and mediators; we understand that our clients are much better off obtaining emotional support elsewhere, so where necessary we will signpost them to the right people who are properly trained to do a better job on the emotional side than we can. Nevertheless, we consider that we have collectively learned a fair amount over the years about supporting people through difficult times.

In most cases our clients tell us how great their friends and family are being through their separation period, but we do understand that sometimes it can be difficult to know what to do and say to help loved-ones through the process. In this week’s blog we thought we’d take the opportunity to offer some ideas.

As we all know, relationships are complicated. Although it’s often the case, you may be surprised to hear that it’s not invariably true that in a relationship breakdown one person must be “the leaver” and the other “the left”; sometimes couples do genuinely make the decision together that they are better apart. Nevertheless, however the relationship has ended, the depth of distress in which people find themselves as they deal with the repercussions of a decision to separate can be unexpected for everyone.

Although emotional turmoil often seems more acute in “the left” rather than “the leaver”, this is not always the case; although “the leaver” may have had longer to come to terms with the imminent changes, they are often dealing with strong feelings of guilt which can be as destabilising as the shock and grief felt by the partner who had no part in the decision. Separation and divorce is difficult for everyone, but not everyone will show it in the same way. If you’d like to learn more about the emotional process of divorce, have a look at our previous blog here.

As a friend, it is likely to be helpful for you to focus just on your friend and his or her recovery, keeping what you say about the other person to a minimum. This is partly because your friend needs your full attention and empathy at that point, but also because he or she may well still feel incredibly loyal to their ex despite it all, and any judgements you make may upset him or her or make them feel guilty and defensive. It is also not unknown for couples to reconcile, and if you happen to have made harsh pronouncements against the other partner in the heat of a crisis, this can be very awkward afterwards.

A good rule of thumb is that it is often more helpful to listen than talk. Try to give your friend space to think, process and lament rather than asking questions and getting upset or angry yourself. Although it can be incredibly difficult to do, the best friends in this situation are the ones that put their own agendas to one side.

It is likely that while you watch your friend go through his or her grief you will feel helpless and frustrated. However, being available and being there are the most important things. You will also be in a position to be watchful in case your friend might be in need of more professional support to help them through the emotional process. If you consider that this would be useful, the best course may be gently to recommend that he or she visit her GP for a chat about how she or he is feeling and to see what the GP thinks about his or her health. The emotional journey of separation and divorce is a long one, and can have an impact on physical and mental health. It is always worth bearing in mind that help is available, and encouraging your friend to seek it out if necessary.

Practical help through separation and divorce can also be invaluable. If there are children involved, being available to them as someone to play with and talk to about the separation can be great for the children and also a relief for their parents, who are likely to be exhausted and emotionally wrung-out. Another thing is food: often in the immediate aftermath of a separation, people struggle to have the energy to cook and may even stop eating properly, so making meals that are easy to reheat can be a lifeline for keeping up family energy.

Separation can be a time of great financial anxiety, so you could offer to help sort out financial paperwork with your friend to help them ensure that everything is in order and he or she is able to make any new arrangements quickly. You could also offer to accompany your friend to appointments with a lawyer or mediator as moral support, even if he/she or you would prefer that you remain in the waiting room: sometimes it’s just nice to know there’s someone there to talk to on the way home.

Remember, it’s through the hard times that people really realise who their friends are. If you can be a good friend during separation and divorce, you are giving your friend a gift they will always treasure, even when the dark clouds have lifted.