As a generation, baby boomers are known for many things, and unfortunately divorce is on that list.
In the past two and a half decades, amid declining divorce rates overall, the divorce rate for adults age 50 and over has doubled, according to the Pew Research Center. For people age 65 and older, the rate has tripled.
But even when you’ve had many friends break the news that their marriage has come to an end, it can still be hard to know exactly what to say.
Especially if the couple has been in your life for many years, you may have grown extremely close to your friend’s spouse. Your families may have vacationed together, raised your kids together, celebrated milestones together.
But of course, you want to support your pal in every way possible. “Friends can be especially important during the stressful time of a breakup,” says JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, a clinical psychologist and author specializing in divorce.
Unfortunately, all too often, friends unintentionally shame, blame or send negative messages to the person going through the break-up.
So steer clear of the phrases below, which are likely to make your friend feel even worse — and learn what to substitute instead.
1. “I think you’re making a mistake.”
“I’ve noticed that the first thing friends of my clients want to do is jump in and fix the situation,” says Chaim Steinberger, a divorce and family law attorney in New York City. “Male friends especially are likely to say something like, ‘you’re making the biggest mistake of your life, don’t do it,’ which obviously, isn’t very helpful.”
The reality is there’s not much you can do to fix the situation. Instead, your job is to listen without judgement no matter how emotional things get, says Steinberger. “You can’t imagine how much healing goes on with a sympathetic ear,” he adds.
What to say instead: “Tell me more about how you came to this decision.”
“It is crucial to be a friend who can be there unconditionally to listen with empathy, encouragement, support, and no judgement,” says Pedro-Carroll.
2. “You’re better off, he never deserved you anyway.”
Being a good listener gets tricky when you’re dealing with rants about the ex.
While you want to give your friend a chance to let off steam, you also don’t want them to get stuck in a debilitating tirade.
But piling on the rant isn’t the way to go. While you might think that saying something like, “I always knew he was a jerk,” or “you’re better off without her” might sound sympathetic, it actually has the ring of “I told you so.”
“It’s important for friends to not fan the flames of conflict between former partners — this only adds more stress and can actually be toxic over extended periods of time,” says Pedro-Carroll.
Monica Roman Gagnier, a divorcee from Santa Fe, N.M, agrees: “When people who had been genuinely friendly to my ex in the past told me they never liked him, I wondered, why were you so deceptive all this time?” remembers Gagnier. “What kind of friend are you?”
And no matter how tempting, don’t air dirty laundry. The time your friend’s husband got drunk at your party and made a sloppy pass at someone in the kitchen? The time your friend’s wife said she was going to a PTA meeting but really got drunk and went gambling with her girlfriends? Let the secrets of the past stay in the past.
What to say instead: “You must feel so angry and hurt.” By simply echoing their feelings, you avoid all hints of judgement. And if the couple should happen to get back together (it happens!), you don’t have to worry that you’ll find yourself embarrassed over what you said during those late night heart-to-hearts.
3. “You’re acting so strange since Jerry left you.”
It’s common for newly separated people to experiment with a lot of different identities, trying to figure out exactly where they fit in the world. You’ll need to accept that your friend is going to be different single than he or she was as part of a couple.
What to say instead: “It’s great you’re trying so many new things. Tell me what you like best.” Help embrace your friend’s new identity, whatever that may look like, with lots of positive reinforcement. “Buy them some nice stationery with just their name on it, or some new monogrammed towels to celebrate their new identity,” suggest Gagnier.
Most of all, be patient, suggests Steinberger. “People go through a lot of different stages and phases in divorce, some of them a bit wacky. You’re a good friend if you stand by through everything.”
4. “Let’s go to our favorite brunch place on Saturday.”
Older divorce can entail a massive change in daily routines and mindsets. That restaurant that the four of you used to frequent in the good old days? It just might send your friend over the edge.
What to say instead: “What have you always wanted to do but couldn’t do before? Let’s go for it!” Help your friend embrace that change by doing something new or something your friend has always wanted to do but didn’t have the chance when married. Sign up for rowing or pickleball. Take an improv or art class.
Or volunteer for a cause your friend is passionate about. “Nothing helps take you out of your own troubles like serving others,” says Steinberger. “And your friend will meet some new people.”
5. “I know you’ll want to spend some time alone for a while.”
Especially if your friend is newly single after a long marriage, or struggling with a bitter divorce, you might think that she’s best off taking a break from relationships altogether.
But your friend may be ready for intimate company sooner than you think. And by helping your friend broaden his or her social group on every level, you’re offering invaluable support.
“Socializing is one of the most dramatic changes divorced people face later in life,” says Pedro-Carroll. “Acknowledging that change is one of the best things you can do.”
What to say instead: “What can I do to help you meet new people?” And absolutely, offer any knowledge you may have of the online dating sites designed for 50 plus. There’s nothing like friends helping friends take the plunge into this new territory.
“I remember when I first started dating someone after my second divorce, a couple of friends said, ‘oh, I always thought he might be good for you,’” recalls Joyce Present, 60, from Detroit, Mich. “I thought, well ‘why didn’t you introduce me? You could have saved me a lot of trouble!’”