Someone you care about is coping with separation or divorce

Questions and strategies to help you have a supportive conversation when someone you care about is coping with separation or divorce.

This is one of a series of topics in the Supportive conversation library. Review the guidelines including what to do if you are concerned for another’s safety before engaging in the conversation. 

What do you notice?

You notice someone you care about is struggling with a relationship breakdown. Maybe you notice:

  • A change in their mood and conflicted emotions ranging from sadness to relief.
  • They appear distracted, unfocused or overwhelmed.
  • They tell you about their increased worries and fears about the future and how the stress of these thoughts and new decisions have impacted them physically. For example, they may have disrupted sleep or an upset stomach.

What do you need to understand?

When someone experiences the breakdown of a relationship, they’ll find themselves in unfamiliar territory and their world could feel turned upside down. Their familiar routines and roles in life can be disrupted or even changed. Even if the relationship wasn’t healthy for the individual, it was familiar. The loss of that relationship can make them feel uncertain about the future. The unknown is frightening for many and can cause stress and increase worries over life situations, like finances, custody of children and housing.

At the same time, someone going through a separation or divorce is processing a loss and could be grieving the relationship. Loss can be defined as a universal experience of change, while grief is the emotional response to that change. Go here for more information about having a supportive conversation with someone who’s grieving.

What do you need to consider?

If you’re concerned for someone going through a separation or divorce, understand they’re handling a lot. They’re processing all the losses that come with the changes of a relationship breakdown and handling new roles and responsibilities that add stress to their life. It’s important to walk alongside them in their journey as they adjust to these new circumstances and meet them where they’re at in this transition period. Comments you see as supportive, such as “You’re better off now than before,” are rarely helpful as the individual might not share that opinion at that time. Just listening to their needs and being there as a support is most helpful.

Engaging in a supportive conversation?

Have the right mindset

Come into the conversation from a supportive place. Watch out for your hidden agenda, such as wanting to fix or influence the individual. Avoid “you” statements, such as “you always do…”. They often make the person feel judged or invalidated. Be curious and have the mindset that you don’t know anything about their experiences.

Questions to check your mindset:

  • What are my assumptions about this situation?
  • How will I keep my assumptions out of the conversation and be supportive?
  • What do I hope to achieve by having this conversation?
  • How can I keep my desires for an outcome from interfering with my ability to be supportive?

Notice

Notice changes in behaviour that aren’t typical for the person and ask about them. Don’t add your assumptions or opinions about why those changes may be happening. If you’re wrong, the person may be discouraged from continuing the conversation.

Examples of “noticing” conversation starters:

  • “I noticed that you seem [overwhelmed, emotionally conflicted, unfocused] lately, and I’m concerned for you. What’s happening?”
  • “I noticed in conversation you have increased worries about the future. Can you share some of your concerns with me?”

Preparing for the response

Not all supportive conversations lead to an understanding of how you can help. Remember, the goal of a supportive conversation is to understand the individual’s needs and wants and whether they’re open to assistance. The guidelines below can help prepare you to respond when the person is open or not to a discussion.

When the individual doesn’t appear open to discussion – a closed-door response:

Not everyone’s comfortable being asked how they feel or exploring reasons why they’re behaving differently. You might get avoidant responses, like “I’m fine” or “It’s none of your business.” If this is the case, you can reiterate your concern and leave an opening for them to walk into when they’re ready.

  • “I was concerned about you and wanted to ask. If you say you’re okay, I’ll trust you. If that changes, I’m here to support you if you need me.”

If the supportive conversation ends here, you should feel good that you noticed and asked about their well-being. Try not to take the response or tone personally despite the conversation not going anywhere. It takes courage to initiate these types of conversations, and it’s not your responsibility to force another to notice or change their behaviour.

When the individual appears to be open to discussion – an open-door response:

If the person confirms they feel differently or that life circumstances have changed for them, you’ve opened the door to having a supportive conversation.

The next statement might be:

  • “Tell me more. I want to better understand what you’re going through.”

Continue to follow the guidelines below for having a supportive conversation.

Continuing the conversation

Listen 

Listen for where the individual feels unsupported or doesn’t have their needs met. When they’re finished speaking, confirm what you heard by rephrasing it and asking if you understand it correctly.

Examples of “listening” in the conversation include:

  • “I’m hearing that you feel overwhelmed by emotions during this time. A lot’s changing and it’s hard to feel grounded. Is that right?”
  • “You’ve shared that since the breakup you have increased worries about the future. Is that what I’m hearing?”

Highlight

Highlight strengths you see in the person. Some examples could be courage or persistence in dealing with the situation they just shared with you.

Here’s an example of “calling out strengths” in the conversation:

  • “I’m so glad you felt comfortable sharing the way you feel with me. You’ve adjusted to many changes in your life in a short time-frame and that isn’t easy.”

Identify

Identify what support the individual wants and connect them with relevant resources. Don’t insist on support or resources they don’t want or aren’t ready to accept.

Examples of “identifying support” in the conversation include:

  • “You’ve identified the need to address [conflicted or overwhelming feelings, increased anxiety about the future], so how can I best support you at this time?”*
  • “I can support you with finding resources that might help to address this – would that be helpful?”

*Note: If there’s a limit on how you can be supportive, be specific about how you can help. The offer of support needs to be realistic and in line with your own abilities and available time. Otherwise, talk about what’s realistic for both of you to do at this time to create change in the other’s life.

Create

Create an action plan with the individual to leverage their strengths and follow up on a regular basis, adding additional resources when they’re ready. Give a clear timeline or understanding of how you’ll be supportive.

Here’s an examples of “creating an action plan” in the conversation:

  • “I’m so glad we had this conversation. You mentioned a few things you wanted to take action on. I’ll follow through with my offer of support in the next week.”

Thank you for being supportive! You’ve taken the time to learn to have a conversation that lets your loved one or friend know you notice and care about them. By showing concern, you can help them evaluate whether they should continue as is or address certain elements in their life. For some, this may be the beginning of a journey that will require the assistance of additional support services or professionals.

Additional resources

To be an effective supporter, it’s helpful to understand more of what your family member or friend’s experiencing. Check out these resources to provide more context about their experiences: