What I learned when my husband and I separated is that going through a divorce is kind of like a death in the family or being diagnosed with cancer: Everyone wants to say the right thing, but very few people actually do. Most of the time what comes out of people’s mouths is clumsy at best and hurtful at worst.
Here are 10 things I heard over and over again (and wish I hadn’t). I bet you’ve heard them too.
1. “I never really liked your spouse anyway.”
Really? We were married for 9 years and you never liked him? What about all those dinner parties you invited us to? That vacation we took together?
Yes, apparently my friends and family thought he was a complete jerk the whole time—and never told me. But once we separated, they felt compelled to list every negative quality they ever noticed about him. (His friends and family must’ve done the same for him.) They probably thought this would make me feel better—as in “good riddance” and “how lucky for you.” But you know, even if they never did like him, I did. Besides, he and I are well aware of each other’s negative qualities. That’s why we’re not together anymore.
2. “You won’t have any trouble finding someone new.”
For some reason everyone seemed to think my #1 concern was how quickly I could meet another man. What I was actually focused on was my legal situation, my financial situation, my housing situation, and most of all, my son. Getting divorced is not like trading in a used car.
3. “I know someone I can fix you up with.”
Everyone has someone they’d like to fix a single parent up with. Once in a while the fix-up works. The vast majority of the time it doesn’t. So…thanks, but no thanks.
4. “Wow, you’re really trying, aren’t you?”
New haircut? New clothes? Dropped 10 pounds? It didn’t matter what I did…once I was suddenly single, every effort to look good was interpreted as a ploy to land a new partner. Actually, maybe it was just an attempt to look and feel better than I’d felt in a long time. A much nicer thing to say would’ve been: “Wow, you look amazing.”
5. “It must be so hard being on your own.”
This sounds like sympathy, but in my experience it’s anything but. What it means is: “I feel so sorry for you that you don’t have a partner like I do.” And it’s usually sexist, in reference to the poor single mother who has to take out her garbage all by herself or the poor single father who has to change the baby’s diaper all by himself. But women have been taking out garbage and men have been changing diapers for quite some time now. On the other hand, I appreciated the friends who genuinely were concerned about my “being on my own”—and showed it by inviting me over for dinner or out for drinks.
6. “It must be so hard for your kid, being so different from everyone else.”
Like point #5, this is not a kind or helpful thing to say. The people saying this invariably have “typical” families—and by that I mean mother, father, and kids living under the same roof—and what they mean is “It’s too bad your kid is not like my kid.” Maybe these people haven’t noticed that there are many ways to configure a family and that their way is only one of them—or that what matters much more than the marital status of the parents is that the children are deeply loved.
7. “I don’t know how you do it.”
This exudes fake admiration. What’s really meant is: “It’s too bad you have to do it—unlike me, who has help from my husband/wife.” The truth is that not having an extra pair of hands or a backup system is tough sometimes—and most single parents are amazing at juggling everything solo. On the most difficult days, it would’ve been great to hear this: “I just want you to know I think you’re doing a fantastic job.”
8. “It must be nice having so much free time.”
This is the corollary to “I don’t know how you do it.” If I’m not overwhelmed by the demands of being a single parent, I must be jumping for joy over the endless hours of free time I have when my son is with his dad two nights a week and on alternating weekends. Well, it’s true that my son does spend time with his dad, and at those times I’m generally free to do what I please. But it’s also true that at those times I’m usually working extra hours to make up for the times I stop working at 5:30 to do the evening routine by myself. And even when my son is with his dad, I’m still overseeing activities, homework and carpools. I’m still attending his baseball games. So let’s lay to rest the myth of the carefree single- parent lifestyle. Most single parents don’t have a lot of free time. Single parents without custody arrangements have zero.
9. “Have you considered getting back together?”
Yes, of course we’ve considered it. We considered it for years before we separated, just like every other couple who tried their absolute best to make their marriage work before determining they couldn’t.
10. “Sometimes I wish I were divorced.”
I heard this a few times and never had the right response. Looking back, here’s what I should’ve said: “No, you don’t. You really, really don’t. Because then you’d have to listen to comments like these from everyone around you—instead of the only thing anyone really needs to say, which is: ‘Gee, I’m really sorry.’”
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