Dear Therapist: I Don’t Know How to Help My Best Friend Through Her Divorce
She’s making some unhealthy choices, and it’s hard to watch.
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My lifelong best friend just finalized her divorce after 17 years of marriage. I’ve been doing my absolute best to support her—listening, giving advice and encouragement, sending gifts, talking on the phone at all hours, and taking a cross-country trip to see her. She is estranged from her own family, so I feel like my role as a friend is supercharged, and I act as her mom, sister, friend, and cousin all wrapped into one. The biggest thing I’ve done is lower my expectations for our friendship, knowing that she is likely incapable of caring for me during this time. That has been a noticeable and sad loss for me. I feel emotionally spent by the whole ordeal.
Recently, my friend has been making what I think are poor decisions in the wake of her split. She is drinking a lot, dating and sleeping with multiple men, and altogether avoiding therapeutic activities that might help her work through the trauma and set up a stable future for her and her children. This is so hard to witness, and I’m not sure what my role is here. I am disappointed and even a bit angry at her for carrying on like this. It is especially difficult for me to reconcile that she may have no energy to give me but obviously makes space for these unhealthy activities in her life.
Do I stand by and support her no matter what? Do I express concern for her health and well-being (even though I’ve done this and it gets ignored)? Do I tell her I need a break from our relationship? Is this terrible timing for me to let her know that I have needs within our friendship too?
I want to be a good friend during her terrible time without it being so emotionally terrible for me as well. Is this possible?
I understand why you’re struggling with your role in this friendship, because when someone you love is going through a challenging time, you’re also placed in a challenging situation. It’s painful to watch someone you care about suffer and act in ways that seem unhealthy, and it is hard not to feel neglected when your friend isn’t able to be there for you.
You and your friend are both experiencing losses right now—for you, it’s the loss of reciprocity and closeness with your best friend; for her, it’s the loss of the very foundation on which her stability had rested.
With time, the two of you will likely recover, meaning that your friendship will normalize and she will heal—but how you handle this period now has the potential to either leave unspoken resentment between you or deepen your bond in a meaningful way.
If you keep wishing for support from your friend that she’s not able to give, you will become resentful, and if she can sense you judging her choices, she will become resentful. But if you can find other ways to get your needs met and extend her more compassion, then you can grow your connection without draining yourself dry.
One way to make this time more tolerable for yourself and avoid building up that resentment is to adjust your short-term expectations and get curious about why your friend might be acting in ways you find confounding. While you’ve certainly done your best to support her, your frustration makes me think that you might not understand that she’s still at the very beginning of an intensive grieving process. You say that your friend “just finalized” her divorce after nearly two decades of marriage, so this monumental life change is brand-new and therefore very raw. A finalized divorce doesn’t signal the end of an ordeal—for many people, it feels more like the start. Divorce is often cited as the second-most-stressful life event an adult can experience (the first is the death of a loved one), and what you call “carrying on” is her way of managing her acute pain.
In the past year, your friend has experienced layers of loss, starting with the person she loved for many years (and might still love). She has also lost the companionship and daily intimacy of going through life with someone. Even if things ended badly, there was a time when someone asked her how her day was, slept next to her, and knew the details of her days and the stories of her childhood. She’s lost the habits and rituals she and her spouse used to share. They had children and perhaps imagined milestones, such as graduations, weddings, grandchildren, and retirement, that they would experience together—that imagined future is lost too.
In addition, you say that your friend is estranged from her family. Now the family she created as an adult has also fractured. She lost a life that, good or bad, had been her anchor, and I imagine she feels utterly adrift without it—especially without a family of origin to fall back on for support. On top of this, she might feel guilt over the effect the divorce could have on her kids, shame or embarrassment when sharing news of the divorce, and the isolation that often occurs when coupled friends neglect to invite single people to social events.
What many people don’t understand about divorce is that it can feel like a death, or many—of a person, an identity, a life, and a future. And just as each of us grieves a death in our own unique way, the same is true for how a person might grieve a marriage.
With this context in mind, you might see your friend’s behavior in a different light. Your assumption that she “has energy” for dating but not for you misses what’s really going on. She’s not giving her energy to other people—she’s probably numbing herself with alcohol, men, and whatever else gets her through her days. In this vulnerable state, she likely has nothing of substance to offer another person right now—not the men she’s dating, not her best friend, and maybe not even her children.
You say that she’s a “lifelong” friend; challenges are part of the trajectory of a long life. Most friendships won’t be reciprocal at every point, and certainly not when one person experiences a traumatic event. Your friend is in survival mode right now and has limited emotional bandwidth. You may believe that if you were in her situation, you’d behave differently, but most of us are poor predictors of what we would do in a given situation.
So where does this leave you? First, none of this means that you shouldn’t get your needs met—it’s just that now is the time to turn to others in your life while your friend is grieving. Nor are you responsible for your friend’s well-being—you can share your concerns if she’s open to hearing them, but what she does with them is up to her. Beyond that, there’s really only one thing she needs from you right now: your presence. Since you live in different cities, this doesn’t have to be your physical presence. You simply need to convey I’m here by being patient and loving without exhausting yourself.
For instance, you can draw caring boundaries by saying, “I’m here for you, but I only have 20 minutes to talk right now” or “I know this is such a hard time, and I love you so much, but I have to get to bed now” or “I wish I knew how to help the way a therapist might, but all I can do is be your friend.” You can also be sensitive by avoiding complaining about your partner, if you have one, and not trying to equate your situation with hers by saying something like “I’ll be like a single mom too while my husband is out of town.” (Many of my therapy clients recount stories like this.) Most of all, you can remind her, in words and actions, that you love her and that she is lovable, even if you can’t take away her pain during this terrible time.
The silver lining of difficult times is that they tend to bring people closer. If she feels your presence without judgment and your love without anger, then years from now, both of you will come out of this with a deeper sense of what it means to be lifelong friends.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.