this red stoop in my neighborhood is newly painted (in the last couple of months). its solid block of color on its north side really trips me up. it needs something. a poem painted in white? a mural? something: to soften the stern looks of passersby, to inspire kids to point or touch, to break up what’s expected. it’s a seemingly small thing, this stoop which is one of dozens on this street, one of hundreds downtown. it’s also a missed opportunity.
i follow the huffington post on facebook. often times i’m frustrated with myself for doing so; reports of how it fails to value writers abound (see the stance taken by paythewriter.org). but just as often, i find things i’m really glad i read. i’m even glad i read “divorce advice: what not to do when your friend is getting divorced“… even though it may be the worst advice ever. i’m glad i read it because it gives me a chance to tell you why it’s wrong.
let me begin by saying that if an acquaintance or co-worker or casual friend is going through divorce, by all means follow the author’s recommendations: keep your mouth shut about who’s to blame and don’t give any advice (emotional, legal or otherwise). these types of relationships tend to remain on the surface; it’s possible that anything deeper would be inappropriate. however, if your sister or BFF or close friend or someone you really, really dig is going through divorce, that kind of luke-warm approach will probably be completely unhelpful (#1), make her feel further alienated (#2) and totally piss her off (#3).
the huffington post column offered these five “play it safe” tips: “don’t take sides,” “don’t trash talk,” “don’t play counselor” (since when can’t friends give advice? do we really want all of our relationships so sanitized?), “don’t encourage war” and “don’t play attorney.” here is my list as counterpoint.
5 ways to have a friend’s back during her awful divorce
- make sure she knows you’ll be with her in the end. let your friend know that you’re on her side. make it clear that whether she chooses to stay or go, the two of you will remain tight. she needs to know that you will stand by her no matter what she decides is best for her. and if she and her husband do split, reassure her that she is in your inner circle, that you will still spend time with her even though she’s not part of a couple.
- help her vent. listen and commiserate. yes, that can mean proclaiming, “what an asshole!” (if that’s what you believe). mostly, however, it means that you should sympathize with your friend. if you think she’s right to be angry, agree with her. if you’re shocked at his behavior, say so. if you wouldn’t put up with it either, declare it. going through divorce can feel a lot like going crazy (people might even tell her she’s crazy), and plenty of people (like those who embrace the huffpo piece) will try to talk her out of her own experiences: it can’t be that bad, stay for the kids, don’t be selfish. instead, validate her if you can.
- build up her courage. take into account what your friend thinks she wants out of the divorce proceedings. she’s right: some things are worth letting go simply to ease her way. however, if your friend is forgoing what she’ll need to take care of herself and her kids, help her see that it’s ok to stand up for that. my therapist cautioned me against trying to win “divorcee of the year”… meaning the pay-off for being nicey-nice may never come. divorce requires serious negotiation; your friend will lose some, so make sure she’s feeling strong enough (and worthy enough) to win some, too.
- share stories. it’s important for your friend to hear that others have “been there, done that, got the lousy t-shirt.” if you’ve been through divorce, share your stories. not just the triumphant ones. the face-in-the-dirt ones, too. especially the face-in-the-dirt ones. if you haven’t been through divorce, pass along what you know about others’ experiences (or connect her with those other women directly). losing a partner, taking on single life, taking on single motherhood… these can feel lonely, lonely, lonely. it will make all the difference to hear other stories from the trenches, and it will be invaluable for her to see how it comes out on the other side.
- tell her you love her no matter what. use those words: i. love. you. make sure she hears them often. going through divorce might make her feel like a terrible person (people might even tell her she’s a terrible person). the tension, disgust and disdain between her and her husband will make her feel unlovable for a very long time. her kids might be mad at her for a good long while, too. tell her you love her. tell her.
i sit on my stoop with some jack daniels honey whiskey in a glass. it had five ice cubes in it when i started, but they melted right away. a couple argues as they walk by. i can’t even hold your hand? he asks. it’s too hot to hold hands, she replies.
maybe that’s what i want to scrawl on the red canvas of the stoop near mine: hold his hand, for fuck’s sake. no, that’s not quite right. i don’t know anything about him. i don’t know anything about her. how about this? it can’t stay this hot forever; it will get better. no… just that last part. this is it: it will get better.