It was the road trip from hell: 38 degrees outside and in, thanks to malfunctioning air conditioning, long weekend traffic gridlock turning a four hour drive into six, and a four year old vomiting in the back. My friend’s phone calls got me through: “Hang in there. You can do this. Do you have enough water?”
It would normally be a partner who makes those calls. Or, better still, who’s in the car too, holding the vomit bucket. But, in the absence of one, in moments like these the kindest of friends step in, checking in, giving a toss, wanting to know you made it home safely.
Marriages can be the loneliest of places when the love is gone but more daunting even than that is the gaping abyss of uncertainty of splitsville, the mild panic of feeling solely responsible for the wellbeing of your family, carrying the load without backup. Even in a defunct marriage there’s a presence, however vague or destructive. Once it unravels whether chosen or not, it’s on you.
In the year or so since I made the heartbreaking but necessary decision to break up my family, this is what I know: That soul searching, centredeness and forgiveness are vital healing procedures, but the graciousness of others will pull you through. Here’s how to be nice to the separated:
- Show up. Not “call if you need me” because they probably won’t. Disentangling from a life you assumed was forever, doles out such a battering of your self esteem and world order that you’re unlikely to reach out but, you’ll take help if it turns up. I’m eternally grateful to the friends who helped me move house, who subtly brought meals, flowers and sage sticks, one lending us a TV, another a car for a bit. Who call. Those calls, uncensored rantings, tears down the phone, buoyed me more than anything.
- Invite them over, with the kids. Strangely, this rarely happens.The dynamic of a woman alone with her children doesn’t fit the nuclear family mould of Sunday barbies and invitations dry up overnight. “We get that it makes for an odd number at the table”, laments a divorced mother of two. “But it still hurts”. Yet it’s exactly what single parent families desire: The company of other adults, the role modelling of solid relationships and intact units, belonging at a time when you feel like you don’t.
- Invite them over, without the kids. One of the things I feared most as I contemplated ending my relationship was not solo parenting. I’m au fait with that. But solo time. “I didn’t have children not to be with them”, I sobbed. Children need time with both parents (in most cases), an occasionally empty house an unavoidable by-product of divorce, but nothing prepares you for the chasm of their absence. I leave their toys on the floor to kid myself they’ll be back any minute now. I sit on their beds and cry. ‘Alone time’ loses its thrill when it’s forced on you by crushing circumstances. The only salve, I find, is time with friends. A happy distraction.
- Don’t say you know what it’s like because your husband is away. The difference is, he’s coming back.
- Cut them some slack. Let them be sad and self pitying for a bit. Let them be boring. It’s too hard to fake it.
- Be there: No need to solve their anguish or bring down the ex. Just be. “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence”, says Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. “When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers”.
- Don’t ask what happened. What author Stacy Morrison calls “forensic studies” on the demise of her relationship from friends and even strangers who, she noted in her separation memoir Falling part In One Piece, were “trying to puzzle out what had led to the end of my marriage.. not because they wanted to know if I could have saved my marriage (but) because they wanted to save their marriages”.
- Don’t ask, “Have you met someone yet?” You’ll be the first to hear when they do.
- Don’t ask, “Has he met someone yet?” How is this relevant?
- Don’t assume it’s a negative. “The horrified looks on people’s faces when I mentioned I was separated”, recalls a friend. “It didn’t occur to them that having the courage and strength to leave a destructive relationship is a good thing. I’m excited about what’s next”.
This article was first published in Sunday Life and DailyLife.com.au on 27th November 2016