The holidays might have been awkward for you if it was your first post-split holiday season. After most major life events–everything from graduating college to having a baby–distant family members want to talk about it. It’s easy pickings when trying to make small talk with someone you may only see once or twice a year. As you get older they may even want to talk about things that aren’t successes; from health scares and surgeries to deaths in the family. Except for one. Divorce.
A friend of mine just spent her first post-divorce holiday with her family, who tiptoed around her recent divorce. As she put it, “We reminisce about loved ones who are no longer around because they passed away, but my grief at my loss is much more awkward to acknowledge–and if I didn’t bring it up, it would be something that my family would pretty much completely avoid.”
Why is your divorce, or your marriage, suddenly the elephant in the room? Some people may assume that it’s a sensitive subject, or that you could cry or get upset if they bring it up. While the desire to spare you pain may be well-intentioned it can also contribute to feeling alone with that pain. And not everyone is sad that they’re either going through or have finalized their divorce. I felt immense relief. In fact, I was so excited when I came back to work from having the final papers notarized that my boss jokingly asked if I was going to do cartwheels in the hallway.
Assuming that you know how the other person is feeling about this life event is presumptuous. Assuming that their feelings are negative is projecting. And acting as if whole years of their life never happened is weird.
Assuming that you know how the other person is feeling about this life event is presumptuous.
It’s like being in an episode of The Twilight Zone for others to disappear those years of your life into a black hole. I was with my ex for over seven years. During that time my mother passed away, he was laid off and went to grad school, we went on vacations, bought and sold a house and had a child. We lived a lot of life together. And the mental and verbal gymnastics some people would go through to avoid mentioning him in conversation when talking about my life’s experiences became comical.
“That…time you were in Mexico,” with the skip over the fact that it was a pre-baby trip with him. “You know, when you were working and teaching dance,” with no mention that the two jobs were necessary due to my ex’s lay-off.
Why not just open the door a little and leave it up to the other person to walk through? “How are you doing with everything?” is vague enough that you could respond by talking about work, or your new fitness plan, or moving into a new apartment. But you could also share some of the difficulties of handling the constant back and forth of legal negotiations. Or just ask, “Do you want to talk about the divorce, or do you just want to play board games and relax?”
Divorce, even if it’s for the best, can be lonely and isolating. It’s not a failure, but it is a change. We talk about all of life’s other changes with our friends and family, I think we need to talk about divorce, too. Otherwise, it can start to feel taboo and shameful. The women going through it may feel like they can’t share their experiences or ask for help. This isolation is even more damaging if they’re coming out of an abusive relationship where their ex slowly cut them off from their loved ones. Women in that situation may need to feel even more included and welcomed into the family, with all their life’s experiences, both positive and negative.
As with much of life, don’t assume. A little tact, and feeling the other person out, can go a long way. It’s just another life event, harder than some and easier than others.
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