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My Friend Just Got Divorced After Decades Together – How Can I Help?

help a friend going through divorce

by Ellen Blake


Gray divorce

It’s hard sometimes to understand why couples divorce after many years together, especially in situations when you had no idea there were difficulties. Obviously, no one truly knows what goes on in someone’s house and there are lots of different reasons people decide to call it quits. But late-in life-divorces can get messy. There are shared children, family relationships, friends and/or finances to consider. 

Statistically, the overall divorce rate in the U.S. is on a slight downward trend. Yet, despite this fact, a surprising number of couples in my circle of close friends divorced recently, all married 30+ years. The truth is that while the number of divorces among younger people significantly decreased over the last 30 years, the divorce rate for those aged 55-64 more than doubled. There’s a term for this increasing trend of late-in-life divorces: “Gray Divorce”.

Why do people divorce after decades together?

Through the course of a marriage, the two lives become intertwined. The longer the marriage, the more woven together they become. You might wonder, why now after all this time?

There are lots of different reasons people decide to call it quits after a long-term marriage. Here are the ones I hear most:

  1. Postponed divorce: Unhappy couples decide to stay together until their children are in high school or graduated.
  2. Empty Nesthood:  Partners who focused primarily on their children while raising them sometimes find they no longer feel connected once the kids leave home. 
  3. Retirement:  Too much time together or changing expectations of a partner can be problematic for some couples and lead to conflict. 
  4. Taboos are less prominent: Some couples stayed in a marriage previously because they believed they should. Now, they perhaps are willing to consider the possibility that while their partner was the right match at one time, that may no longer be the case.
  5. A new chapter in a longer life: As we live longer than previous generations, some may want to start a new chapter after raising kids or supporting a spouse through a career. They realize they still have many years ahead and decide to reinvent themselves. Sometimes, a third party is involved, which may accelerate the decision to break up.

Remain neutral

Don’t bash your friend’s spouse. If both individuals were your friends before, it’s nice to maintain some type of relationship with each, though sometimes doing so may prove awkward. Even if the spouse is someone you don’t like or respect, keep your personal opinions to yourself. They may need to continue a relationship outside the marriage due to factors such as a shared business or children. It doesn’t help to fuel their fire. And what if they end up resolving their differences and getting back together? Your words may later drive a wedge through your friendship.

Accompany your friend to a potentially uncomfortable event

Soon after a friend’s divorce became final, her future daughter-in-law invited her to a brunch along with her ex’s family. She was uncomfortable and considering not going, but she wanted to be part of the wedding festivities. I offered to go with her to be sort of a buffer; I knew this event was only the first of many to which both sides of the family would be included, and that once she got through the first, the rest would be easier.  Don’t wait until your friend asks; they may not want to bother you or even think to ask. It’s better to make the suggestion, then, respect their response.  They will appreciate your thoughtful gesture even if they do not want or need you to attend the event.

Allow your friend to not talk about the divorce

Sometimes people need you to listen, and sometimes they don’t. Don’t force a conversation because you think that’s what they need. Friends tell me that there are times they prefer not to talk about the situation to feel “normal” and not be identified only as “the friend going through a divorce”. So talk about your life, your family and your job. Don’t be afraid to discuss your struggles because your complaints seem minor in comparison; it’s not a competition. No one has a perfect life and chances are if you want to be there for your friend, they want to be there for you too.

Bring over a meal

Don’t underestimate how lonely it can be to cook for one. Bring a meal and stay to enjoy it with your friend if you can. It doesn’t need to be fancy, the idea is to spend time together and show you care.

Invite your friend for a family holiday

Quite often, divorced people are no longer included in family gatherings with the ex’s family. Perhaps they have family of their own with whom they can spend the holiday, but that is not always the case. Invite them to your table this year – what’s one more person? The gift of inclusion is one of the best gifts to give someone feeling isolated and unwanted. 

Help them move

Generally, people need or want to move out of the home they shared with their ex. While a new home provides the opportunity for a fresh start and to create new memories, it’s also physically and emotionally exhausting. Offer to help when the time comes. Your efforts to help pack, unpack or move boxes will be appreciated and remembered.

Remind them they are wonderful and loved

Encouraging words can change someone’s outlook on life. Remind them, often, of all the positives you see in them and that they are lovable. Remind them not to let hurtful words spoken by an angry spouse define them. I heard a clergy once say to a newly divorced woman, “You no longer let him live in your house, why would you still let him live in your head?” Don’t let someone else have power over how you feel about yourself.

Tell your friend “Everything’s going to be okay in the end”

One way or another, things have a way of working out. And if they don’t, then it’s not yet the end; there is more to the story. Share your optimism with your friend and let them know that time has a way of lessening pain. Help them to learn what they can from this situation and let that wisdom help build their future.

The bottom line

There are lots of ways to help a friend going through divorce. Be present and sensitive to what they’re going through. Provide a safe space where they can find comfort in whatever way they need. Find a way to provide support in a way that works both for you and your friend. 

Do you have additional ways to show help a friend going through divorce? We’d love to hear from you in the comment section below.

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