4 Tips for Supporting Marital Separation

Luke Whitmore

Several years ago, I experienced a sense of loss upon hearing that my neighbour and her husband were getting divorced. I wasn’t particularly close to them, but for a fleeting moment I thought about the ways in which this separation would impact me.

Most of us have friends or family who have separated and can relate to the myriad of feelings and challenges experienced by those who care about them. The situation with my neighbour may have been my first separation experience, but it’s far from the last time that I have been struck with the complexities of supporting a separating couple. Statistics tell us that over a third of marriages will end in divorce, so it’s pretty inevitable that we will all be affected by a separation at some point in our lives. Although no two separation experiences are exactly alike, I’d like to offer you some tips that will help decrease the overall distress for all involved.

    • Be Supportive. Your friend’s separation may be a loss for you (particularly if you spent time with both partners), and it’s important to acknowledge that. You can no longer have that couple over to watch the game, you may have lost your travel companions, and your social circle probably just got a little more complicated. Acknowledge this as a loss, and then get over it and move on because the change is much greater for the couple than it is for you.

Good friends want wholeness and wellness for their friends, and will support them to determine if that’s most achievable in their marriage or on their own. So, provide an empathic and non-judgemental ear, ask what they need from you, don’t give unsolicited advice, don’t gossip with mutual friends, and give as much concrete support as you can.

It’s important to support a separating couple like you would if they were experiencing any other stressor or loss. Regardless of their circumstances, the couple is grieving and will likely fluctuate between despair, relief, anger, worry, and a whole myriad of emotions. Listen to and validate those emotions, and expect a period of emotional instability.

  • Be honest about your relationship with their ex. Depending on many factors such as your previous relationships, your personality, the couple’s circumstances, etc., there are many possible outcomes for the friendship path that you can take. If you were closer to one person in the couple – particularly if the separation has not been amicable – it may be very clear that you will only continue to support one of them. Sometimes you can continue to be friends with both parties, but it’s important not to set yourself or the couple up for further distress, so be realistic. Sometimes maintaining a friendship with both people is manageable, and sometimes you can be a much better friend to just one.

Changing relationships is a part of life, so try to be flexible and open to possibilities – be honest with yourself, your own partner, and your friends.

  • Be aware of Contagion. Navigating the separation of others can have an impact on your own intimate relationship. I have noticed my own tendencies to respond negatively to my partner while I’m supporting a friend through a separation, as well as the polarization that can come from each supporting a different “half” of the couple.

I will forever remember the devastation of a friend who called late one night to share that her husband had suddenly left her. I so badly wanted to support her and was very angry with her ex, resulting in developing a bit of a “woman power” position. Despite my need to be there for her through empowerment, I perhaps got too emotionally pulled into the situation, and admittedly approached my husband with a bit of a skeptical and critical attitude for a time. I needed to remind myself that I could very adequately support my friend while remaining positive about my own marriage. I just had to be cognisant of my thought patterns and where they were coming from.

Furthermore, it’s natural for couples to each support the person they were closer to when a separation occurs, and this can both be healthy and a challenge to your own relationship.  It can be nice to know that each person experiencing the separation has continued support and this is one way of accomplishing that. However, when anger and conflict from the separated couple spill over into your own relationship, it can really cause a rift. I have sometimes found myself stuck in thoughts like, How can he be friends with HIM?!, while sneering when my husband mentions his friend. Again, this is a time when a clear divide needs to be made between the separating couple’s situation and your own.

  • Find new ways to connect. Sometimes we get stuck in rigidity and resist opening ourselves up to new ways of living life. As couples, we get used to planning events with other couples, and too easily leave our newly single friends alone to build new supports. Separated couples often lose their friends because people don’t know how to react, so they just walk away. With the array of losses that come with a separation, it’s important to consider how you can continue to include those friends in your life. I personally want to ensure that I include my friends in whatever social and family events I can, but I also need to take their comfort and preferences into account, which is why it’s important to extend the invitation with an open mind.

Separation can be an extremely difficult time for couples, and the support that is provided by those who care about them can significantly impact their experience. Communicating in an open and supportive way, asking what they need, and being flexible are important parts of easing the distress the separating couple is experiencing.

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Tricia Klassen , MSW, RSW
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute Inc.
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